Alvaro Silberstein: Founder of Wheel the World – Ep. 100

About Alvaro Silberstein and Wheel the World:

🥳100th Interview!! 🥳

Alvaro Silberstein has a remarkable story to tell. Born in Chile, Alvaro’s life was turned upside down in a car accident that left him paralyzed. 

He soon witnessed the ways in which the world can be inaccessible to people with disabilities, making travel difficult or impossible. He made a personal journey to Torres del Paine national park in Chile, and his feat attracted media attention, leading him to the idea of starting a service to help others with more accessible vacation, travel, and adventure tours.

His company, Wheel the World, has received millions in funding and has been featured on major media outlets. He helps people like him reach destinations they never thought possible, and found meaning and success in his own life in the process.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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*3:21 – “When I was 18 years old, I was part of a car accident. And since that moment, I have paralyzed my body from the chest down, I can partially move my arms and I don’t move the fingers of my hands. And, of course, it was a very tragic incident and it was very tough to accept it but I was very lucky with having a lot of support from my family, from my friends. And since that moment, I started to reconstruct my life again. And travel, always, since I was very young, was very close to my heart, and very important. And when I was gaining independence and getting to understand how was my new life after my accident, I realized that it was possible to travel, even having a severe disability, as I have, but it was also very challenging and very tough given that the industry and the world hasn’t been designed for someone who uses a wheelchair to navigate the world. And what happened is that once I started talking with a good friend, his name is Camilo, today he is my co-founder at my company – Wheel the World. And we get to the idea of planning a trip together with other three friends to a very famous national park in Patagonia in the south of Chile.” 

4:54 – “Torres del Paine – it’s a beautiful place that you hike for five days through the mountains of Patagonia looking at glaciers and lakes. And I always dream to visit this place. But of course, given that I am disabled I said, ‘This is impossible for me.’ Camilo encouraged me to figure out on how to do a trip together. And we realized that there was zero information of accessibility of this destination…And we did it. I became the first person ever in a wheelchair to complete the W Trek in Patagonia.” 

5:38 – “We needed to figure out how to do this trip. Camilo did the scouting trip to find accessible accommodations, how we will move around. We bought a special hiking wheelchair and allow us to navigate this place. And that trip was amazing, it was beautiful for me, for my friends, also for the people who work for the travel industry in Torres del Paine and afterwards our story became pretty viral and we were in the news.”

6:14 – “I was studying at UC Berkeley and Berkeley did a lot of PR. So, for example, the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote an article about our trip. Mark Zuckerberg posted about our story and this viralization of our story meant that many people started reaching out saying, ‘Oh, how good, that trip that Alvaro did. I also have a disability; I also want to explore Patagonia.’ And with Camilo we started organizing this trip to other people, realizing that we could also impact other people on making their dreams happen in terms of travel. And that’s when we decided to found Wheel the World. That it’s a startup with a purpose to make the world accessible. And we built a website that people can find and book accessible travel experiences in more than 100 destinations around the world. And so far we have achieved that: pretty much 2200 people have traveled with us so far.” 

12:04 – “When you achieve something that for a long period of time you thought was impossible for you and, not even that, people told you that it was impossible for you, it just feels great and it empowers you so much. So for me, traveling and going on adventures and experiences, having my severe disability, I also have quadriplegia, allowed me to gain so much confidence in myself, in every aspect of my life, socially, emotionally and professionally. And it’s just because you set yourself a goal that it was pretty much difficult as everyone thought to achieve, and achieving it and making that dream come true; it’s something that definitely contributes to your self-confidence and to your happiness at the end of the day.” 

14:02 – [On why the world is inaccessible for disabled people] “It took us a long time as humanity to understand that the world should be designed for people who have mobility constraints. During the 70s, people with disabilities were seen by religions as people that were punishing their families because of the demon and things like that. And people with disabilities were kept in facilities that were apart from society in very bad situations and very bad conditions. And because we ended up building the world full of barriers thinking that this world shouldn’t be designed for people that had different disabilities. And starting in the seventies, with a movement that started actually in UC Berkeley, by the great person called Andrew Roberts, trying to change perceptions that people with disabilities also need to be considered in society in general.” 

*15:53 – “There’s a lot of progress, but still a lot of things that need to be changed and re-designed and it’s just because we call disabled citizens a minority. 1 billion people in the world that have disabilities – that’s 15% of the world’s population have disabilities. But if you consider our families and companions – so, for example, my girlfriend, we live together. If we go to a cafe close to our apartment and it’s not accessible, she also suffers. That means that there’s at least 1 billion extra people that, they don’t have a disability, but they also need accessibility and inclusion. And what we also like to discuss and to say is that disability is the only minority that’s actually not that minority because all of us will be part of it sooner or later because of ageing. It’s just some of us get to this community earlier than others. But at the end of the day, all of us will have a disability at some point in our lives.” 

17:08 – (Ross) “We have this strange obsession with youth and health in our culture. We have such a terrible relationship with aging and all of these natural processes. We think if you’re under the age of 25, that is the ideal. That’s the human being. Everybody – when you’re elderly, if you’ve got disabilities, forget about you. You don’t matter. You’re not the one that we’re trying to sell to.”

21:00 – “For 1 year or 2 years, I was pretty depressed and I was pushing to gain independence with rehab, with getting back to a normal life, getting back to university. But I wasn’t doing it because of me. I was doing it to satisfy my family so they don’t feel bad about me right now. But there was a point that I did not even realize that I was actually doing it because I had dreams in my life and I had challenges that I wanted to pursue. And I was happy because of that. And it was a transition between being depressed and seeking the life that I wanted to seek, and I’m happy and grateful of people that supported me to push myself to reconstruct my life.” 

26:26 – “At Wheel the World, people can book a hotel in Miami to find the accessible transportation to go from the airport to the hotel in Paris. And what’s important to consider: so first is find the right accessibility information specifically of where you’re going to stay – so accommodations. How you would move around – so ground transportation and the activities that you would do at that destination. And that’s pretty much what we offer at wheeltheworld.com. We are writing in detail the information of hotels and accommodations in general, and we are going into the specifics – what’s the width of the door, what’s the height of the bed? What’s the type of shower?” 

36:08 – “I have been disabled for a few years and every pro service concept always use the word ‘care’ or ‘assisted’, they use the blue color of the hospital and it’s not inspiring at all, or not cool at all. And we’re trying to change that. We are trying to say…you can reach the top of Machu Picchu. You can do an amazing surfing experience in Hawaii. People with disabilities, we can do anything.” 

*37:46 – “I believe that we will achieve millions of people travelling to thousands of destinations. And because of that, we will build a business case that will allow destinations, hotel chains, tour operators to accommodate and to say, ‘okay, I want to be a part of this, too.’ And that’s our mission, is to make the world accessible. And we believe that we will do it by building the business case of making many, many people with disabilities travel around the world. So the world can accommodate to them better and better.” 

39:18 – “We have a lot of ideas and sometimes we lost the focus because we want to help a festival to become more accessible, a music festival. And, for example, we are in a project to help the country of Bhutan. To help them out on the accessibility of their travel policies, etc.. So there’s so many opportunities around the accessibility world that we see that once we solve in general the travel problem, we will move to…other things. So I think that’s an ambition that Wheel the World will last forever and hopefully I will be a part of it always.” 

40:40 – “When you push to achieve excellence on what you do, you realize that you can’t do too many things. To do one or two things extraordinarily well. And that’s through experience, through realizing that things need to be considered and focus with your energy so they work well.” 

45:16 – “I think that work in an office was overrated before 2020. I think now it’s underrated. I think that remote work has a lot of benefits, for example, working with people that are not necessarily living in the same city. But at the end of the day, when you meet with people in a physical place you just have great outcomes that you just don’t when you are working remote. I think that both things are good so having a good balance is the optimal.” 

*47:17 – (Ross) “In the right doses, getting together physically makes a lot of sense and that energy makes a lot of sense. But saying to somebody, you have to be seated in this particular spot for 8 hours every single day seems to me to be very foolish when we know about how people work and what they need to do a good job. My team is all remote, all of my marketing people from around the world and I love them and I couldn’t do anything without them. But it also depends on what kind of person you are – if you’re a digital native or if you’re used to these tools. Since I was 13 years old, I just turned 36 myself, I was always collaborating with people from around the world and programmers, groups and I.R.C. and chat rooms and all of that. So I’ve been doing this forever. So for me, experiences like this, they feel real, even though we are connecting via Zoom right now or whatever. I’m used to that and I think for certain kinds of people who are like that, it doesn’t really matter. But for other people who are more old school and who haven’t grown up that way, I think it matters more.” 

50:05 – “What has worked for me is just to believe in myself, just to push the things that I really believe in and be resilient. Many times, the greatest things to be achieved take time, take effort and I think that resilience is by far the most important skill that we as human beings can have and is the easiest one to have, is just push for things and keep going.” 

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