Triumphing over the challenges of life
A conversation with Deloitte Tax LLP Director Rob Mendoza in celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month
In recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we sat down with Rob Mendoza to learn more about his journey to becoming a director in the Deloitte Tax LLP National R&D Tax Services Group while also overcoming personal physical and family challenges.
Please tell us about your background and family.
As a young baby, my newly wed mother took me from the Philippines, where I was born, to join my father, who had come to America soon after marrying my mother to set up residence in Woodside, Queens, a blue-collar New York City neighborhood. Years later, I attended one of the city’s academically advanced specialized public high schools before entering the Stern School of Business at New York University. After about a year, I transferred to the Franciscan University in Ohio, where I majored in accounting. It was there that I met my wife, Debbie, an English literature/drama major, whom I married one week after graduation in 1993.
After graduation, I achieved a major professional goal of mine, which was to work for a Big Six accounting firm, by joining Ernst & Young (E&Y) in Audit. Approximately a year later I switched to Tax. I stayed at E&Y for a little more than seven years before joining Deloitte as a manager in 2001 and then becoming a senior manager in 2003. By then, Debbie and I had three beautiful daughters.
Then in 2005, my life changed forever.
What was the event that changed your life?
To say the years 2005-2009 were challenging and tumultuous is an understatement. In 2005 my wife was diagnosed with advanced metastatic breast cancer. Immediately my perspective on what was truly important in life changed. More than anything else I’ve experienced, my focus on Debbie and my family cleared away all of the clutter and noise in my life.
As I supported my family and my wife’s battle with cancer, I was also able to progress at Deloitte and in 2007 became a director. The exhilaration and pride of this major career milestone was soon overshadowed in the spring of 2008 when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Then in 2009, Debbie passed away, and I became a single parent with a three-year-old adopted son from China and three daughters between the ages of 10 and 13.
How have you overcome the challenges of MS and being a “working father”?
First, you need to understand the magnitude of the impact of MS. I am very sensitive to the heat, both in and outside of the workplace, so I have a thermostat in my office and avoid trips to areas of the country that are hot. I also have a pronounced limp, so stairs and walking for long distances (like you have to in airport terminals) can be difficult. Lastly, along with MS come cognitive issues that I have to address.
From a professional standpoint, Deloitte has been phenomenal in the support I’ve received. I can’t think of an instance where my unique challenges have gotten in the way of opportunities. Clients have also been supportive — one even insisted she remain with me to help me navigate the stairs during an unexpected fire drill. At home, through an organized array of au pairs, nannies/babysitters and nearby relatives, my family has grown up — three beautiful young women and a fine, strong son.
But the biggest reason I’ve been able to overcome the challenges that have been put before me is what I’ve learned about myself. I acknowledge my limitations and have become more upfront about what I need to succeed. In 2008 when I discovered I had MS, I only told a few people who were close to me. In the summer of 2009, I told the partners I worked for; then in 2010 I told “everybody.” I was very sensitive about what people would think and fearful of being labeled “disabled.” For example, even now I am somewhat reluctant to use a cane publicly.
What advice do you have for others with disabilities?
The most important advice I can give for those with disabilities is to not to be afraid to “come out” to everyone. And don’t be shy about asking for accommodations that will increase your effectiveness. My experience is that Deloitte, right up to the highest levels of the organization’s leadership, will be supportive. I waited too long to come to this realization.
Over time I became more comfortable requesting and receiving assistance (e.g., wheelchair aid at airports and at Deloitte University). Also, I have just recently joined the Ability First & Allies Business Resource Group (BRG). Further, I work with my team members and leverage technology to help with tasks. For me, I view my disability as less of an obstacle and more of just one of many factors to deal with on any assignment … just like everyone else.
The last piece of advice is to not let special challenges turn you toward bitterness. My experience has made me more sensitive and aware of others with differences as well as less judgmental and more patient. These are qualities that make me a better father and colleague.
The Ability First & Allies BRG
Matthew Toennies was born deaf but uses a cochlear implant to achieve minimal hearing. Despite this disability, Matthew has been with Deloitte Services LP 15 years and is a manager with Database Management working out of Hermitage. Here’s what Matthew says about the Ability First & Allies BRG.
“The one thing that has stood out regarding my involvement with the Ability First & Allies BRG is the fact that many are challenged by a disability that is not seen. There are those whose disability is not evident or who are a member of the BRG because a family member has a disability. The best advice I can give to someone who is impacted by a disability is to get ‘connected’ with others who may share their challenges."
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