Foto: Kazi Awal/Insider

  • Lauren Ruotolo quit her job as a marketing executive to focus on disability advocacy.
  • Ruotolo, who has a rare genetic disease, launched a shoe line with stylish, size-inclusive footwear.
  • This article is part of "Me, First," a series about successful women who prioritize their passions and well-being.

With her short stature, scoliosis, and metal "arm candy" (also known as crutches), there's always been a good chance people would stare at Lauren Ruotolo.

She was born with a rare genetic disease that affects her bones, skin, and hormones. Her condition posed challenges that could be taken as lifelong limitations, but Ruotolo never got used to taking "no" as an answer.

"By being disabled, the world tells you no," she said. "They tell you no because they want to keep you safe, but when you're constantly told no, you never believe that you can actually achieve greatness, or that you can achieve success, or that you can be popular." 

Ruotolo didn't let her physical differences keep her from achieving success. She said she looks at her disability as an opportunity to be innovative. She published a memoir, "Unstoppable in Stilettos," in 2010 and recently launched her own size-inclusive shoe line that shares the Unstoppable name.

Ruotolo quit her job at Johnson & Johnson to focus more on her shoe company and motivational speaking. Foto: Marcus Menefee for Insider

Ruotolo refused to accept physical limits from an early age

From a young age, Ruotolo showed signs of an unusual disease. She told Insider that she started menstruating at nine months old, shocking her mother and baffling doctors. As she grew, other hallmarks of her disease became evident.

At a year and a half old, Ruotolo fell and broke her femur — the largest bone in the leg, and one of the most difficult to repair. It was around that time that doctors gave her a diagnosis of McCune-Albright syndrome, a rare genetic disorder characterized by bone weakness, as well as early puberty and café-au-lait skin spots.

While most people's bones serve as a sturdy framework for their body, Ruotolo has fibrous dysplasia. She said X-rays of her legs appear to be clouded by white spots of scar-like tissue, which make her affected bones prone to breaking.

I just didn't see why I wouldn't walk. At that point in my life, I had already been through so much, and I just remember that day I said, 'I'm going to do this no matter what.'

After three femur fractures before the age of 5, Ruotolo said, her doctors were determined to keep her in a wheelchair for her safety. But she remembered saying, "Well, none of my friends are in a wheelchair." Soon, she found a physical therapist who was up for the challenge.

"She just said, 'You can sit, which will be easy for you, or we can work together, and it'll be very difficult, but you will walk like your friends,'" Ruotolo said her physical therapist told her early on.

"I just didn't see why I wouldn't walk. At that point in my life, I had already been through so much, and I just remember that day I said, 'I'm going to do this no matter what.'"

Lauren Ruotolo wears a red low-cut top, white pants, and black stilettos while holding crutches and posing near a window with a view of New York City
The "Unstoppable in Stilettos" author worked vigorously to learn how to walk on crutches.Marcus Menefee for Insider

She 'trained like an Olympian' to walk on crutches

Ruotolo's headstrong nature wouldn't be enough to carry her through the steep journey ahead, her therapist told her. While her friends were at ballet or soccer after school, Ruotolo was at home doing physical therapy five days a week so she could walk on crutches.

The goal of physical therapy was to strengthen the muscles in her legs so they could keep her upright and mobile. Ruotolo had to build "muscles like steel" — and even then, she would need crutches for support.

After mastering walking in sneakers, Ruotolo wanted to graduate to heels. She was 13 years old, but as a young woman, her feet were about the size of a 6-year-old's.

"I wanted to wear little kitten heels at that point — this was 1989," she said with a laugh. "I was insistent, but they don't make a size two with heels. And so we had a pair of shoes made."

Ruotolo said she painted her crutches white and wrapped them with pink ribbon to match her shoes. It was one of the first times she felt pretty or feminine, which wasn't easy for a teenager in a back brace, she said.

"I always wanted to feel pretty, and when I put on a pair of shoes, I feel confident," Ruotolo said. Foto: Marcus Menefee for Insider

'Unstoppable in stilettos'

Six years ago, Ruotolo decided she wanted a pair of eye-catching stilettos for her younger sister's wedding. 

She went to a custom shoe store, and the possibilities she found there blew her mind. She bought three pairs of heels that day, including a $300 pair of sparkly gold stilettos that she would wear to the wedding.

In 2019, Ruotolo launched Unstoppable shoes with four different styles named after strong women in her life. The pandemic hit just after she got her business off the ground, so she's planning a relaunch for summer 2022.

Ruotolo often shares uplifting messages on her social-media platforms. Foto: Marcus Menefee for Insider

Ruotolo says she's committed to making affordable footwear for sizes 3 to 13, which is a wider size range compared to the standard women's 6 to 11.

After spending decades making a name for herself in marketing, Ruotolo decided to quit her job at Johnson & Johnson to focus on her shoe line and motivational speaking. She made sure that her last day would be one to remember: 2/22/22, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go all-in on her own brand.

"I always wanted to feel pretty, and when I put on a pair of shoes, I feel confident," Ruotolo said. "I feel unstoppable. I feel like, you're not going to tell me 'no' in these red pumps."

Read the original article on Insider