As WPI says goodbye to President Laurie Leshin, community members highlight areas of lasting impact.Read Story
When Misael Diaz was getting his business started, for the first few years he carried two smartphones. On one he was Misael Diaz, bilingual certified leadership coach, speaker, and trainer, with clients around the United States and Latin America. On the other he was his own assistant, “Sarah,” who set up meetings and coordinated his schedule via text messages and email.
“I was a solopreneur for a long time,” Diaz says. “I was working 16, 17 hours a day. I was doing it all. I couldn’t afford an assistant, so I came up with the idea of having two phones just to give the feeling of a real business.”
Over time, he recruited a real team—or, rather, a team coalesced around him. First came a content creator based in Spain, who had started off following Diaz’s inspirational social media streams before reaching out with an offer to contribute. Then came graphic designers in Venezuela, a director of operations in the Dominican Republic, a salesperson in Canada, and—eventually—a real executive assistant in Dallas, where Diaz now lives, which meant he no longer had to carry two phones.
Today, his company, Advanced Leadership Consulting, has nine employees, all of whom work remotely, helping to market and sell Diaz’s skills as a leadership coach to clients including Starbucks, AT&T, and Avon, with a focus on the Spanish-speaking business world.
He spends much of his time traveling, helping managers and regional supervisors from Panama to Miami to Phoenix set goals, invest their companies’ human resources wisely, and identify and meet challenges that may be coming their way.
“I teach principles and systems that bring you a return on investment—strategies that will impact the bottom line of your business through your employees and collaborators,” Diaz says. “It all starts with leadership, and we talk about thinking about possibilities, not problems. When you are challenged, are you seeing a problem, or are you seeing a possibility? Because the whole difference is going to be right there.”
A Hungry Start
Diaz is the first to admit that his life has brought plenty of challenges—and he didn’t always see them as possibilities. The third of four sons, he grew up in La Romana, a port city near the southeastern tip of the Dominican Republic. His parents had little formal education, but both were very religious and studied the Bible extensively, eventually becoming popular pastors. That fell apart in 1998, when his father’s adulterous affair led to his family being cast out of their church.
“Neither my mom nor my dad knew how to do anything else,” Diaz says. “They never graduated from high school, and they did not know any other activity to earn money. Outside of the church, they had no careers. So, we struggled. I remember emptying my neighbor’s trash for a couple of pesos. We lived near a bakery, and I used to collect the leftovers. When they made a cake, and they cut it in pieces, sometimes they would throw away little scraps, and that would be our lunch.”
As Diaz and his brothers scrambled to help the family survive by taking odd jobs—polishing shoes on the street, selling produce and candy—his parents’ marriage was falling apart. In 1998, when he was 13, his parents told him they were getting divorced.
“It was the scariest moment in my life,” he says. “I felt like my stomach just dropped. I felt abandoned.”
After his father moved out, his mother decided to seek work in Worcester, where she would have the support of a large Dominican community, leaving Diaz and his younger brother in the care of a relative. His mother worked the overnight shift at a warehouse, sending money home to support her boys. But the relative seemed more interested in the money than in the boys, and Diaz, still angry about what he saw as his father’s betrayal, decided to move out and fend for himself. Just 14 years old, he found a job as a caddy at Casa de Campo, a nearby golf resort.
“I worked during the day—all day—and I went to school at night,” he says. “I went to a high school program that was designed for people who had dropped out and wanted to come back and get a high school diploma. I was the youngest kid in that program, and I was there simply because I wanted to work during the day and support myself.”
Things were tough, but fortunately for Diaz, he wasn’t working at just any golf course. The only resort in the Caribbean to appear regularly in Golf magazine’s top courses list, it has long attracted marquee names like Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg, as well as successful businesspeople from around the Western Hemisphere. Diaz found these people inspirational, and, in turn, some of them took an interest in the charismatic teen. Jeff Taylor, founder of the online job-search company Monster.com, would become a lifelong friend and mentor, as would the late Pierson Mapes, the former president of NBC, along with Mapes’s friends Mark and Polly Kisiel.
“He had a great smile and was just so inquisitive,” Mark Kisiel remembers. “He was very interested in learning English, speaking English. It was clear that he had a future if he could just get exposed to something other than being a caddy at a country club.”
“We used to be concerned about him—we thought he really needed to be in school,” Polly Kisiel says. “We would ask him about it, and he would just smile and say, ‘Well, I really am the best in my class.’ He was a very inspiring young man, for sure. Regardless of all the family issues and everything stacked against him, that was always clear.”
I wanted to go to one of the toughest schools in the Northeast and I had never seen calculus before.
The Kisiels, Mapes, and Taylor all hailed from New England, and they promised to help Diaz with immigration paperwork and financial needs if he wanted to join his mother in Worcester and pursue an education in the United States. The process took a while, but eventually his mother secured a green card and was able to sponsor him. In 2004, he and his brother flew to Boston.
“Jeff Taylor paid for our tickets, and he sent a limo—a 20-passenger Hummer—to the airport, so I got to ride like a celebrity with my brother,” he remembers.
Shortly after the boys reunited with their mother, Taylor’s executive assistant, the late Karen Langford, who was an alumna of Becker College, gave Diaz a personal tour of Worcester and its myriad college campuses. It would be a fateful day.
Diaz told his American mentors about his plan. They helped him meet with administrators at WPI, but the odds were not in his favor. Although he was fluent when it came to talking about golf, his English needed work, and his high school education had not given him a solid foundation in math.
“I wanted to go to one of the toughest schools in the Northeast and I had never seen calculus before,” he says. Somehow he prevailed through sheer determination, convincing the Admissions staff that he was worth a chance. In 2005, he was accepted as part of the Excellence in Mathematics, Science, and Engineering Program, which aims to increase attendance by students from underrepresented minorities. His American friends helped him secure scholarships, contributed to his tuition, and guaranteed his loans. In August 2005, he stepped onto WPI’s campus as a freshman.
“I still have the acceptance letter,” Diaz says. “I’m the first one in my family to go to college in the United States. Going to WPI is something that my family was extremely proud of. So, everybody was happy. But still, I struggled.”
From Homelessness to Stability
His first year at WPI, Diaz lived with his mother, who had remarried. Because his stepfather wanted Diaz to help pay the household bills rather than attending school full time, he and his brother moved out. Their situation was precarious, and he spent the summer of 2006 living in his car while working at Highland Liquors, a block away from campus.
“I would cover everybody’s shifts,” he says. “I would work at night, from 4 to 11 p.m. I would work weekends. I would open Sundays. I would do my homework right there, just behind the counter.”
His housing situation improved during his sophomore year, when he got a position as a resident advisor. That covered meals on campus and a room in Daniels Hall, providing Diaz a level of stability he hadn’t known before—and affording him the space to focus on his classes. Downstairs, he also found another champion in Dale Snyder, then the director of academic advising, whose office was on the building’s first floor.
“I was still struggling,” he remembers. “But Dale was my advocate. She was my defender.”
Snyder told Diaz about what was then known as the Colleges of Worcester Consortium, which allowed him to take classes at other campuses. She suggested he shore up his math skills with some introductory classes at Quinsigamond Community College, which would lay a foundation for WPI’s tougher coursework. Meanwhile, he honed his English with WPI’s English as a Second Language Director Billy McGowan and immersed himself in English-language TV, radio, and books.
“I became a fierce reader,” he says. “I still read a lot—I’ve read 15 books in a year. To this day I read constantly. My vocabulary just went up, and it continues to improve.”
I was on projects at WPI with people from Venezuela, Africa, New York, China. Today I can maneuver around all of these different cultures, because WPI was a global culture course.
Diaz also decided to switch majors, realizing that management engineering suited his talents and interests much more than did his initial choice, civil engineering. It would be in his business classes that he learned many of the skills he uses today, including an ability to collaborate and negotiate with people from many other cultures.
“I was on projects at WPI with people from Venezuela, Africa, New York, China,” he says. “Today I can maneuver around all of these different cultures, because WPI was a global culture course.”
Serial entrepreneur and WPI affiliate professor of practice Jerome Schaufeld remembers Diaz as a natural at the Business School. After graduation, Diaz worked at a series of companies around the Boston region as an account representative and manager. Schaufeld says he wasn’t surprised when Diaz eventually launched his own business.
“From the beginning, I thought him to be a go-getter, a real entrepreneur type,” Schaufeld says. “If I had to pick a theme about him, it would be grit. He always had an idea—he was always talking about some opportunity. His is a great WPI story.”
Choosing His Own Destiny
As a leadership coach, Diaz has an ear for catchy sayings that can help guide the thinking of his clients or inspire followers of his podcast and Instagram and YouTube feeds. One has also become a sort of personal motto: “Your past is not your destiny.” It’s also the theme of his book, Creando una Nueva Historia, published in Spanish in 2020, with an English version, Creating a New Story, due this year.
“I’ve been in literal misery,” he says. “No money. Eating once a week. But I always dreamed.”
It’s a message he has also passed on to young men who are where he once was, carrying golf clubs for the rich and famous in La Romana, Dominican Republic.
“I’ve gone back very many times now, very often to the same golf course where I was a caddy—but now I go back as a golfer,” Diaz says. He has also organized events for the caddies, offering his life’s wisdom to people who could be his younger self.
“I’ll talk with them about the opportunity they have—because in my opinion, being a caddy was the best job in my life,” he says. “What I tell them is that we all have the same opportunities. The difference is that many of us do not realize that we are in the place of opportunity. We say you need to be ‘in the right place at the right time,’ but are you aware that you are in the right place at the right time? Because if you’re not aware, then it doesn’t make any difference.”
Looking back on that poor teenager of 20 years ago, Diaz is proud that he seized every opportunity he could—and grateful for the people who saw his potential, from Taylor, Mapes, and the Kisiels to everyone who guided him through WPI.
“I wasn’t just hungry, I was hungry for growth,” he says. “I didn’t express it that way at the time, but people saw it. I was focused, and people got interested in that and said, ‘You know what? This is a person who is worth helping.’”