Leading From the Heart: United Spinal’s New CEO, Enzo Piscopo

Jim Weisman has retired as United Spinal’s CEO and gracefully bowed out, and now Vincenzo “Enzo” Piscopo is in charge. What will the culture of our organization be like with him at the helm? He has a hardcore corporate background — 25 years of experience in various roles at The Coca-Cola Company — and we’re a grassroots nonprofit. Those two types of entities seem to be polar opposites.

And, also, a year of COVID-19 has been wearing on many of us. New York City arguably has been hit by the pandemic harder than anywhere else in the U.S., and our home office is in Queens. A few of my coworkers have photos of that office as their Teams and Zoom background filter, they miss it so much. But we’ve all experienced some level of loss, no matter where in the nation we live. Could a change in leadership at the top of our organization and all the cascading, resulting changes that are sure to happen be too much?

As he talks, the mood in the Zoom room lightens up.

We start to see what type of leader he is. First, he’s subtle. He pulled profile pics of coworkers from LinkedIn to highlight them in positive ways but did point out if the photos were casual, which prompted a few of us to tighten up our profiles within days. Second, he’s jovial and funny and warm.

Check out: Piscopo’s Vision: Maximizing The Disability Advantage

Some bilingual coworkers interject Spanish into our conversations, and Piscopo replies in kind since it’s one of his mother tongues. His parents immigrated to Venezuela from Italy, and he’s fluent in Italian and Spanish as well as English. Hearing my colleagues banter in their languages moves me. Then he compares the LGBTQ+ community positively to the disability community. Suddenly I realize that I, a queer woman raising a multicultural family with my wife, fit in here better than I ever knew.

I feel my heart expanding as he demonstrates his inclusive, inviting leadership style.

Be Brave Enough to Go

Ever since he was a little boy, Piscopo wanted to experience living in another country, just like his parents and others in his family have. “One of my older sisters lived in England for six months, and I always looked up to her and had in my mind that after high school I would go somewhere,” he says. He got his chance while still in high school when he stayed with the Warburton family in New Jersey as part of an exchange program. In the years since, although his host parents have passed, he stays in touch with their three kids, Peter, Bob and Lizzie.  “They are like my brothers and sisters.”

The experience was so positive that he wanted to come back to America and in 1994, after he had finished his undergrad degree in economics, he and his future wife, Gabriela, did just that. “The initial plan for us was to come to the states, get our master’s degrees, work here for a few years, get some experience on American corporations and go back to Venezuela,” he says. “But when we began our studies, things in Venezuela started to go bad and we postponed going back. Then we started having kids and it was like, you know what, forget it.  The Venezuela I left was a nice Venezuela, but unfortunately it doesn’t exist anymore.” Plummeting oil prices in the late ’80s and the rise of Hugo Chavez had a lot to do with this.

At first Piscopo studied economics at the State University of New York at Albany. He tells a story from that time period to show the influence Gabriela has on him. “It was the middle of winter, I was doing a master’s I hated, and living in a house I hated. It was awful,” he says. He and Gabriela weren’t married yet. “One day she told me something like, ‘Wake up, you need to get out of this.’ It was something that showed me her admiration for me was weakening.” He says she was subtle, “but it was enough for me to say, ‘I’m leaving Albany, I’m getting out of this, this doesn’t make any sense.’” He enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh instead, where he received his MBA. He and Gabriela married, and he calls his years at Pittsburgh an extended honeymoon.

Not long after he earned his MBA, Piscopo began obtaining the experience he sought with a big corporation at The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta. “It’s such a huge organization that you can move around and experience different roles,” he says. During the 25 years he spent there, he worked in finance, IT, marketing and innovation. While in innovation, his supervisor was Keith Wilmot, a man who believes that unleashing creativity can positively impact every part of a person’s life. “He created an environment within Coke that spoke to that, to challenging the status quo.”

Wilmot’s penchant for breaking boundaries provides insight into Piscopo’s own approach to management. Once, to illustrate a story he liked to tell about a man who brought a tiger to a board meeting to reinforce his pitch, Wilmot brought an actual Bengal tiger to Coca-Cola headquarters. “He uncovered a cage with a tiger, in the middle of downtown Atlanta, in an office room,” says Piscopo. “Don’t let the status quo stop you and tell you what is possible and not possible.”

Piscopo appreciated Wilmot’s energy and passion, so he decided to pursue a Master of Science in creativity and leadership from SUNY Buffalo State College. “Wilmot had a loose, emotional understanding of creativity and this degree gave me more the brain side of creating, the process that backed it up,” says Piscopo. Where Wilmot’s perspective was gut driven and even spiritual, the program at Buffalo focused on science. “It’s powerful and gave me specific tools to unleash creativity. What the culture of it is, what an organization needs to do to really motivate people, to let people be creative and all that.” A pet peeve of his is when people are too comfortable with the status quo. “That makes me itch because I always think there is a better way to do things even if what you’re doing is perfect. If you don’t have that curiosity to look for the betterment of things that are perfect, you are really missing out.”

The Piscopo family (L-R): Gabriela, Arianna, Enzo, Rafael, Sabrina, Antonella. Photo by Gabriela Isabel Photography.


The Power of Recovery Stories

One morning in 2010, while Piscopo was working in innovation and studying for his creativity degree, he was getting ready for work when he felt an awful pain that knocked him down. “And that was it,” he says. “I had a herniated disc that ruptured, and it pressed on my spinal cord and created the damage. So I am a T6-9 complete paraplegic.” He was flown by helicopter from North Fulton Hospital to Shepherd Center in Atlanta.

“I was going through the big depression, the big sadness that we all go through when we experience those traumatic experiences, and I remember I was in my bed crying and then my wife said, ‘Hey, Enzo, stop it. The things that make us happy are still intact.’ And that sentence marked the inflection point in my recovery.”

Gabriela and Enzo married in 1994, but she has been a voice of reason and an invaluable support for him even longer. Photo by Matt Odom.

Gabriela says she didn’t realize at the time how powerful those words would be for him. “As soon as it happens, you feel that your life is over.  The first few days, both of us were thinking that we would never have fun again, we’d never travel, he was not going to be able to work,” she says. “At that moment you are completely overwhelmed, and he was depressed, of course, and then I see him and I say, he stills loves the children, we still have our family, our love and I know we can conquer everything. He said, ‘Do you want to leave me?’ and I said, ‘What? The things that make us happy are still intact.’ It came from my heart. Both of us realized that we can still do it.”

Their four children rallied around their parents. “My oldest son was more of a little man” says Piscopo. “He was only 12 or 13 and he took ownership, saying, ‘Don’t worry, I have it, Dad.’” His older daughter, around 10 or 11 at the time, cut him no slack. “She said, ‘Dad, I still need you to drive me to dance, to help me with homework.’ That was very important for me. Yes, I have a huge responsibility to Gabriela and my four kids. I don’t have time for ‘oh my God.’ I have to act.”

His wife and his older sister took turns staying with him at night, his nephews and nieces stepped up as well, and the family, like so many others in similar situations, began their recovery process.

“Our life is fine with his disability,” says Gabriela. “I recognize the impact that it has had in our life, both positive and negative of course, but the positive side has opened a different world for us. And we do so many things together, conquer so many things. I just don’t feel we are different from any other couple in that we face challenges and conquer them.”

Everyone in his life pulled together to assist Piscopo. “If you think about it, I had everything, and I’m so thankful … an amazing family, wife, supportive friends who never doubted me and gave me everything to be successful. I got to go to Shepherd, a dream come true for people who have to go through those experiences. My coworkers at Coca-Cola were just incredible. I had so much.”

While still at Shepherd, Piscopo met Father Thomas, a priest from Uganda who was there the same time he was. Although both men were there for spinal cord injuries, their circumstances and support systems couldn’t have been more different.

“While I was transported in helicopters, he was thrown in the back of a pick-up truck and after three days sent home,” says Piscopo. The priest spent a year in his bed, no bowel or bladder program, and once he made it to Shepherd, it took a month and a half for him to become strong enough to go back to his community. Back home in Uganda he wouldn’t have access to the basic medical supplies he needed, not to mention quality DME.

Piscopo was shocked by his new friend’s situation. “I realized there’s so much I need to do here. They are not living in dignity and that is a human right, and they just need a push.”

That push came in the form of a foundation Piscopo started called Wheels of Happiness. It provides assistance ranging from equipment to scholarships for people with motor disabilities from disadvantaged communities in eight countries spanning four continents so far. He built it by creatively sharing powerful stories of recovery, including his own and Father Thomas’. “I leveraged a lot of my network and I shared my story with my friends, and they got engaged. Then I shared my story with my coworkers, and they got engaged. That’s the way it has been growing, very organically,” he says. “It was just my wife and my sister, asking friends for money for Father Thomas, and people loved it and gave us more money than we needed for him.”

Father Thomas introduced them to another man who needed assistance, and then the Piscopos decided to help people in their home nation of Venezuela, and then someone in Mexico learned about what they were doing. Then they met with the consul of Peru in Atlanta, “so we grew in Peru. Now we are starting in Vietnam and Nigeria.”

Piscopo left a long legacy of boosting diversity and creativity at Coke, including founding the company’s THIS-Ability group.


Have a Coke and a Smile

When Piscopo was ready to rejoin his coworkers at Coke, he gave his manager, Stan Sthanunathan, a call. After their conversation, Sthanunathan sent him a long email with everything he wanted Piscopo to focus on when he got back to the office. “When I read that email, it was like nothing had changed,” says Piscopo. “He was a wonderful manager, but he had a lot of demands.”

As he absorbed the email, Piscopo wondered if his boss recognized he had just come back from a traumatic experience. Then he stopped himself mid-thought as he realized that the email meant Sthanunathan trusted him to get the work done. “And I owe it to him to deliver and to show that I can do it. And that for me was, ‘OK, bring it on. I’m ready.’” He decided if his boss didn’t doubt him that he had no reason to doubt himself. “He empowered me with his trust, which I think was very instrumental for my success.”

Soon Piscopo moved into a new role at Coca-Cola as the director of community and stakeholder relations. He focused on managing the philanthropic relationships between the company and Hispanic, veterans and disability organizations.

In his new role, he answered to Coke’s VP of Community and Stakeholder Relations Lori George Billingsley, now the Chief Diversity and  Inclusion Officer. “I love Enzo! First of all, he is an amazing ambassador for whatever he represented at Coke, just a picture-perfect ambassador of our brand,” she says. “He started Coke’s THIS-Ability business resource group for people who have and don’t have disabilities. It became a top group in a short period of time, and he brought in a blind pianist, wheelchair dancers, and just opened up perspectives about people with disabilities being just as abled as anyone else. He demystified the stigma that sometimes people may have.”

Piscopo’s sharing his own experiences and stories helped Billingsley and others enable people with disabilities to have the full employee experience at Coke and also to ensure a disability presence in programs that the company supports. “He’d share stories about the things he would have to do that I just take for granted, and then when I travelled with him, I saw the extraordinary tenacity and perseverance that he had in dealing with some of the challenges.”

Billingsley’s experience is a reminder that no matter how well someone may understand their own group’s challenges, they can’t always understand what someone else deals with unless they see it for themselves. Many of the leaders at Coke similarly changed how they understand disability because Piscopo showed them what it’s actually like for him and others with disabilities.

“He is a tremendous leader,” she says. “And worthy of following.”

Leave the World a Better Place

During Piscopo’s three years in his role as the director of community and stakeholder relations, he attended United Spinal’s signature advocacy event, Roll on Capitol Hill. “I met Jim and Abby, and I love Jim and Abby,” he says, referring to recently retired James Weisman and current Chief Operating Officer Abby Ross. “I loved what the organization was doing, and as a Coke person I helped United more and more.”

Piscopo and Martina bask in some late afternoon sun. Photo by Gabriela Isabel Photography.

He thought he’d enjoy working for an organization like United Spinal, but Coca-Cola was so comfortable. After all, he’d been there 25 years. Then came a big opportunity as two events happened almost simultaneously.

First, Coke went through a reorganization process and offered Piscopo a generous voluntary leave package. “I thought God was saying, ‘Hey dude, don’t you want to leave the world better than you found it? I’m giving you this opportunity. I’m giving some financial help,’” says Piscopo.

Second, Piscopo called up Weisman to ask about opportunities and Weisman responded, “You know my position is open? If you apply you need to do it quick, though, because they’re in the middle of interviewing.”

“Give me the weekend,” Piscopo told Weisman. He worked on his resume, talked to his wife and kids and then applied. A few days later United’s board of directors sent a message that they wanted to interview him. But here was the problem: Piscopo had to let Coke know by Tuesday if he would take the leave package, and the interview with United wasn’t scheduled until Thursday.

“One of my kids said, ‘Dad, we don’t know what life is without you at Coke.’ But another said, ‘Go and do it, that’s what you are, what you need to do. Go for it.’ So I signed the separation package. For 15 seconds I thought, ‘Oh my God what did I just do?’ Everything in my life is because of Coke, all the things I have. I looked around my house and thought, ‘I have this house thanks to Coke. I send my kids to college thanks to Coke, my sister moved to the states here in Atlanta thanks to Coke.’ However, after that 15 seconds, I felt it was the right thing. I felt energized. It was the opportunity of my life — I gave it my all. I prepared so much for my interview. You have no idea all the research I did around United Spinal and disability,” he says.

As we know, he was offered the job. “I accepted and couldn’t be happier.”

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