Dyslexia in the First Person: Extraordinary Achievers

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December 2012

Tiffany Coletti Titolo, a Woman to Watch

By Karen Dakin, Editor of The Examiner, and Secretary of the International Dyslexia Association

Tiffany Coletti Titolo Black & WhiteQ:  Tiffany, Advertising Age recently honored you with the prestigious award: Women to Watch, 2012. Please tell us about your current position and also how you came to be named as a recipient of this award.

A: Currently, I am the Managing Director of Translation Agency, headquartered in New York, which was established to lead brands in a thriving contemporary culture. My responsibilities are the health and welfare of the agency, including revenue and operations of all client relationships across all disciplines. We have teams in multiple locations, serving distinctive aspects of our clients’ business on a daily basis.

Advertising Age is the global organization that publishes information on the industry and awards or honors outstanding talent in the field. It is likely the most respected publication in our business. This year I had the honor of being selected, among 28 successful women from around the world, as a Woman to Watch for career achievement and acknowledgement that also highlights and honors non-industry contributions, both in public service and in life.

I have been fortunate to experience a quick rise in my career. In addition to hard work, I attribute this success to my brain’s “dyslexia-wiring” that affords keen competencies to envision possibilities, think critically, and make decisions that realize goals and reach desired impact. I understand my strengths and, equally, my weaknesses. This allows me the ability to build teams that have complimentary areas of talent in categories where I am average or below average. I appreciate that I am “wired differently,” understanding that it produces innovative, diverse thinking that is required for success in the 21st century workplace.

My Women to Watch recognition is attributable to a promotion to Managing Director of a multinational agency at the age of 29, earned after an accumulation of more than a dozen promotions in three outstanding firms in less than 10 years. Thankfully, I have had tremendous support in my career and appreciated amazing guidance of mentors, like my mom, a successful businesswoman in her own right, who day in and out is not only my sounding board but was also my personal coach when it came to navigating the corporate world at a very young career age.

Q: How has your dyslexia impacted you at different educational stages?

A: It became apparent to my mom in third grade that I was having a great deal of difficulty keeping up with reading and homework, but not math.  My third and fourth grade teachers, as well as the headmistress, assured my mother that I was bright and that my reading difficulty was simply a maturation issue— “not to worry” they said. By mid-fifth grade there was an opinion reversal: the middle school teachers informed my parents that I was seriously struggling, and one teacher went as far as to say, “Tiffany may be unable to maintain a cashier job or even a job in a fast food restaurant.”  Knowing my mom, as many do, it was both shocking and unbelievable news, especially coming from an expensive, private, all-girls school that had continued to say for five years that I was bright and doing well.

At the time, my self-esteem dipped to extreme lows. I felt very behind my peers. I did not value myself because I was convinced I wasn’t as smart as my friends and classmates. Quickly after the news, a leading education assessment authority tested me. This led to a diagnosis of dyslexia and dysgraphia—and now I was labeled with two learning disabilities. Truly unbelievable.

I remember vividly this as a terribly difficult time for me. I didn’t know what this “dyslexia dysgraphia disability” even meant, nor did my parents. I wasn’t sure of how my brain worked—or if it worked at all! Was I stupid? Previously I was labeled as being smart, but I felt differently now. It hit home how some tasks, which were simple for my friends, like reading and writing, took an awful lot of work. Recalling this time is hard. I was terrified of the unknown and of a life of failure.

It hit home how some tasks, which were simple for my friends, like reading and writing, took an awful lot of work.

My mom immediately began extensive research, found an education therapist to tutor me, and identified a school in San Francisco that focused on helping middle school students with learning differences, based on Mel Levine’s All Kinds of Minds. At that time, this solution was forward thinking, as little science existed for dyslexia and dysgraphia. Val Anthony, Director of the Sterne School, was a big proponent of teaching minds how to organize themselves so information could flow in and out, from the mouth and from the writing hand, in such a way that matched with their learning style. The school was small, structured, and extremely disciplined. There was an extraordinary emphasis on organizational skills that we had to learn in order to succeed.  How we consumed and executed our assignments became much more important than the content we were producing.

That instruction, I now realize, was the beginning of my remediation. Essentially, my brain was retrained to process information in a way that I could access, understand, internalize, and in turn, yield new knowledge that was usable. Rather than memorizing subject matter that was on a chalkboard or in a textbook, Sterne School taught me to “read to think” about the subject matter and to synthesize what I was thinking. Sterne also taught me to organize and to prioritize my life. Being a student with both dysgraphia and dyslexia, I was a great match for this style of remediation.

There are multiple observations and learning distinctions to be considered within the subcategories of dyslexia. But, in all honesty, it felt that my biggest issue was my dysgraphia. I had a great deal of trouble getting my thoughts from my mind to the piece of paper in front of me. I could speak like a Roman historian—my auditory skills were off the charts—but anything written on a piece of paper was very challenging. After a tremendous amount of work, by the eighth grade I was no longer “behind”—I had closed the gap.  Three years at Sterne (grades 6-8) and working after school with my tutor were a blessing. I learned to “operationalize” my life so I could be a functioning citizen. I immediately enrolled into a college preparatory all-girls high school. I utilized my tutor to help me prepare for the content gap I might face when I transferred. I was privileged and blessed to go to a high school where the academic requirements were both difficult and stringent, but also progressive in terms of content. Emotionally, it was also important to be in a safe and neutral environment. I often think that for students who struggle, the school environments we create for these kids are critical and they must be places of acceptance and respect.

Q: What has dyslexia taught you?

A: One of the most important things I learned is how to be my own advocate. Students with dyslexia or some other learning disability can feel bottled up and unable ask for help. Quite the contrary was true for me. With new self-confidence and with my mom’s guidance, in school I learned how to confidently vouch for myself and convince my teachers that I was smart enough to succeed in their classes, but that I needed their help to achieve success. At the time, accommodations were not as standard as they are today. Thus, I needed to lobby for myself throughout school. This could mean requesting teachers to ask me the test questions I had missed to see if I could orally give them the correct answers. Almost always I could. I recall my first week nervously transitioning to Convent of the Sacred Heart High School. With my mom, we requested a meeting with the Dean of Schools to convince him to help me assure my teachers that I could make the grade. Soon thereafter I learned, step by step, to become my own advocate. Ultimately, I graduated with honors from Convent of the Sacred Heart and was accepted at Southern Methodist University (SMU).

In my first weeks at SMU, a little nervously, I secured a meeting with the President of the Universit y in order to educate him on my learning style and ask him how best to get the support I needed from my professors. Even when standard accommodations existed, such as extra time, some professors still viewed accommodations as an excuse—I believe this to remain true today. Occasionally, it was up to me to help them understand that an accommodation is not an excuse, but rather a tool to facilitate the communication of knowledge—to encourage rather than discourage learning.

In hindsight, while in college, I learned the hard way, another valuable lesson of life: that as much as I wanted to perform in a class, there were moments when I would be utterly unsuccessful.  My high school community had rallied around me, and thus I had little failure, but many of my professors in undergrad were unwilling to bend their rules. They were intolerant of “zigging” from their program guide. In these instances, l utilized all of my smarts and tenacity, but didn’t always succeed—and that was and is okay. If a student with dyslexia has to drop a class, so be it. I dropped out of Economics three times and Accounting twice. In spite of this, I learned these functions: by virtue of the facts that I have managed a number of multimillion-dollar businesses and billion-dollar budgets with ease and great success.

l utilized all of my smarts and tenacity, but didn’t always succeed—and that was and is okay.

I am still not sure why I could not pass those classes, but it clearly has not been a stumbling block to my career. What I find amusing though is that one of my summer internships was working as a day trader with Charles Schwab. Funny enough, the economics of market trends and the accounting necessary to track investments earned me a substantial nest egg that summer. One never knows!

Q:  What advice do you have for professionals facing challenges?

A:  Challenges, initially perceived as devastating, can actually be viewed as growth opportunities that, once faced, will clarify and highlight attributes. Especially with dyslexia, I am comfortable asking for help in my areas of weakness, and I am extra willing to support others who do not have my strengths. I make no apologies for who I am. As well as having dyslexia and dysgraphia, I have an autoimmune disease that outwardly shows itself as Alopecia Areata. Three years ago this disease caused me to lose 85% of my hair in 40 days. Believe it or not, this challenge turned into another growth opportunity. As I had come to appreciate my mind’s capabilities and benefits from my genetic make-up of dyslexia, having Alopecia Areata further confirmed that my brain’s capacity is far more important than my physical appearance when it came to my career’s success.

Now, it is important for everyone to understand that not every industry is comfortable with the topic of learning disabilities—learning differences, really. In Silicon Valley it has been said they are proudly “breeding dyslexia,” a statement that makes me laugh because these innovative and creative minds, this type of thinking comes directly from the top: Cisco, Google, YouTube, Square, Hewlett, Charles Schwab, PayPal, Apple, Intel are all companies that celebrate, acknowledge, and highlight dyslexia.

However, in other business arenas there can be a stigma around someone who might have dyslexia or a learning disability, primarily because they don’t understand the benefits that may come with the weaknesses. Luckily, I have been fortunate in that my strengths play very well in my industry.  As a result, I can self-select and disregard areas of struggle by relying on my teammates to cover those tasks my mind prefers not to enjoy. Finding one’s passion and potency is equally important in various corporate tasks, whether one is a left-brained grammar expert or a right-brained visionary. In the rapidly moving workforce environment, collaboration and integration of talents equate to success. No skill set can do it all.

Regarding disclosure of one’s dyslexia/learning disability in the workplace, I would never pressure individuals to come forward (to their boss or the human resources department) about their learning differences until they felt comfortable or felt they needed support.  Many people disagree with me on this topic. If you were in a wheelchair, you certainly would come forward. I question whether our society is in a place where I could recommend full disclosure as a rule.

For myself, being forthright and being my own proponent has always been my best weapon. I have the ability to do that because I know that regardless of the outcome, I have what it takes to accomplish the task and will be fine because I have learned to appreciate my genetic gifts. However, if one is still absorbing his or her differences and areas of challenge, and acquiring an understanding of his or her areas of aptitudes, then I recommend taking disclosure one step at a time, until there is self-assurance in one’s capabilities.

For myself, being forthright and being my own proponent has always been my best weapon.

Q:  Your mother, Cinthia Coletti-Haan, is a dear friend and colleague to many of us at IDA. Please tell us a little more about how she has helped you become the successful person and businesswoman you are today.

A: Parents are very important to a successful outcome of a child with learning challenges. They can build you up when the system is breaking you down. They must advocate for their child until that child learns to advocate for themselves. My mom is a tremendous force to be reckoned with in both her professional and personal lives. Beyond an advocate and coach for my brother and me, she has been a role model in discipline and perseverance. There is never a moment of defeat; there is only opportunity. There is nothing to overcome; there is only a challenge to learn to work through. In fact, if anything was ever negative, it was repositioned; even as small kids, our dyslexia was noted as a learning experience, something that was going to make us better thinkers and leaders in the future. That insight, both personally and in business, is invaluable.

Mom has had tremendous success in her own business career and in the non-profit world of education because she is willing to bring people together without ego to work toward the common good, toward impact, and reaching goals. She seeks the positive and is willing to test things and push boundaries because she knows that there are opportunities to be seized, and that collective talent will innovate new solutions and overcome hurdles. She knows if you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t find the right opportunities.

I can see exactly what you are saying because Cinthia has done the same thing at IDA. We’ve both been fortunate to be touched by her.

Thank you, Tiffany, for this uplifting, motivational, forthright, and very informative interview.

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