INVENTOR AND ENTREPRENEUR
Cliff Weitzman is a graduate of Brown University and successful entrepreneur who was named by Forbes magazine to the prestigious 30 Under 30 list. Known as the creator of Speechify, the text to speech software, Weitzman is also an international dyslexia advocate. These are his candid thoughts from an interview at the DXI event.
Hey, my name is Cliff Weitzman. I’m 26 and super dyslexic. When I was in college, I built 40 different products, everything from attachable brakes for skateboards to payment companies, a bunch of iPhone apps, and websites. Those things did well enough that when I graduated from school, I had the freedom to decide where I lived, what to do. I was asking myself, “If I was a billionaire right now, what would I spend my time on?”
When I was young, I wanted to be prime minister of Israel, a billionaire, and a pop star. At least for two of these things, you need to know how to read. So, I would practice reading every day. And every day, I would fall asleep in the book because I read so slowly that it wasn’t engaging or fun.
I was a precocious kid in preschool. I was the star of all the plays and sang all the songs. I made friends with everyone. My parents tried to teach me how to read and couldn’t figure it out. They’re like, “It’s fine. He’s supposed to learn that in first grade anyway.”
I didn’t learn it in first grade and didn’t learn it in second grade and didn’t learn it in third grade. I just couldn’t make the sounds. It’s so hard for me, other things came easy but not reading. My teachers figured, “This kid is...he’s a talker, but he’s not a doer, and maybe he’s a little bit slow and maybe he’s probably lazy.”
The truth was I was outworking everybody in the room but wasn’t seeing any progress. Eventually, I started fake reading. I would run my finger under the words, and it took me so much energy to decode the words that it was easier for me to daydream. And then my parents found out that I was doing this fake reading. This was right before my ninth birthday, so they canceled my party for faking.
I learned I was dyslexic in third grade. It was the best day of my life. I finally had an explanation. I could hang my hat on something and say: “I’m not broken. I’m not stupid. I’m not lazy. I just learn differently.” If you look at the statistics, 17% of the population has dyslexia, more than 250 million people in the developed world. Only 5% of kids in the public school system are diagnosed.
Dyslexia is a form of neurodiversity where your brain works a little bit differently than most people. One explanation is that the mini-columns in the brain that are in charge of conducting information for a normal person are a normal length and a normal distribution. If you have dyslexia, you have much longer mini-columns that are further apart. You may not be as good at minutia or short-term memory, but you are better at creativity, making connections, seeing patterns, and finding the bigger picture.
If you look at it, 30% of entrepreneurs are dyslexic, 40% of wildly successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic, 30% of MIT students, 30% of NASA engineers, many architects…the Governor of California, and the list goes on!
If you are dyslexic, usually the difficulties include trouble reading. Often, people read slowly. It’s difficult to spell or you have bad spelling. Sometimes people have trouble with math. Other people confuse their left and right, or it’s difficult to remember names.
I wanted to read. It was difficult for me to read. So, then my dad started reading Harry Potter to me which was the book I wanted to read the most. He would come home early from work and he sat at my bed. This is when I was eight years old, before books on tape. So, he would record himself on a cassette tape, and then I would walk around the house listening to this cassette. I’d fall asleep listening to my dad’s voice reading Harry Potter and learned the story really well.
Right before we moved to the U.S., he found an audiobook of Harry Potter in English and so he got that for me. And though, I didn’t know English, I understood the words Harry and Hermione and Hogwarts and Alohomora and Hagrid. So, I knew where I was in the book and listened to that book 22 times in a row until I had the first chapter memorized.
The transition to English was really interesting because I had to learn another language all over again. It was really hard for me to learn the language the first time. Luckily, I am good with auditory, just from listening to Harry Potter, I could speak, and I could understand, but my writing and my reading were very, very poor.
I didn’t know anything about U.S. colleges because my parents did not go to school here. I knew that Harvard was a good school and Stanford was a good school and that was about it. I applied to all the Ivy Leagues and my top choices. I think they were Dartmouth and Stanford as well. But I got deferred from Dartmouth when I applied early. They rolled me into the normal applications. I thought, “All these schools could take 10 incoming classes of qualified kids.” It’s a lottery so I might as well buy as many lottery tickets as possible.
“On an exam I would spell the word squirrel S-K-E-E-R-I-L-E. That would be the typical way I would spell something completely phonetically. Why would there be a Q there? It doesn’t make sense. And to, too, and two...I would never use correctly.”
I wrote three really good applications and then duplicated them, and I applied to 26 schools. Brown was only on the list because it was another Ivy school and then I went to visit. Everybody was so happy, and it was so interesting and I got into conversations about how to increase ATP of the brain to have more energy to think and why did Napoleon succeed in conquering Continental Europe. And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and communism versus capitalism and all these super interesting ideas.
When I was admitted to Brown it was because I showed a lot of perseverance and tenacity in the essay that I had written. I think the same type of thing was shown by my teachers and my recommendations. In retrospect, it was a terrible essay, so bad, because I was trying so hard to compensate for being dyslexic in the essay. The entire essay was half apologizing for being dyslexic, half trying to show that I’m actually smart.
Fast forward to today, there’s a piece I wrote about the same length as the college essay, and it explains my experience with dyslexia. It’s a version of the story you just heard but it was phrased so much better. It has 2,000 shares from my personal Facebook account. I wish that I was a big enough man to be able to write an essay that was to that level of vulnerability when I was applying to colleges.
Learn more about Cliff Weitzman and Speechify by visiting the website at www.speechify.com.