What I noticed first were her outrageous, long, feather earrings cascading down to her shoulders. They were black and bright pink, and I could see them from across the room. The second thing I noticed were her crutches. "Bummer," I thought, feeling sorry for the bad luck of this beautiful young woman who had apparently injured her foot. "Coming to a fashion show with crutches can't be easy."
If I only knew.
I put this woman out of my mind until the first group of models came walking down the runway sporting amazing bathing suits paired with the same kind of feather earrings I had noticed on the young woman earlier. It was hard to take my eyes off of these sensual accessories that made the Dominican girls participating in the Miss Dominican Republic U.S. event look even more exotic than they normally do.
During the intermission I noticed that the young woman with crutches was standing in the back of the VIP box while I was sitting up front with a friend. We waved for her to come join us and I confirmed what at that point seemed obvious -- Erika Becker was the designer of the earrings she and the models were wearing.
I was immediately inspired by her story even though I didn't learn the entire story until after I put my foot in my mouth. She was a 32-year-old mother of three who had gone to college after her third child was born to get her degree in Fashion Design and Merchandising. Her company, Angels and Divas, was only a year-and-a-half-old and her line of accessories was already being featured on several reality shows such as The Real Housewives of New Jersey.
I put my foot in my mouth just as she finished telling me how the characters of the upcoming new show The Glam Fairies were fighting over her earrings. I nodded in the direction of her crutches, which lay on the floor in front of her, and asked, "So, what happened to your foot?"
"I have cerebral palsy," Erika said nonchalantly. Gulp. Yes, I wanted to kill myself.
Instead, we became fast friends.
The daughter of a Uruguayan mother and an American father, Erika, who speaks fluent Spanish, had a difficult time figuring out what she wanted to do when she grew up. She had several jobs that didn't last too long, and although her parents always encouraged her to pursue her dreams, she felt insecure and self-conscious about her condition, with which she was diagnosed when she was two-years-old. "I look normal sitting down, but when I walk, you can tell I have a problem. That used to bother me, but not any more," she told me that night.
Although she may have overcome her own feelings about her condition, others haven't. She confronts conscious and subconscious discrimination to this day. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, the owner of a small bead shop where Erika intended to spend a large amount of money on supplies for her earrings denied her entry to the store because he feared she might knock down his merchandise with her crutches.
As frequently happens when someone inspires us, I wanted to turn inspiration into action and find a way to help her continue to prosper in her professional journey. She had done wonderfully given the short time she had been in business, and she could write a book on perseverance. So what would help her get to the next level?
It didn't take long to realize that sharing her story with millions of people could help Erika's company gain visibility while inspiring Latinos in similar situations. After all, there are very few Latino entrepreneurs with disabilities who are visible (and even less in the fashion industry). She jumped at the chance to talk publicly about the challenges she had overcome in order to fulfill her aspirations of being a designer.
So, a few emails and phone calls later, Erika is scheduled to be on several shows and to be featured in several publications.
This young woman is the kind of person that makes all of us question if we have done enough in our personal and professional lives or if we have avoided jumping through certain hoops because they felt too uncomfortable or unfair. Next time you are unsure about taking on a challenge, remember how much more challenging simple things can be when you have a disability. Then, take on that challenge!
Mariela Dabbah is the CEO of www.latinosincollege.com and an award-winning, best-selling author and speaker. Her new book El poder de la mujer will be published by C.A.Press (an imprint of the Penguin Group), March 2012.