Entrepreneur overcomes dyslexia

Written by Deena Waisberg

Jay Mandarino proudly displays his printing firm’s latest product, an exquisite coffee-table book on China’s Yangtze River, titled Before the Flood. The glossy pages, bound between a rich red cover complete with a custom cloth box, could be displayed on a gallery wall. The skilled craftsmanship is why Mandarino’s custom printing company, C. J. Graphics Inc., has won such clients as the White House, the Vatican and the British royal family. The book also speaks volumes about Mandarino’s drive to achieve excellence. What it doesn’t reveal is how hard-won his accomplishments are.

Mandarino has dyslexia, a neurological learning disability (or challenge, as he calls it) that impairs his recognition and comprehension of letters and words, making it difficult to read and write.

But the disability certainly hasn’t handicapped Mandarino. Rather, the lessons he has learned in managing his challenge have shaped his life and helped grow his Toronto-based company into a thriving niche printer with annual sales of $8 million. Mandarino is proof positive that drive, passion and creativity really can overcome the toughest hurdles. “I’ve just never taken no for an answer,” says Mandarino. “If I listened to everyone who told me, ‘No, it can’t be done,’ I would not be here.”

School had always been challenging for Mandarino. Low grades and an inability to read made him an easy target for teasing. “I was an outcast,” he says. Teachers were unaware of his learning challenge; some called him stupid. Despite the difficulties, Mandarino had grand ambitions and from age nine knew he wanted to run his own business.

Those entrepreneurial aspirations were dampened when a counselor told Mandarino he could forget about attending college or university — he didn’t have the smarts. Unwilling to accept that prediction, his family sought a second opinion and at 14, Mandarino was diagnosed with dyslexia.

The diagnosis changed Mandarino’s life. He enrolled in a Buffalo, N.Y.-based private school for dyslexic boys, where his grades improved as quickly as his social skills. But the most powerful change was in his self-confidence. That new-found assurance buoyed Mandarino through York University, where he pursued a business degree. At the same time he launched C.J. Graphics to produce business card designs.

Today, C.J. Graphics has carved out a niche providing high-end printing and lithography services to designers, artists and photographers in Canada and the U.S. The company has grown to 50 employees, specializing in sophisticated jobs that big print companies can’t or won’t handle. “We do the really fussy work,” says Mandarino, “that requires attention to detail.”

Looking back, Mandarino says dyslexia was a driver of his success; his determination to overcome naysayers was planted early. “My wife,” he jokes, “often comments that I’m as tenacious as a pit bull.”

That never-say-die attitude has the firm taking on seemingly impossible jobs and worrying later about how to deliver the goods. For example, when a peanut butter manufacturer asked for business cards that smelled like peanut butter, Mandarino took on the challenge despite having no idea how to accomplish the job. The firm tried mixing peanut butter with ink, to disastrous results, before hitting on the idea to pack the cards with cracked peanut shells overnight. Voilà: peanut butter-scented cards.

What’s more, Mandarino has adopted strategies and techniques that allow him to play to his strengths. Mandarino knows sales and strategic growth are where he best contributes to the business, so he delegates other tasks.

Still, Mandarino can’t avoid reading and writing all together. Technology helps compensate for dyslexia. For example, he dictates notes into voicemail, which an employee then transcribes. And computer spell- and grammar- checks are vital tools. Mandarino often records client meetings, but he’s also honed his listening skills to countervail his weak writing skills. “I have an excellent memory,” he says. “I can retain information if I hear it.”

A supportive team helps, too. Mandarino has a core group of employees who accommodate his unique working style and proofread all his written correspondence and presentations. “Someone who reads a letter that I write might ask, ‘Do you really want to express this idea this way?'” explains Mandarino. He’ll also ask staff to filter reports and other documents and highlight important information.

In work and life, Mandarino’s own struggles have made him sensitive to others’ difficulties; he now mentors six boys who face similar challenges and volunteers with the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario. In his spare time, Mandarino also moonlights as a charity auctioneer, attending some 50 non-profit events a year. “I try to give of myself if I can,” he says simply. The venues may be different, but Mandarino’s message is always the same: “If you have an idea, go with it. Stick to your intuition and always be positive.”

© 2004 Deena Waisberg

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com