Interview: Tiffany Yu, Founder of Diversability, Disabled Community Advocacy

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Meredith Reed

Meredith Reed

Editor-in-Chief at Like a Boss Girls
Meredith is Editor-in-Chief at Like a Boss Girls and former founder of a bourbon company celebrating the little-known history of women in whiskey. When she's not too busy being feminist AF, she enjoys writing other people's dating profiles and following raccoons on Instagram.

Tiffany Yu is the founder of Diversability, an award-winning social enterprise that is rebranding disability through the power of community. After a childhood accident left Tiffany with a physical disability that still impacts her today, she was forced to face the challenges of feeling different from everybody else in a world that wasn’t ready to embrace the beauty and importance of diversity. Today, Tiffany and her organization Diversability are making history by empowering the disabled community through events, funding initiatives, job training, collaborative projects and educational opportunities. Read more about this incredible BossGirl who is rewriting the rules and fueling powerful social change.

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Pictured: Tiffany Yu, Founder, Diversability

Name: Tiffany Yu

Company: Diversability

Job Title: Founder

Currently based: San Francisco, CA

Originally from: Bethesda, MD

Superpower:

I am a super-connector! I am always looking for ways to help others reach their full potential. I also have a “get sh*t done” mentality, which means I’m often in execution mode. Sometimes I have to check myself — it’s okay not to always be “doing”.

Quote/piece of advice that you live by:

If it’s both terrifying and amazing, then you should definitely pursue it.

What inspired you to start your current venture?

I started Diversability based on my own personal experiences with disability. The Sunday after Thanksgiving when I was nine years old started off as a seemingly ordinary Sunday, other than getting ready to return to school after a long weekend. My mom had to travel for a business trip, so my siblings and I joined my dad on the drive to the airport to drop her off for her flight. On our way home, my dad lost control of the car. He passed away, and I broke a few bones in my leg and sustained a nerve injury that would limit the use of my right arm to this day.

After the bones in my leg healed and I relearned how to write (I was originally right-handed), I returned to school. Going back to school presented its own set of challenges. Not only was I still grieving the loss in my family, I was also thrust into an environment where I often felt isolated and alone because of my disability. I hated my mandatory physical education class. When it came time to pick teammates, none of my classmates wanted me to be on their team. I sat on the sidelines of the gym and I started to sit on the sidelines of life, too. Having a disability killed my self-esteem and confidence.

Growing up, I always felt like my disability was the elephant in the room. No one talked about or acknowledged it. I tried my best to hide my disability by wearing long-sleeves all the time. I would get emotional when people asked me about my arm.

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Diversability Founder Tiffany Yu at the 2016 Disability Pride Parade in New York City (Photo credit: Jason Lee)

In 2009, I participated in a diversity training activity during my senior year at Georgetown University. We were given a pie and asked to cut out slices of our social identities based on how important they were to us (i.e. race, gender, religion, etc.). My disability was almost half of my pie. Though I never publicly discussed it, it was something that I thought about on a daily basis, from carrying my lunch tray in the cafeteria to dropping a letter off in the mailbox. I glanced over at my neighbor’s pie only to notice that being “able-bodied” was the thinnest slice of his pie. I realized that it wasn’t even something he thought about.

It made me realize that disability was often missing from the conversation because of a lack of awareness. Why was the world’s largest minority – one billion people – being left out of so many conversations about diversity? Despite an abundance of student organizations focused on various aspects of diversity, there seemed to be a shortage of groups dedicated to raising disability awareness on campus.

That was my aha moment to start Diversability, a movement to get more people talking and thinking about disability. I introduced the group through an op-ed in the school paper. It was scary and I felt vulnerable, but I thought, “If not now, when?”

What are you and your company doing to make history today?

Diversability is on a mission to reframe how people think about the disabled community. For example, when most people talk about disability, they tend to subscribe to one of three mindsets:  

  1. The “Medical Model”: This model treats disability as a medical diagnosis for which medical care and access to healthcare are the main issues. People with disabilities are patients, and as such, they need to be treated and cured.
  2. The “Tragedy Model”: In this model, we feel sorry for people with disabilities. This model subscribes to the belief that people with disabilities are victims of circumstance and, as a result, they receive the pity and charity of others.
  3. The “Social Model”: This is when we look at disability is a function of the social environment. The disability is primarily determined by whether or not the physical, constructed environment around them is accommodating of their condition.

Diversability stands on the belief that disability doesn’t have to belong to one of these three categories. When we reframe disability, it can be rerooted in identity, pride, and empowerment. This changes the assumption of victimization, shame or pity and enables people with disabilities to define the narrative for themselves. Our hope is that Diversability will eventually grow into “#diversability” and that everyone will be part of the conversation.

What is one thing you and your organization have accomplished that you are most proud of?

Last year, a group of people with disabilities and I launched the Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter, a monthly Microgrant Giving Circle for projects in the disabled community. To date, we have funded projects in Uganda, Ecuador, Canada, and the United States that have been dedicated to everything from media and the arts to political advocacy.

What is one project you are currently working on that you are most excited about?

Last week, I launched the first #Trailhead4All for the disability community, a workshop to learn more about in-demand Salesforce tech skills in San Francisco. The employment rate for adult Americans with disabilities is 27.7% and the Salesforce economy will create over 3 million jobs over the next 5 years. There is a huge opportunity to close the disability employment gap by teaching our community in-demand skills to get jobs at competitive rates.

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Pictured: Tiffany Yu at a Diversability event

What, in your opinion, is one of the biggest challenges facing your industry today?

Diversability is addressing the challenge of bringing more unity to the disabled community. We are starting this movement by reframing disability as a source of pride and empowerment rather than a flaw that everyone should want to fix. In the past, the disabled community was fragmented by the type of disability, more focused on differences rather than on shared experiences. Diversability is dedicated to creating inclusive online and offline spaces for our community, and we believe in the importance of bringing non-disabled people into the conversation. While there are many support groups and self-advocacy organizations for people living with a disability, Diversability is a platform that gives everyone had a seat at the table – disabled and non-disabled alike.

What is a trend in your industry that you foresee becoming popular in the future?

I am excited about the role of social media and technology in providing the disabled community with a powerful platform to have our voices heard and advocate for our rights. It is empowering to see the community uniting together online – gathering behind a hashtag, raising awareness and generating change in a way that would otherwise not be possible.

What is one of the greatest challenges you have personally faced at this job? 

I have learned that sometimes, in order to be a leader, you have to put something out into the universe before it’s ready. It is hard to make mistakes so publicly, but I also appreciate that our community holds me accountable. I am always learning on this journey.

What were you doing before your current role? 

I studied finance and accounting at Georgetown University, and then went to work on Wall Street as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. I have also spent time as a campus recruiter, a TV news producer, and a corporate finance director at Sean Diddy Combs’ REVOLT TV. Most recently, I was working at a venture-backed co-living startup as their first and only San Francisco hire.

What is one piece of advice you’d like to give to other female founders & change-makers?

If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.

Are there any great resources you have discovered that you would like to share?

I’d suggest the Hive Global Leaders Program – a three-day leadership and entrepreneurship training program that holds events for purpose-driven leaders all over the world.

Fun fact about yourself:

I was voted “Most Innocent” in high school!

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For more information on Diversability: Website, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook

Get involved in the conversation! Join Diversability’s online community.

Connect with Tiffany: Website, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook

 

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