How Physical Disability Helped Me Become a VC-Backed Tech Founder
My physical disability forced me to be resilient and have empathy for others from a very young age. These qualities have enabled me to propel myself in life and succeed.
The synagogue was packed with hundreds of family, friends and community members to see my Jewish coming-of-age ceremony. Relatives flew in from across the country and beyond. Every single friend I had was there. My grandparents were dressed to a tee and glowing with excitement, and my parents and siblings were sitting in the front row, beaming with pride.
As I led services, read from the Torah and led a procession across the entire synagogue holding the holy scroll, I stumbled up the steps on my ascent back up to the stage. It wasn't a complete fall, though it easily could've been. Throughout my life, I've fallen countless times — due to uneven surfaces, an unexpected decline, the smallest of obstacles or just imbalance.
But the biggest lesson I learned at my bar mitzvah ceremony that day, which would carry me forward, was that every rise is preceded by a fall. That light is preceded by darkness, and reward is born through challenge.
I used this doctrine countless times in the coming decades to get through the hardest of times, and climb the most challenging of summits, leading me to become one of the only tech founders in the world with a disability to be backed by a top VC firm, raise over $5 million, and surpass $1 million in annual recurring revenue.
Physical weakness leading to entrepreneurial strength
I have a physical disability called CMT, which causes weakness in my legs and hands. I've used leg braces to help me walk since grade school and, more recently, a mobility scooter to make getting around easier.
And yet, I've been the founder and CEO of two very successful businesses I started from scratch. My current business, Propel, is a VC-backed SaaS platform revolutionizing public relations and journalism, which currently has over 500 customers and an all-star team of over 30 people. My previous business, Cutler, was a midsize communications firm that worked with American and Israeli tech companies to help them grow in the U.S. market. Out of the 73 tech startups we worked with, 15 became unicorns, five became decacorns and many more had major IPOs or exits.
People ask me how I achieved this success despite having a significantly life-impacting physical disability. However, my success didn't come despite my challenge — it came because of it. Being faced with adversity caused me to build strong muscles in the three most critical skills of entrepreneurship: resilience, unconventional thinking and empathy.
Resilience is the most critical ingredient for entrepreneurial success. Creating and growing a business involves dealing with numerous fires, crises and seemingly impossible situations. There isn't a week or day that goes by without some challenge. The key, therefore, is to flex and spring back from whatever is thrown your way. You want to be like a palm tree that bends and dances with the wind rather than a stiff oak that gets toppled over by the same gusts.
My disability has been nothing short of a personal trainer for resilience. I've learned how to get back up whenever I lose my footing and physically fall. I've learned how to be okay in the face of rejection and judgment. I've learned to have a spine of steel, one that is both flexible and stands tall despite the obstacles in daily life. This resilience formed who I am both as a person and an entrepreneur and has given me the muscle to lead my company and team through any storm it may face.
2. Unconventional thinking
Another important quality of a great entrepreneur is their ability to think for themselves and not follow the crowd; to be a misfit or rebel, as Steve Jobs famously opined. Every successful entrepreneur identified a new pathway or a road less traveled that would be full of risks and tribulations but would move an industry, or all of society, forward.
My disability has caused me, since early childhood, to adapt and think outside the box. Since I have hand weakness, I tie my shoelaces, hold my pen, type and walk in my own way. Because I had to figure out new ways of doing things from such a young age, innovation is in my blood. Through this, I realized that the key to success is understanding to not be afraid of whether people think something is "normal" or "weird." I'm proud to be "weird" and go against the grain. Marching to the beat of my drum is in my DNA and is a large part of what enables me to see industries and business models in unconventional ways — imagine what could be and go out and build it.
The sign of a great leader is that they are fully committed to something greater than themselves, something that transcends them as an individual. As business management consultant Jim Collins states, a level five leader "builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility and indomitable resolve." He says that humility is what really sets these extraordinary people apart and defines this type of leadership as giving credit to others, celebrating their wins and moving forward simultaneously with modesty and unshakable determination.
Having a physical disability is certainly a lesson in humility. For me, it's created a sense of empathy for others, appreciating the adversity that people go through and recognizing how worthy each individual is. I put these viewpoints to work at work and treat each of my team members as I would like to be treated. We've been able to build a close-knit family at Propel because of this, and I credit empathy and humility as the underpinnings.
The rise is preceded by the fall
With weak legs, I will continue to leap forward through challenges and resiliently create new opportunities. With weak hands, I will firmly grasp different and unconventional ways of looking at things. Through humility, I will remind myself to lead with empathy.
My disability has been a master class in building these qualities within myself. To anyone facing adversity, remember that the challenge itself is the kernel of your growth. It is not despite your challenges that you are great; it is because of them.
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