Why Dyslexics Make Great Entrepreneurs

Why Dyslexics Make Great Entrepreneurs

The ability to grasp the big picture, persistence, and creativity
are a few of the entrepreneurial traits of many dyslexics. Just ask
Charles Schwab

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.’"

Coping Skills

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

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.’"

Coppola is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York


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