By Hackie Reitman, M.D.
I purposely delayed this blog so that I could have time to register many impressions of the great event held Saturday, September 17th at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts: Trailblazing 2016.
This was an inaugural event, which is always interesting, courageous, and a gamble. Boaz and Minerva Santiago took that gamble. The two have been champions of neurodiverse entrepreneurship for years, and are the founders of Picasso Einstein– an institution that does just that. Through it, they have helped countless uniquely-gifted individuals find real paths to supporting themselves.
Their right hand person and coordinator was Alexai Perez, mother of 5, and a real champion. I had the pleasure of speaking with Alexai on an episode of Exploring Different Brains, and she summed it up perfectly:
Click below for 48 second clip of Alexai
For this inaugural event, the Trailblazing team pulled together an impressive list of guests. And, as with many of my speaking events, I feel as if I was the least qualified individual on the roster. I often refer to myself as a Johnny-come-lately, and I am often in awe of the people I meet that have dedicated their lives to this. And many of them are of course neurodiverse champions themselves.
It was going to be a long day. I had to moderate one panel, be on another panel, and give the final keynote farewell at the end of the event. I felt more than a little anxiety in preparing to moderate this panel- which was a collection of “All-Stars” who really know of what they speak. It turns out that this task led to me learning something new about how MY brain works.
Lately, said brain is getting pretty frazzled from trying to do 1 million things at once. Our coordinator did a nice job of getting everything written down for me earlier in the week- collecting the biographies of the people on the panel and other relevant information for me to study. Throughout the week I would read through this material, looking at it over and over in between other tasks. But, despite that, I was not absorbing it. The information wasn’t sticking, and that only caused my anxiety to rise.
The day of the event I arrived early, and I started to meet the great people that I would be on the panels with and speaking to. José Velasco, for instance, is the Vice President of Product Management for SAP. Jose oversees SAP’s “Autism at Work” program, which employs many people that are on the spectrum. Their outreach spans the entire globe, and the differences they are making in peoples’ lives is amazing. We connected immediately over our mutual passions for helping individuals with unique abilities realize their potential. One line he said that stuck with me, and I am paraphrasing here, was that SAP’s program was “a business transformation project- not a social welfare project.” That absolutely resonated with me. It goes in line perfectly with our DifferentBrains.com message that society needs to understand and embrace Neurodiversity for the benefit of ALL of us. That includes benefiting the bottom lines of businesses.
Another kindred spirit- albeit in another way- is J.R. Harding. This amazing advocate is a quadriplegic times 2. He broke his neck twice, and since has worked all over the world, including with two Presidents, to make accessibility the norm. I told him he is one funny guy. Despite the seriousness of our mutual goals, we really bonded with laughter. I think we both have “authority problems”. When he reiterated to me how he broke his neck twice, he took no offense when I called him, fondly, “a dopey bastid”. And then he asked me about 26 pro heavyweight fights, “speaking of dopey bastids.” It reminded me of when I was the honorary coach (through my work as an orhtopaeidc surgeon) for a wheelchair basketball team years ago that played during a Heats half-time show. The players were all amazing and very aggressive- fighting for the ball with more passion than anyone during the actual NBA game. They trained their bodies, and also their minds to find ways to do things their challenges might prevent. JR not only exhibited that tough passion, but said he considers himself neurodvierse because of how he has had to train himself to do- and think- differently. He also spoke authoritatively on exactly how the many advances in technology have affected his life for the better.
For a fighter of a different sort, there was the mistress of ceremonies Marlene Sotelo. She is presently Director of Programs and Operations for the Els for Autism Foundation and a great advocate. I first met her in the role of Director of Education and Training at NOVA Southeastern CARD. On top of that, she’s a music therapist and actually a very gifted vocalist. Throughout the day Marlene kept everything moving.
The list goes on- Jason Mizrachi- a digital sales manager for our local CBS affiliate and brilliant social media guru, Michael Daniels- the executive director of FAAST, Fernando Heiderich- a dedicated dad, inclusion advocate, and the senior director of the MetaSocial Institute. I manage to make my way through many of the amazing roster for the day, meeting and connecting over our shared goals. Immediately, everything connects- I have a connection with them, the nerves go away, and I have a good time moderating, paneling, and speaking. I was so grateful to be part of their delivery of the important information they were distilling to the whole involved audience.
I realized that, the way my brain works, all the preparation in the world isn’t going to make things “click.” What I need is to meet the person- actually connect with them, and see the bios come to life through the unique individual they are.
While the comparison isn’t exact, it reminded me of an anecdote Shawn Smith, a fellow Trailblazing 2016 panelist and frequent Different Brains™ contributor, told during our recent Exploring Different Brains interview. Shawn didn’t learn to count until the age of 24. And the way he did wasn’t through staring at numbers on the pages of books or written on a blackboard- it was from being a blackjack dealer! He found, once he was thrown in to a situation where he could connect something tactile to counting- a switch flipped and he could figure it out.
Click below for 73 second clip of Shawn
The more stories I hear, the more I see this. If everyone who was on those panels and everyone who spoke were in one classroom, it would not work to try and teach them all the same way. If they were in one workplace it would not help them- or their employer, work environment, or industry for that matter. As my daughter Rebecca tries to teach me, “brains are like snowflakes… no two are alike.”
While not every speaker or attendee had a label that they announced for themselves, it just further reinforced to me that all of us think differently. Everyone- from CEOs to managers to employees to entrepreneurs- benefit when they are approached as individuals that all learn and think in their own way. I came to the conclusion that everybody there, the participants, the entrepreneurs, the entrepreneurial vendors, the panelists- all of their brains are different.
It’s an epiphany that has built with each engagement I have. I recently returned from the Aspen Brain Lab at the Aspen Institute, a screening of my documentary at the University of Colorado Medical School, the USAAA’s 2016 Annual World Conference in Louisville alongside Temple Grandin and other luminaries. I’m realizing more and more that we all have different brains, we’re all in one big tent, and we need to help each other out to maximize our potential for happiness, health, safety, productivity, and the ability to help each other.
To quote my mother, Evelyn Goldberg Reitman, “We have a moral obligation to work up to our full potential to use the gifts that god gave us, to help ourselves, to help others less fortunate, and to have a good time doing it.” This has become my mantra, and something I’ve lived and helped others strive for. And don’t forget the very important “to have a good time doing it”- that part sometimes can get lost in the shuffle if we are not careful.
And that really brings us back to Trailblazing 2016. Their message echoes that sage advice: find your passion, harness that hyper interest, harness your unique gifts. Maybe you’ll need a little bit of help. Maybe you need to join a team. But YOU can find a way to reach your full potential.
So Trailblazing 2016 was a successful inaugural event. I was honored to be a part of it, and I want to salute all the people who spoke, all the vendors there, all of the entrepreneurs themselves.
We’re all in this together.
As I have in previous blogs, I want to list some of the great people that attended this event. The list is only as complete as my brain can allow (please forgive me if I do not mention you below; I took too many shots to the head in my 26 pro heavyweight fights!), so if you were there and want it known, please leave a comment below! Thanks to ALL of you neurodiversity advocates!
Shira Galler, the Community Outreach Manager for Wix.com, gave a great keynote address. (http://www.wix.com/)
Nancy Zaretsky moderated the panel I was on, and is serving her second term as Chair of the Constituency Board of the UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) Board, which represents almost 10,000 individuals with autism in Dade, Broward and Monroe counties. (http://www.umcard.org/about-us/board/)
Tathiana Piancastelli is the first person with Down syndrome in the world to write and star in a piece of professional theater. (http://www.tathipiancastelli.com/)
Victor Presto established, with his family, the MVP Autism Foundation whose purpose is to educate, empower, and enrich the community about and for Autism. (http://www.mvpautism.org/)
Dr. Deborah Barrett, an advocate for Disability Self-Employment & Inclusion, from Anthony At Your Service, a business started by her son. (http://www.anthonyatyourservice.com/)
Debra Ruh, an accessibility Expert and advocate for disability employment inclusion. (http://ruhglobal.com/)
Shomari Hearn, CFP, EA, fellow moderator who is an advocate for self-employment education and Vice President of Palisades Hudson Financial Group LLC. (http://www.palisadeshudson.com/)
Tom Whitehurst, PhD is the managing director of the Whitehurst Advisory Group of Raymond James. (http://www.raymondjames.com/tomwhitehurst/Home.aspx)
Adam Wozney is a student of design thinking methodologies and part of the WIX.com family. (http://www.shiragaller.com/)
Steven Kramer is Chief Connecting Officer of Simply Connected Systems. (http://simplyconnectedsystems.com/index.html)
Garrett Brown is a globally recognized DJ, Producer, Entrepreneur and Author. (http://bouncepublicrelations.com/)
George J. Gremse is President of Jolizmo Consulting and Investments, Inc., and Chairman of Broward SCORE. (https://broward.score.org/)
Robert Breedlove is a Disabled Veteran and the Chief Information Officer of Evergreen Life Services. (https://evergreenls.org/)
Dixie Lee Hedrington-Miller is the Executive Director of Friends & Stars, Inc., in Lauderhill, FL. (http://www.artsanddisabilities.org/)
And if you need a great DJ, check out talented Trailblazer Deon Smith! (https://www.facebook.com/Djaybigd/)