40 Under 40 Class of 2009

Mark Hugo Nasjleti

Mark Hugo Nasjleti

Age 39: Founder and President, Go Voice for Choice

In one sense, Mark Hugo Nasjleti’s story isn’t exactly unique: tired of being overweight, he made a commitment to fitness and lost 133 pounds. Since then, he has forged a career in public speaking, sharing his story and encouraging others to follow his lead.

“I thought, if I could do this for myself, I could do it for others, and help other people change,” he said.

Words spoken by many a fitness guru, right? Sure, but with one difference: Nasjleti has Down syndrome.

It’s an important aspect of how he connects with his audience, particularly those with developmental disabilities, but in a way, he doesn’t dwell on it. In fact, a brochure for Go Voice for Choice, his series of self-improvement programs, lists eight of his roles, from speaker and workshop leader to expert on self-advocacy and independent living. Listed at the very bottom is “a man who happens to have Down syndrome.”

That’s because Nasjleti — whose fitness workshops include lessons in exercise, making menus, smart shopping, and preparing healthy meals — doesn’t see his condition as a hindrance, and would rather focus on the things in life he can change.

For inspiration, he thinks big.

“When Dr. Martin Luther King spoke in front of huge crowds of people, they really wanted to follow him, and they did,” said Nasjleti. “I know that, when I show people what I did, they can do the same thing I did.”

He keeps a busy roster of engagements, even including one program for would-be entrepreneurs looking for guidance in starting their own business, as he did. And he’s told his story before both small groups and large national gatherings, including a stint as keynote speaker at the National Down Syndrome Congress last year.

But his core passion remains the same: “I want to help people eat healthier and gain a whole new point of view.”

More and more, they’re listening.

—Joseph Bednar