Benerd College alumnus passionate about helping those with disabilities
Belo Cipriani ’19 has an uncommon perspective on his life of tragedy and triumph.
He has experienced the pain of steel-toed boots crashing into his skull.
And the thrill of writing so well that author Amy Tan lauds his work.
The realization that total blindness will last the rest of his life.
And the sense of accomplishment for an appointment to advise a governor on disability issues.
The brutal attack he endured at age 26 left both retinas detached and never will fade from his memory. But he has forgiven his attackers and continues to define his mission and purpose in life.
He does so, proudly, with an EdD in organizational leadership that he earned through University of the Pacific’s Benerd College in Sacramento. Cipriani’s doctoral work helped him launch a nonprofit publishing house that focuses on stories written by or depicting people with disabilities.
“Everything I learned in the classroom at Pacific I was able to weave into my business and nonprofit to help me immediately,” Cipriani said. “During my studies, I was able to learn more about building a brand and applying that to my business and community work.
“This is not the life that I had envisioned for myself. But it’s a good life. If I had died at age 26—and you can die from a brain hemorrhage—people would have said ‘He was a nice person.’ If I were to die now, people would say, ‘He is an advocate who fought for people’s rights.’ I did not really gain purpose in life until I became blind. It wasn’t until I realized that that I was able to forgive.”
From Silicon Valley success to darkness
Cipriani, now 40, grew up in San Jose and graduated from Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. He went to work in Silicon Valley and was extremely successful—enough so that he owned property in San Francisco in his mid-20s.
“I was living the Silicon Valley tech life and making a lot of money,” he said. “That is where I seemed to be headed.”
Until that terrible night.
Cipriani, who is gay, was in San Francisco’s Castro District and ran into a group of people who included friends from his adolescence.
“They were my childhood friends. They were people who were very close to me when I was younger,” Cipriani said. “We had just drifted apart. It was nice to reconnect, but it did not go well. They attacked me, beat me, kicking me time after time in the head. Both of my retinas were detached.”
Cipriani went through multiple surgeries on each eye—temporarily regaining some sight, but then the retinas would become detached again. The process was tauntingly agonizing, Cipriani said.
“That was a pivotal moment for me,” he said. “I went from someone who was respected in the high-tech field to being disabled and the general public didn’t even know how to engage in conversations with me.”
The criminal case was dropped against his alleged attackers due to a lack of eyewitness accounts. Cipriani did win a civil suit.
Redefining his life
Cipriani said the blind community considers him a “Total.”
“Only about 7% of blind people have absolutely no vision,” he said. “Any meeting of blind people I go to, I’m usually the blindest person in the room.”
He went through a stretch of depression before finding solace in the written word. Cipriani wrote columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
His first book was published in 2011: “Blind. A Memoir.” The opening chapters recount the assault in painful—but powerful—detail.
Amy Tan, author of “The Joy Luck Club” wrote of Cipriani’s book: “Belo Cipriani’s account of profound loss is both riveting and suspenseful as we travel with him into a new world.”
Ciprani said of the book: “The day it was published, I forgave my attackers. I had been spending too much time dwelling on that, and it was taking away from the challenges I felt ready to tackle.”
Pacific was ‘the right fit for me’
In addition to his writing, Cipriani developed a successful consulting business. He worked with companies and other clients on issues that impact employees, customers and others with disabilities.
Cipraini’s desire to continue his studies, with a doctorate program that would mesh with his societal and business goals, led him to Pacific.
“I had opportunities to go elsewhere, but they wanted full-time students, which meant I would have had to give up my business,” he said. “I enrolled in University of the Pacific’s doctorate program in education with a focus on organizational leadership at the Sacramento Campus. It was the perfect fit for me to be able to work on my doctorate while keeping my business.
“We met online during the week and for weekend residencies. I liked the hybrid program. The second aspect that appealed to me was the professors. I was very impressed when I interviewed. Over the next couple of years, they elevated my work and way of thinking.”
“Belo is a passionate advocate for people with disabilities, yet has so much empathy and care,” said Brett Taylor, program lead for the Social and Educational Entrepreneurship program and assistant professor in Benerd College. He was Cipriani’s doctoral advisor. “In addition, he is an incredible writer. One of the things I wanted to make sure of was that in his academic writing for his dissertation that he did not lose his unique voice.
“He wrote about gaps for people with disabilities in small businesses and about how many of those business owners were not even aware that inequalities existed. He did so in a way that prompted understanding and sought solutions. Having Belo as a student was an amazing experience, and I think in some ways it changed the way I teach.”
Cipriani successfully defended his dissertation in August 2019 and his degree posted in December 2019.
Soon after, he accepted a post on the Minnesota Council on Disability. He advises Gov. Tim Walz and state agencies on matters that affect people with disabilities. Cipriani and his husband and business partner James Kirwin—who also is blind—recently moved to Minnesota. Cipriani’s guide dog is a black Labrador named Oslo.
“I feel fulfilled, but there is so much left to do in life,” Cipriani said. “I feel like I am just getting started.”