A Creative Edge

Coping with dyslexia taught this entrepreneur valuable skills

Carolyn L. Burke is a successful entrepreneur whose $1 million-plus company, Integrity Inc., develops compliance programs for companies. The 42-year-old Toronto resident also has dyslexia, a learning disability that probably stems from differences in how the brain processes language. The combination isn't so unusual: 35% of entrepreneurs are dyslexic, compared with 15% of the population, according to a recent study by the Cass Business School in London. As Burke shows, dyslexics are forced to develop problem-solving and people skills from an early age—skills that come in handy when running a business.

I wasn't diagnosed with dyslexia until about 15 years ago. My inability to keep things in order had already trained me to expect things to be a little chaotic. Dyslexia is like being a little confused, like you had one too many last night.

As a kid, I absolutely loved school. I skipped third and seventh grade. But by the time I hit university the dyslexia was really bad. I majored in everything at one time or another. I started in engineering school, but that didn't sit well with me. I can think in big pictures but have a lot more trouble going into the details. I did not complete the program. That was the first time being dyslexic affected my work.

I went on to study anthropology and linguistics at York University in Toronto. Then, in the early '90s, I went to Carnegie Mellon for a master's and doctorate in computation and logic from the philosophy department. When I started to struggle, I pulled together some other grad students to discuss the material. That allowed me to get them talking about things I was having trouble keeping in order. It's easier for me to hear something and learn it that way.

OLD-FASHIONED WAY

I never finished those degrees. But a friend and I started a consulting business specializing in databases and the Internet. By the mid-'90s we were running the company, FSC Internet, full-time. We started building Web sites, getting companies an e-mail gateway and then adding a firewall, which is how our business evolved into Internet security. We had a loft we turned into a 16,000-square-foot office of brick and glass. In 2001 came the dot-com crash. But we worked for big clients that were very reliable. We hadn't boomed in the late '90s the way other companies did. We didn't want an IPO. My grandfather had a junkyard, and my dad worked there, and my aunt. I have a very old-fashioned approach to business, which I learned from my grandfather. He always put food on the table.

I wrote a diary on the Internet in 1995, before blogs started. That was directly a result of dyslexia and my stepping outside of the box, figuring out how this new medium could be used. The media noticed. It blew all out of proportion: I was getting 100,000 hits a week and started getting awards. I took it down when the investors in my company freaked out about it. Of course, nowadays everyone does it. But it taught me a lot about promotion. I had first-person experience with viral marketing.

In 2001 we decided to look for investors so we could formulate an exit strategy. I don't think I took more than 10 days off in seven years. I just got tired. I didn't have time to read books. In 2002 that business was acquired by a Canadian telco, Telus (TU), for a price in the eight figures.

Did I consider staying on? Absolutely not. I'm an entrepreneur. I love the act of creation, and I don't think I'd be comfortable being managed. I think I'd feel caged in.

I immediately launched Integrity and ran it the way I want a company to run. I'm not working day in, day out, 14 hours a day. We create compliance policies for large organizations, developing procedures and habits. It is not so surprising to me that I would end up doing this, because finding order is my lifeblood.

Dyslexia forces me to read things twice. I'll get them wrong both times. With my work, I really have to pay attention. I can think fast, and I can come up with creative solutions to problems. But that's not all you need in a business. I regard myself as unreliable even though I'm very trustworthy in all the important ways. I forget meetings, or how to get where I am going. In dyslexia, those clues aren't always there. It gets so frustrating. But I'm not really forgetting things; I'm remembering them in a different order.

I rely on people who are the opposite of dyslexic. I work best with people who are incredibly organized and have a great memory. I can troubleshoot while they're organizing.

In business, I keep a number of to-do lists for different projects, and I look at them and read through them every time I'm on the project. My personal life is more chaotic. I try to avoid things that require tight processes. I can't cook because it's impossible for me to cook the same thing twice. It's very creative, but I wouldn't recommend that other people eat what I make. When I first talked to the doctor about my dyslexia, I wanted an exercise I could do or something I could practice. I thought maybe there was some way I could train my mind to do things in the right order. But then I realized I already had the coping mechanisms.

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