Why Dyslexics Make Great Entrepreneurs
When Alan Meckler, the CEO of IT and online imagery hub Jupitermedia (JUPM), was accepted to Columbia University in 1965, the dean's office told him he had some of the lowest college boards of any student ever admitted. "I got a 405 or 410 in English," he recalls. "In those days you got a 400 just for putting your name down! Yet I was on the dean's list every year I was there, and I won a prize for having the best essay in American history my senior year."
It wasn't until years later, at age 58, that Meckler learned he was dyslexic. He struggles with walking and driving directions, and interpreting charts and graphs. He prefers to listen to someone explain a problem to him, rather than sit down and read 20 pages describing it. As a youth, Meckler discovered a unique strength—baseball—and cultivated it religiously to compensate for weakness in other areas.
Asset or Handicap?
All of these things, according to Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a professor of learning development at Yale University, are classic signs of dyslexia. Shaywitz has long argued that dyslexia should be evaluated as an asset, not just a handicap. She recently co-founded the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, dedicated to studying the link between the two. "I want people to wish they were dyslexic," she says. "There are many positive attributes that can't be taught that people are generally not aware of. We always write about how we're losing human capital—dyslexics are not able to achieve their potential because they've had to go around the system."
It's not clear whether dyslexics develop their special talents by learning to negotiate their disability or whether such skills are the genetic inheritance of being dyslexic. It's a question Shaywitz plans to explore, along with trying to change the way dyslexia is viewed in the educational system and the business world. One project at the center will be an education series to train executives to recognize outside-the-box thinkers who don't perform well on standardized tests.
Shaywitz recently tested a well-known CEO (whom she declined to identify) for dyslexia. The man confessed that he'd hired an outside company to help identify future leaders within the organization by administering a reading test. "'The irony is,' I told him, 'you're eliminating and sifting out all the people like yourself who might actually be the ones to be creative and make a difference.'"
That kind of rejection, along with a penchant for creativity, may help explain why so many dyslexics are inclined to become entrepreneurs. Julie Logan, a professor of entrepreneurship at Cass Business School in London, believes strongly in the connection.
In a study to be published in January, Logan found that 35% of entrepreneurs in the U.S. show signs of dyslexia, compared to 20% in Britain. Logan attributes the gap to a more flexible education system in the U.S., vs. rigid tracking in British schools, and better identification and remediation methods. "Most of the people in our study talked about the role of the mentor and how important that had been," Logan says. "The difference seems to be somebody who believes in you in school."
The broader implication, she says, is that many of the coping skills dyslexics learn in their formative years become best practices for the successful entrepreneur. A child who chronically fails standardized tests must become comfortable with failure. Being a slow reader forces you to extract only vital information, so that you're constantly getting right to the point. Dyslexics are also forced to trust and rely on others to get things done—an essential skill for anyone working to build a business.
"People really struggle to delegate, and these people have learned to do that already," she says. "If you're bogged down in the details, you're not out there looking at where your business needs to go."
Lemonade from Lemons
Paul Orfalea, who founded the copy-and-graphics chain Kinko's 37 years ago, has both dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. He proudly attributes much of his business success to an inability to do things most others can. "I would always hire people who didn't have my skills," he says. "My secret was to get out of their way and let them do their job." He is also inured to failure. "You know what's great about a C student? They have risk-reward pretty much well-wired," he says. "A students are always putting in maximum effort, and C students say, 'Well, is it really worth it?'"
Cisco Systems (CSCO) CEO John Chambers says dyslexia helps him step back and see the big picture. His third-grade teacher discovered his reading trouble; he says alternative teaching methods and supportive parents helped him learn to deal with it at an early age. "Dyslexia forces you to look at things in totality and not just as a single chess move. I play out the whole scenario in my mind and then work through it.… All of my life, I've built organizations with a broad perspective in mind."
Meckler, who was one of the first to convert his IT trade publications into a sustainable, ad-supported business model for Web publishing, also strives for the big picture and has little patience for details. "In business meetings…I can hear a whole bunch of people talking about a lot of things, and I seem to be able to cut right to the chase," he says. "I think my mind has been trained…to zero in on the salient point."
Foundations for Successful Dyslexics
Those entrepreneurs who have embraced their dyslexia have also made it their personal mission to pave an easier way for the next generation. Discount brokerage pioneer Charles Schwab (SCHW) started the Charles & Helen Schwab Foundation, a resource center for kids and parents to overcome learning and attention disorders. Orfalea founded the Orfalea Family Foundation, to support and identify different learning styles and try to remove the stigma that comes with them.
Ben Foss, a researcher in assistive technologies in Intel's (INTC) Digital Health Group, started a nonprofit and made a documentary film about the first man in America to win an employee discrimination case based on dyslexia. He's now working to adapt technologies for the blind to also assist people with learning disabilities, too. Despite the titans of business disclosing their dyslexia to the world, Foss says it's still daunting to climb the corporate ladder as a dyslexic. "If you're John Chambers, Charles Schwab, or Richard Branson, sure. But if you're a corporate VP in the mid-ranks, there's a very large disincentive to saying you're dyslexic, because you're still being evaluated," he says. "Ironically, talking about it on your terms is what allows you to become successful."
Of course, being a misfit often lends itself to great entrepreneurship. Health-care entrepreneur and real estate magnate James LeVoy Sorenson has more than 40 medical patents to his name and is responsible for inventing the first computerized heart monitor, the first disposable paper surgical masks, and the first blood-recycling system for trauma and surgical procedures. He also dropped out of community college at 18, and was told by grade-school teachers he was either "slow-witted or developmentally disabled."
At 86, Sorenson says overcoming dyslexia trained him to be persistent and solve problems in new ways: "I like to add one word to the end of many sentences: 'yet.' Instead of saying, 'I can't do it,' I say, 'I can't do it—yet.'"