Can You Be a CEO With a Disability?
My neurological condition is not a secret. Neither are my business expansion plans. I have spent the past two and a half years talking to investors and ecosystem partners, writing and rewriting business plans and forecasts.
Before I got this far, I had to answer (first for myself, then for my Board and my investors): “Can I be a CEO with a disability?” & “How do I do this?”
This is what I have learned along the way:
There are things I can control & others I can’t
Any CEO can die unexpectedly (e.g. get hit by a bus) or have something medical happen to them (e.g. suffer a heart attack or stroke), so every company needs to have a team & strategy in place; having a CEO with a disability just means you actually have a plan in place!
Many companies have larger than life CEOs and the plan is to have him or her in place, full stop. There are no back up plans. I have seen wonderful companies crumble when something happens to their CEO. My plan is to have a company that is larger than I am, a company that will thrive way beyond me.
Surround yourself with amazing people
Asking for help is a skill. You need to know you need help, you need to know what sort of help you require, and you need to know who to ask for help. You need to be surrounded with people who have big hearts and incredible talent.
More importantly, you need to learn when to walk away. I have had to revisit my executive/management team more than once.
Not everyone can manage your disability. You may have come to terms with it, and on the surface, they understand it, but working with someone who has medical issues and having the ability to be flexible requires a different aptitude. Yes, some days I really cannot meet you in person unless you want to come to my home and talk to me in my pyjamas. I can video chat, I can conference call but I cannot get behind the wheel of a car.
People can’t help but stare & it’s OK
As part of my Silicon Valley start-up fundraising endeavours, I participated in pitch events. For those of you not in the Valley, it’s like Shark Tank but without the cameras and without any promise of investment dollars. It’s an experience every CEO should go through. It is gut wrenching as people who may not know your industry tear into your business proposal. It is also extremely valuable to see your plan from a different perspective. They even come up with questions you never knew you needed the answer for.
More importantly, these are strangers who don’t know anything about you. The second they hear you have a disability, they start to stare (but in the polite Silicon Valley, liberal kinda way). Did she walk up here on her own? Did I see any signs of limping? How is she standing up? Did I see her with a service dog? Is she leaning?
It is a distraction. There is no other way to describe it. This experience is not just isolated to pitch events. It is every time you walk into a board room with people you don’t know, every meeting where you are meeting new people.
You need to be in control of the conversation. Yes, they will stare, it is normal. They will have very personal questions that they would never ask someone who did not declare disability; you need to be OK with it. This is also your time to determine if you want to work with these people; is their money/connections/influence worth it to you? Again, it is OK to walk away. It’s a tough walk to take especially if you are fundraising but not all money is the same.
Be in fighting shape
I always joked that I became an elite personal trainer because I hated going to the gym. There is a lot of truth to that statement. Like everyone else, I can find 20 other things I would rather do than go to the gym.
The first year of building a startup was grueling on my body. Hours of flying to meetings, sitting in conference room chairs where my feet don’t quite touch the ground (yes, I’m short), eating food on the run, drinking too much, scheduling too many meetings, not sleeping enough, jetlag and still trying to keep a home, run my existing businesses (yes, plural), and take care of my clients.
My neurologist and Board of Advisors worried about me. I had more flare ups in that year than I had in the past five years. I had to make a change.
I had to re-learn to put my body first. That team of people dedicated to looking after me, I had to learn to let them do their job and take care of me.
I don’t start my day until I have had my 30 minutes on my Power Plate (and usually another 18 at the end of my day). Mobility, strength, recovery, agility & neuroplastic drills. I keep a food journal and check in with my dietitian. I do not fly to meetings or my Wellness Concierge™ clients with less than 72 hours notice. When my husband offers to cook dinner or pick up groceries, I say “yes, please” and “thank you so much, I love you”. I stopped feeling guilty (it’s more a woman thing than a disability thing) for not doing “enough” on the home front.
I cannot skip appointments that relate to my health.
I can be Wonder Woman CEO but only if I look after myself and let my village support me.
Be happily surprised & enjoy the journey
I have met some of the most interesting people in the past few years. Good, bad, ugly. I have been surprised by their generosity, by their bigotry, thrilled by support from unexpected sources. Interestingly enough, my Wellness Concierge business grew as C-levels heard my story and needed someone to help manage their health, someone who understood what their life entailed. This is not a journey for everyone. For those wanting to try, it is a truly epic Tolkien-eque path; you will see sides of yourself that scare you, you will be surprised by the strength in you, you will be awed by the good in people, you will have to restrain yourself from slapping some people.
But yes, to answer the original question, yes, absolutely, without a doubt, you can be a CEO when you have a disability.
My final thought:
What I ultimately want investors & partners to know, and I may not have said it out loud before:
I taught myself to walk again; I got this!