Enabled by Disability as a Startup CEO

My name is Amy Eskridge Pettigrew. I am the CEO of a technology startup and have also been disabled by severe chronic pain my entire life. What is this like? I am much like other startup CEOs, but with my own particular nuance. Today is the start of a blog recording this journey.


For years, especially during undergraduate and graduate school, I hid my disability. With invisible illness, hiding is easy. The fear of judgement made me conceal my struggles. My worst nightmare was that I would be perceived to be asking for special treatment. Above all, I wanted to be like everyone else. To appear healthy, and to be healthy. That mindset was wrong.

In my adulthood, I have finally accepted my disability. I am capable of the same things that other CEOs are capable of, with some adjustments to make my work day more comfortable. But I am not just capable of the same things – I am in fact capable of more. My disability is an ability. Let me explain.

When you have a disability, everything and everyday is a little bit harder. Sometimes a lot harder. But with this condition, I have many unique experiences that have made me who I am. I have character traits that are won only by a lifetime of struggle. When the adversary is your own body, you are undergoing a constant trial by fire. You are hardened. You become accustomed to challenging situations. Adversity becomes second nature.

I know that life is hard. I have lived it and conquered it every day. Every hour. Every minute. This may sound exhausting. It is. But so is life. And so is running a startup. Is this discouraging? No. For me, it is normal. Adversity is part of my daily experience.

The popular statistic you always hear is that 90% of startups fail. Why is this? There are certainly many reasons for this fact. Success isn’t just having a good idea. It’s the team, the execution, the product market fit, the market conditions and countless other factors. I would also postulate that many would-be entrepreneurs are not prepared for how difficult the journey will be. They start out naive. They get in over their heads. Many struggle, fail and give up.

I would argue that my disability sets me apart in one particular manner. I don’t assume anything is going to be easy. With a disability, everything is hard – startups are no different and perhaps especially so. But I am not afraid of a challenge. My whole life has been training for this. I am uncommonly well prepared for a difficult fight. Uncommonly prepared for the long haul. After all, my disability is with me for life. I can persevere for as long as I need to. I know how. I’ve seen the way. I’ve done it before. I do it every day.

I thrive on challenge. Overcoming challenge is perhaps the only way that I know how to live. Life on easy mode is out of the question. If my day is going to be hard no matter what due to my disability, I might as well pursue something worth the struggle. Something worth the effort of overcoming the pain. That probably sounds melodramatic to the abled. But like I said, disability gives you a unique perspective. I am determined to live a life worth living, and to have a career worth pursuing and, ultimately, to build a company worth building.  

I am no longer ashamed of my pain. I am proud of it. It makes me who I am. Yes, it is a double edged sword. It hinders me, but it also makes me stronger. The determination to overcome propels me through my day. My unwillingness to quit despite the pain feeds into my unwillingness to give up on my business despite the unique obstacles of that particular pursuit.

What can I say besides this: Bring it on. After all… I’m prepared for a challenge.

3 thoughts on “Enabled by Disability as a Startup CEO

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