the CEO of 2Gether-International has created a company to help entrepreneurs with disabilities
For Diego Mariscal, the goal has never been perfection. The goal has been resilience.
“I remember falling off a horse when I was a kid, and I was like, ‘Okay! Let’s go back up,'” recalls Mariscal. “Coach was so shocked. But for me it wasn’t that bad. It’s like any other day: you get up and try again.”
Mariscal is no stranger to finding new ways of doing things. He was born with cerebral palsy, a congenital condition that affects his motor functions, including his ability to walk, read and write. Now, as CEO of 2Gether-International, a leading DC-based accelerator for founders with disabilities, he knows that the resilience that drives him as an entrepreneur is the same fire that drives him to overcome his physical challenges.
“I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” says Mariscal. “I started my first business when I was 18 – I don’t really know any other way. But people still see the handicapped space as a novelty and charity, rather than a real investment.”
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Entrepreneurship, says Mariscal, can allow workers with disabilities to escape unwelcoming or even discriminatory workspaces, and provide them with a more flexible and accommodating career. According to the National Institute of Disability, founders with disabilities are largely invisible to most venture capitalistsin part because the Census Bureau does not capture data relating to this community, unlike other minority groups.
As a result, the amount of support available to entrepreneurs with disabilities is often less than what is available to other minority groups, according to NDI research. Over 1.8 million business owners with disabilities in the United States report having to overcome unique barriers to entrepreneurship compared to their non-disabled counterparts.
“You look at Google search results for help with [BIPOC] entrepreneurs, and there are a billion results,” says Mariscal. “You look at supporting women entrepreneurs, another billion hits. But when you support Google for Founders with Disabilities, there may be thousands of results. It’s not even a comparison.”
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That’s why Mariscal started 2Gether-International in 2015. He wanted to create a space where entrepreneurs with disabilities could access masterclasses, participate in one-on-one mentoring opportunities, and provide resources and events that prioritize the ‘accessibility. He believes that having people with disabilities in positions of power is the only way to start building truly inclusive spaces for them.
It will take time and careful thought, he knows: at a recent event that Mariscal co-sponsored – an event aimed specifically at disabled contractors — a programmed deaf speaker was unable to come on stage when one of the organizers had not hired a sign language interpreter.
“As a non-disabled entrepreneur, you can just search for a meetup and start building your rolodex and ecosystem,” says Mariscal. “But if you are a disabled entrepreneur, you need to make sure: Is the venue accessible? Will there be sign language interpreters? If you are blind, will they describe what is going on? is a lot of systematic thinking.”
Since its launch, more than 44 remote and in-person startups have participated in 2Gether-International’s accelerator cohort programs worldwide, and the company has built a network of more than 500 entrepreneurs with disabilities.
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If there is anything that Mariscal has learned from work within and promote their community, is that the shift in perspective needed to create a better environment for talent with disabilities will not only benefit his community, but all growing businesses.
“We are the largest minority in the world,” says Mariscal. “And each of us, if we live long enough, will acquire a disability one day. So the potential market when you think about disabilities is Everybody, not just people who are currently disabled.”
Mariscal’s goal is to help create a landscape where people with disabilities not only have a place at the table where they feel confident, but a landscape that recognizes the inherent value of these people because of their disability, and not in spite of himself.
“Different disabilities will develop different skills in different ways,” he says. “But looking at how this handicap is a competitive advantage for businesses is really the heart and uniqueness of this conversation.”