Dyslexia - the competitive advantage in business
This episode is hosted by Ronan O'Brien from Zatori Results Ltd and EY's Entrepreneur of the Year Alumni. Ronan takes the opportunity to sit down around a (virtual) table with some of his fellow Alumni to chat about what makes people with dyslexia so inclined to go into business for themselves, and how their dyslexia and different thinking paves the way to success.
Harnessing the power of dyslexic thinking in business
Anyone who has dyslexia is typically very good at problem-solving and focusing on the wider picture – so it’s no wonder they make great business leaders.
10 percent or 450,000 Irish people are said to have Dyslexia. Young people with Dyslexia are often given international examples of people like Richard Branson or Jamie Oliver who are successful business people with Dyslexia. However, there are plenty of examples of Dyslexic Irish business people who have started their own start-ups or small businesses. In a recent survey, 230 EOY alumni surveyed, 75% identified a connection in some way with dyslexia.
We took the opportunity to sit down around a (virtual) table with some of EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year Alumni to chat about what makes people with dyslexia so inclined to go into business for themselves, and how their dyslexia and different thinking paves the way to success.
With Richard Branson and Made By Dyslexia collaborating with LinkedIn to recognize “Dyslexic Thinking” as a valuable skill, the initiative is a breakthrough in acknowledging the positives of being dyslexic in the workplace. We all have a role to play in breaking down the stigma attached to dyslexia and other neurodiverse traits in the workplace and this recognition is a great start.
- Read the Transcript
Ronan O'Brien (00:13):
Welcome to Texthelp Talks podcast. I'm Ronan O'Brien, I'm going to be your host today and we're very grateful for you guys to join us. We're going to be talking today about Dyslexia and I have a host of guests including Martin McKay who's the CEO of Texthelp. We've got Colin Culliton. We've got Joanna Gardener, we've got Paul Fitzgibbon, we've got Sammy Leslie, and I'm going to introduce you to all our guests in a very, very short period. One of the really interesting things that I get out of talking to a bunch of my friends that are in the entrepreneurial community is some of the conversations that go by that I really wish we could record, be it sitting in a coffee shop or a pub. So we thought we'd try to take that environment of sitting around a pub or a coffee shop and talking about one of the topics that I'm quite passionate about, which is dyslexia.
And as it happens, our guests today are all very well versed from different angles of dyslexia. And a fantastic revelation to me, to be honest, that came up this week during a board meeting in EY was that of the Entrepreneur of the Year, alumni, the finalists of the Entrepreneur of the Year, Irish contingent, of which there was 230 respondents, 75% of those respondents, when talking about education, brought up dyslexia and their connection to it.
Now that's an absolutely huge statistic. We've been talking about numbers and a lot of people go undiagnosed, but it's somewhere between, on a very low estimate, 8% going from just being the stupid kid in the class to being the disabled kid in the class who was diagnosed with a disability and then later kind of finding out that dyslexia really was my superpower. So I'm going to start with that note if I can with our guests. And we're just going to go around in the room and ask people of their experience with dyslexia.
Colin, I'm going to start with you. If I could briefly introduce you as a serial entrepreneur, you have exited from the printed image, and you've got three businesses which you're now involved with. So could you tell us a little bit about your journey and also your position now as a serial entrepreneur and investor and what you do day to day?
Colin Culliton (02:16):
Well, it's funny that you say that I was a printer and I know some customers used to think it was funny that they had a dyslexic printer because they were obviously expecting very poor performance in terms of copywriting and spelling. But actually, because I knew I had a problem, I tended to be very careful in my hires and making sure that I was surrounded by people who had skills I didn't have. But just like you, Ronan, I had exactly the same experience. I was the thick one in the class. I was very lucky, I had a really nice teacher called Ms. Simpson in Pres, in Bray, and she basically said to me, "There's something very strange about you because you're so good at maths and so terrible at everything else." And she told my mum and my dad that. And so later on I got tested and once I got a badge which said I was dyslexic, I found- be so terrible at things like spelling and writing and yet be very easily the top of the class or close to the top of the class in maths.
So that helped me a lot and I always felt I thought differently to other people and I found myself again and again in situations where I saw things completely differently to the way other people were seeing it. And I found it, just like you, a superpower. I really found it useful to be able to do it. And I remember for example, when I was in a school's competition, a business competition, and there was six schools, we were in a final, we were in the Burlington Hotel, we were all in a room and each of us had to play with the same set of circumstances. And they gave us a business scenario each time. And at the end of that you had to make certain decisions. You'd decide what you were going to spend on production, what you were going to spend on marketing, what you were going to spend on distribution.
It was a very false business game. But the one thing that they did say to us was in the third period you're going to have a strike and have no production. And I could see clearly that that was a disaster financially on the numbers. And what we needed to do was overproduce in periods one and two, and then have loads to sell in period three. That seemed just very common-sense to me, but the others wouldn't agree to it because we had a fine and we have to pay for. So I said to them, "Look, trust me, I'm right about this. We overproduced as much as we can in periods ones and two and the strike will go on into three and maybe even into period four. We'll have stuff to sell that no one else will have."
And exactly as I thought, we went into the strike, no one else had overproduced, we were the only people selling. And by the time we got to period four and five, we were so far ahead that no one could catch us. And that's an example of the kind of thinking that I think dyslexics can bring and that's why they're so useful in a team. And maybe things people like EY are now coming to the party and realizing that maybe they're worth having people like that on their team because they'll solve problems others can't.
Paul Fitgibbons from Deanta and Healey Stoves also my favourite product is the pizza oven that you guys do, I don't think that gets mentioned enough. Could you tell us about your journey and also about the business?
Paul Fitzgibbon (04:57):
Just going back to being dyslexic, I was never diagnosed. But I knew when I was going to school, when I read, and now when I write I leave off the word. Even now I see the word in my mind. So I have to read something five or six times. In my earlier days we were brought into an extra class for extra Irish, maths, and English. But I always remembered the teacher's name was Mrs. Lynch. She was a lovely woman, but it was like a walk of shame because there was this slow class and you kind of got branded that you were a bit stupid. My mother says, "He'll be grand, he might not be able to spell, but he's well off to count his money, that's all you need to focus on."
And I just think a lot of it is that there's a bit of a stigma. I just turned 16, I left school. But I just self-educated. I love reading. And if you have a passion for business... We started a business at 16 years of age. I worked 35 years and then I've learned everything. And it's from trial and error or by reading business books. If you have a passion, you want to be successful. Again, like you mentioned there, I would see it as a gift that I have a very good memory. I can remember an awful lot of stuff, stuff I can do an awful lot of stuff in my head. And I really like to simplify things in common sense.
Ronan O'Brien (06:03):
And from a dyslexic point of view, the different side of the lobe is firing. We're seeing things from that particular type of company. And I mean if there's anyone out there, please apply. We're always hiring. But I think it's really interesting that you're saying, "Look, the diversity of the way your mind works is the superpower." I wish someone had told me about that. I think that when you mentioned dyslexia, we kind of always roll out the name Richard Branson. As much as Richard Branson's fantastic and someone for people to look up to, there's so many more people out there that won't admit or won't bring forward that they're dyslexic. They won't offer it up for sure. I think three out of four people on a CV won't mention it and they'll try to hide it.
And what I find is when I offer to other people, "Oh by the way, I'm quite dyslexic, so that might be why I've made spelling errors," or something, they go, "Oh, me too, me too." And it almost frees them up. So yeah, I think that's fascinating.
Sammy, could I jump over to you if you're available there? Of course, you're Castle Leslie famous and you and I have had many talks over the past about your journey with dyslexic. So could you tell us how your journey happened and also how you've managed to create such a business that's so unique within the market of what you do? Do you think dyslexia and the different brain-thinking helped that come to be?
Sammy Leslie (07:34):
Yeah, I think I was lucky in, I grew up in a family that was very diverse and the irony for us was the diversity around the kitchen table, between faith and race and belief systems and ways of thinking. So thinking differently was always very accepted at home. And the irony was when you went out the front door, you lived a world that was very segregated and had to be a this or a that and you had to think this way and you had to do that. I mean,, that whole creativity that is part of the heart and soul of our island, it's part of just being Irish, wasn't there. And I think it's wonderful to see that we're now understanding neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is now a thing. Growing up we just said people who think differently. So I was always given permission to think differently and the family was always labeled eccentric, which is great, because that again gave you permission to think differently.
The Education system, I'm sorry, it was a large pile of you can bleep that one out. If you didn't fit a box, you didn't fit. And funny yesterday, we were down with ChildVision, which does all of the wonderful teaching with blind children and children with needs. And it's incredible to see how far we've come in embracing neurodiversity in all of its remit and actually working and cherishing people who think differently.
When it comes to business and thinking differently, absolutely. I think you need a balance of people that can see from all different sides and different ways and people understanding the different skills they bring to the table and also where their weaknesses are. Cause I definitely have weaknesses, too.
As far as school went, I went through nine different schools and swapped year twice. So it's a new girl in class, something like 11 times by the age of 15 or 16. I just got so used to school not working, it was something that you endured and when you got home, didn't even go to the house, you went down to the yard or down to the farm and gotten a horse or did something or climbed a tree and just stayed away from the inside world where you were supposed to conform.
And I think the thing about Mother Nature is Mother Nature's incredibly logic in its own way and dyslexic are very logical and so much of our learnt way of being and our learnt language isn't logical. And I think that's part of why, for me being dyslexic, I find language is extremely difficult. And most of our learning is around language, languages, and the use of English. And spelling was such a big thing as well. I mean my spelling is dire. I mean the education system didn't move for a very, very, very long time. It just got very fixed in its way and you either fit in the box or you didn't. And if you didn't, there was sort of nothing else.
It is shifting and I think the whole conversation around neurodiversity in the boardroom is fantastic because we need diversity on all levels. There is no point in having a board of 12 people if they're all the same. You might as well have two agree with each other and then just go out for lunch. It's not very productive. You need to be able to see things from all sides.
For people who learn differently, formal education is highly overrated. I think there's lots of other ways of nurturing talent and I think a lot of people come into our industry because they don't fit the formal reading and writing BESS. I'm very open about my dyslexia and I'm very open about my MS, but it's very interesting to see, and because I'm labeling myself, I just want put it out there to give other people permission to speak about it. And it's fascinating how many people come back and go, "Oh I think I'm dyslexic," "I think my child is."
And you go, "Well, if your child is, genetically, it's a good chance that you are." But we do so little testing in this country. And it's not about the label for me. The testing was about going, "Ah, that's where I'm brilliant and that's where I'm a basket case and that's where I'm kind of average on doing stuff." So I know where I really need to get support and areas that, if I can't do something... Somebody just gave me a brand new printer here and I'm going, "Guys, you can take it away again cause there's absolutely no way I can learn how to use that thing. That printer and I will fall out and it's an expensive kit. So please can I just go back to pen and paper."
Ronan O'Brien (12:17):
Right. Look, I'm going to jump on Joanna because I think Joanna's perspective is extremely good and Joanna, you're the one person who's on board who's not dyslexic. However, your son is dyslexic. And I think this is really interesting to include you in our discussion and I'm sorry you're not a superhero to us, but you're one of my heroes. But as a mother who has discovered that, talk about the parental journey along that way.
Joanna Gardiner (12:45):
Okay, happy to share the story and obviously I've checked in with my son on this, Tom, He had very challenging dyslexia right through school and really didn't experience a lot of success in school. But I suppose the overriding thing is that anyone with a challenge, and this has been my absolute experience, has a massive gift and you really have to find it. In my son's case it was music and creativity generally, but audio, music, photography, all of those kind of things. And he also had the challenge of maths and numeracy was difficult for him as well. The biggest thing was to try and get him through school with his confidence still high.
That's been the biggest learning and biggest challenge of the whole thing. It is not a nice feeling to send your child into school where they do not experience any success all day long. Now he thankfully has a great personality and was great at sports and so he got through it but it was very, very difficult at times.
Certainly at the start of primary school it was very challenging every day until we understood what we were dealing with. And that I could say to Tom, "This is just a processing, learning difficulty and there's nothing to do with intelligence and let's find what you're really good at." And he was really good at music, really interested and still is in music, creative photography, and all of the video editing. That's where he's going to I think shine in his career. Yes. But it took a while to come to terms with facilitating Tom at school, experiencing success.
So targeted homework was a big thing. Verbalizing a story in primary school, rather than having to write it down like everyone else and being allowed to share that in that format. So playing to his strengths, but just take time. And then with primary school, and it's not anything against the teachers per se, but you have to start again every September. "Now this is Tom, he has this" and it really did take a while to kind of get that going. I also used a kind of daily diary with the teacher, because otherwise they'd be ringing you far too often. So they would write in certain stuff and I'd write in certain stuff. "Tom find that very difficult yesterday," or "Tom did really well with that yesterday." So he learned how to cope with it.
Secondary school seemed for, I think secondary school was so much easier, partly because he immersed himself more so in subjects he really liked. And exams are always difficult, always difficult. Again, you have to access all the assistance you can to give them more time to do an exam, different ways of doing exams. That was okay, actually. By secondary school it started to get easier. Also, we did have an awful lot of software, technology kicked in, he was older, he was more mature, you could kind of talk him through, "This is a processing thing in your brain. You don't see those words the same way as someone else." And school is all about numeracy and literacy, more or less. It got easier as I got more experience with it, as well, and used as much technology as possible and picked a good school, as well, that seemed to understand that was a big decision at that point. So overall, it wasn't too bad in the end.
Ronan O'Brien (16:55):
So we're going over to Martin. Martin, of course you are one of the heroes in the journey in terms of, not only are you very versed on dyslexia, but you are creating software to help people with neurodiverse situations. And then you're following that through the workplace. So please, tell us a little bit about your personal relationship with dyslexia, but also then how the company came to be and where you are now, but also where you're going.
Martin McKay (17:21):
Thanks, Ronan. At Texthelp we're an assistive technology company and today we make software for people with dyslexia and other neurodiverse conditions. When I was a young fellow, my dad had a stroke and he lost the ability to use his right arm and right leg, but also because it was a left-brain stroke, he lost the ability to speak and he couldn't communicate and he couldn't write and it had a really profound impact on me. So at the really early days, I started out making software for people with motor neurone disease and stroke and cerebral palsy and that sort of thing. And I tried to make a business out of it and I was selling it to universities in Scotland. And I met a lady who told me that she had one student with cerebral palsy, Glasgow College of Art, and she had about 200 students with dyslexia.
And if I could do something for dyslexic students, I could reach a lot more people and be really impactful. And I didn't really understand what dyslexia was then. And I went back and did some research. This is before the internet. There was a thing called Compuserve, which I used to do some research, and I ended up going to California to meet a guy called Marshall Raskind, who had done some research into spelling disorders and dyslexic people. And we started out with a dyslexic spell checker. And over the years we've built dyslexic spell checkers and predictors and speech tools so that people can have their email read to them and to help them write. And we've helped about a hundred million people in the world so far and we want to reach a lot more. Actually 20% of schools in the US now have got our software.
But actually, I've got a personal angle on this, too, because it turns out that my daughter's dyslexic. For years and years I could see that her spelling was really weird. But she was super bright. And she's now a third-year dentist and she's a super bright girl, but her spelling was absolutely atrocious. And she really struggled with pharmacology and kind of all the long science words. And anyway, she got diagnosed and she's at Queen's University now and they're brilliant. All the lectures are recorded.
Whenever she reads, she finds it really difficult and she has to reread everything a few times and she has to read out loud, actually. When she reads out loud, she remembers it. But because all the lectures are recorded, and it's pretty commonplace now, whenever she's revising, she can just play back the recorded lectures. And so I think universities are getting a lot better at supporting kids with dyslexia and there's a really thorough understanding now that it's not related to intelligence. It's like when I take my glasses off, I can't read. And it's not an intelligence thing, it's just I find it difficult to read without glasses.
And in the same way dyslexic people just find it difficult to read because of the way that their brain processes visual information. And they're much better at speaking and listening and much better at... Actually, fairly early on, a good coping mechanism is to get stuff delegated away to other people. So I think you end up finding dyslexic people in leadership positions because they're good communicators and they learn early to delegate to people who can get stuff done for them.
So we've been partnering with EY with a really supportive program to support dyslexic employees. Believe it or not, in the UK, the GCHQ, which is the UK spy agency, they deliberately hire dyslexic people because they think differently and they're good at decoding things and all that sort of stuff. So it's really good. And one of the things that we're trying to do at Texthelp is to raise awareness of this, generally with employers, so that they actively seek out and support their dyslexic employees, because 75% of them wouldn't put their hand up and say, "I'm dyslexic," cause they think it's a career-limiting rule. So that's [inaudible 00:21:37]
Ronan O'Brien (21:38):
Julie Logan, she's the emeritus professor at Cass Business School in London, says that 20% of the UK's business self-starters have the condition. And her research in the US market shows that 35% of company founders identified themselves as dyslexia, compared to 15% of the population that was done in that study. So it is very much a situation of if you have dyslexia, you don't always get diagnosed. And often the reason that people don't get diagnosed, your personal story there about your daughter, is that they work so hard to overcome and to compensate. For people that don't understand dyslexia, if I was writing an essay, it would take me 10 times longer than the next person. And I would go through a sentence structure in my head 15 times to find a word that I could say, spelled correctly, to match the meaning that I was trying to get on the paper.
And I would come up with 13 or 15 sentences until I found one that I could spell correctly. And it would just take me so much longer. And my parents, because they thought I was struggling in school, put me into boarding school. And I would be locked down for three hours a night to do my homework and then the teachers would turn around and say, "You must be stupid because we know you were in the room to study, you just didn't do it." So I was putting the hours in, just all the kids beside me who were getting their homework done in an hour, and then two hours of study or something of that nature, certainly at the sixth year level. And I'd spend the three hours still not getting my homework done and then get to class and be put in detention for not having it done.
And I was diagnosed dyslexic. At the time, our guidance counselor had told my parents that she had never had a dyslexic kid in the school before. A lot has changed in terms of supports. I think it's very interesting. In terms of supports, when you guys went through your journey, and for those of you who were talking about your children, what would you say is the supports that have been most helpful?
Joanna Gardiner (23:41):
Yeah, could I just jump in on that one? My son was diagnosed very early, six and a half kind of seven, with dyslexia, but he also had the maths problem, dyscalculia, I think it's called. So school was this really a place where he did not experience success at all. And now the end story is eventually, he did his state exams on recording and managed to get grades of B, whereas he failed all his mock exams. I mean all of them. And he didn't because he was only allowed to do it at the end, on being recorded. Eventually, he did really well. He didn't fail any exams and got great grades. Why it took all of those years... But just to jump back to Martin as well, I had the great pleasure of being in the emerging category with Marty many years ago and my son was at that stage and the Texthelp really, really transformed homework, particularly. So I really empathize with you, Ronan, and in terms of putting in the hours doesn't really make any difference. It just frustrates the whole process.
So for me, targeted homework and software literacy support such as Texthelp had. And it was also fun for young kids, it wasn't chore. And then translating that into school on laptops. I had one experience where the teacher put my son in the corner with the laptop, because he didn't want anything to spill on it. But sometimes just obvious things like put him at the same desk as everyone else and all that kind of stuff. But I asked him before I came on today, "What was the worst thing about being dyslexic?" And he said, "Being underestimated." And I said, "Well, what was the best thing?" And he said, "Finding music." So he's a super talented music head and he's found his world and his gift, which is fantastic to see.
Ronan O'Brien (25:50):
I heard a great story from a friend of ours, John Purdy, who was saying that he was talking to some young child who has dyslexia. The kids into football and he said, "Look, someday you could be a Manchester United goalkeeper," which was his position, "just like" and then named whoever is the current... I'm sorry, I don't follow the football. But the kid said, "Well I could be but that might be a waste of my dyslexia." So the direction that he had been taught was like, "Look, you've got this gift that makes you special and you need now to go and use it." And my god, I wish I had heard a conversation like this or had somebody with dyslexia to look up to kind of say, "Do you know what? You're thinking a different direction."
I suppose it brings us to the question that I really have then, why are dyslexic so much more likely to become both entrepreneurial business owners and successful? Because it seems disproportionate when we hear of a group of 230 extremely wealthy and successful business people in the EY alumni of being an Entrepreneur of the Year top 24 finalists over the past 25 years, we're now with the 25 year anniversary. Why would 75% of those people identify with dyslexia?
Colin Culliton (27:10):
I'll answer that for you, Ronan. I think there's a reason why an awful lot of people with dyslexia end up working for themselves. And it comes back to your point, Joanne, about being underestimated. All through school, I was in the naughty corner, I was in the bowl class. In first year, they used to have pass, honors, and fail, and I was a proud member of the fail class and that went all the way through school. So I remember people were shocked when I did a decent inter cert, because the inter cert... Back then, if you were diagnosed dyslexic, they couldn't knock you for spelling or writing. So I actually did a really good inter cert. It was my academic peak. But I would say it did mean that people were looking at me going, "Oh he's not thick." And I knew all the way through school, the only time I was ever going to make anything of myself was by working for myself.
And I think an awful lot of dyslexic people actually had that experience of being underestimated. And now,, hopefully there is a better atmosphere towards that. Because everything you mentioned there, Joanna, about laptops and all of those things, they make such a difference. If I'd been able to do my leaving cert on a tape or with a scribe, or on a laptop, that would've been a different world.
And another thing I've noticed is a lot of people with dyslexia are now learning to type. And being able to type quickly is so much easier for a dyslexic person than having to write. I didn't realize it until after I finished my leaving cert that I was leaning so heavy on the pen, it was coming through three pages of the exam book. Because that was the way I was making myself write, because that's the way I was taught to write and to make sure I was doing things correctly. And my writing is still appalling, but at least I can type quickly. And I think there's a lot of things like that that push you towards self-employment. Hopefully, the next generation of people with dyslexia will have a choice and maybe not have to run their own businesses to get noticed. Maybe they'll be in a situation where employers will actually look for them and give them jobs on the basis of their skill set.
Ronan O'Brien (29:06):
Academia is an interesting one. I think, fundamentally, the school systems are broken. I think that they are very much set up if you are the teacher who likes the school situation and can regurgitate information, then you can do very well in education. But not really very well in real life. And as a dyslexic, I kind of thought we were there to make the other kids look good. So I was in the bottom half of the class, which made them look good. And I always felt that we should have gotten more thank yous for that, to be honest. Academic institutions, even the word dyslexia, could you have chosen a more difficult word to spell? It was somebody up there in an ivory tear having a good laugh. And now I can go, "Hilarious."
But honestly, when they sat there and go, "What will we call this?" And said, "Look, first thing we need to do is make it impossible to spell for the normal person. And for the guys that have it, they shouldn't even be able to identify it, let alone spell it." So I do think that there is a lot to answer for there.
Martin, I'm going to focus in on you because you're the expert in this area. If you're an educator listening to this or a parent listening to this, what systems, along with Texthelp, what suggestions would you make to make the life of somebody with dyslexia easier?
Martin McKay (30:31):
There's lots of things. First of all, giving them access to digital materials is really good because if you give people access to digital materials rather than paper... Some dyslexic people prefer different color schemes, so they'll like blue on yellow because it's just easier to consume. It might seem weird, but it's a thing. People find different fonts easier to read and if you give someone a digital book, they can change the font, change the foreground color and background color, make it easier to read. Also, digital content is then accessible by assistive technology. So you can read it out loud and you can choose male or female voices and different accents and all that sort of thing makes it easy to read. And if you allow kids to respond digitally, to hand in the work on a computer rather than on paper, there are all sorts of assistive tools that we can use to help people with writing.
So today, all of us have probably used word prediction on your mobile phone. You've typed a couple of letters and it's predicted a word and sometimes you get funny results. But one of the things that we do is make word prediction so that whenever kids, and adults in the workplace I should say, when they're writing emails or writing documents in Microsoft Word or Google Docs or whatever, we help the writing that way. And I think that, as an employer, it's different in schools. Schools that's really much better than it used to be. Teachers generally are fairly aware now of dyslexia and they'll hopefully spot kids whenever they'd go to university. There's really good provision in universities now for kids with dyslexia. It's totally changed from whenever I started this 20 years ago. But those kids that we're helping now, that we were helping 20 years ago, they're in the workplace. And employers, in the same way that schools are legally obligated to watch out for dyslexia kids and make provision for them, in the workplace, that's not the case yet.
All those kids who leave school, they don't leave dyslexia behind. They take it with them into the workplace. And so it's really important that chief people officers and diversity and inclusion people in large organizations are aware that probably 10% of their employees are dyslexic. And probably 7% of them are really embarrassed about it. You guys here were able to hop on here and talk openly about it. It's really brilliant. That allows other people to hear that and say, "Oh, I'm very similar to those guys. I can talk about this, too."
For people to be able to put their hand up and say, "I'm dyslexic and I could really be a better employee if you supported me in this way," that would be great. And also, it's hard enough to get people these days when there's a real shortage of... We find it difficult to get enough people at Texthelp and so we would love dyslexic people to come and join us. We've got loads of good support tools to help them when they're working here. And when dyslexic people feel like they're being valued and looked after, they become brilliant employees and they stay. And I think that's good for business as well.
Ronan O'Brien (33:39):
Yeah, no absolutely. In terms of steps the companies can take then... Actually before I do that, I wanted to ask a question. So I consume a massive amount of audio books. I'm very [inaudible 00:33:51] reading and while I do read business books, I think, Paul, you mentioned that you're extremely literate in terms of you've read an awful lot of business books. We've had some chats about it as well and sometimes we share notes on what the next great one is. But can we just go around the room and say, Do you listen to audio books? How do you consume materials that dyslexics find a little bit more difficult? And Paul, we'll start with you since you mentioned books earlier.
Paul Fitzgibbon (34:19):
I think I would probably read a book every two weeks. I'd read a book between whatever... I enjoy reading. I walk a lot. It's podcasts, more than audio books. So again, it's Steven Bartlett's podcast I would listen to when I walk. It's business but again, it's very enjoyable. But I've never had a problem with reading. It was the spelling that you mentioned. For me to write an essay when I was at school, I kept on changing the words. It took me hours cause I couldn't spell the word and I'd be better off writing down the wrong words. But it was very frustrating. And the only thing I would say, between a phone and predictive, it's a lot easier now. It's so much easier if you can speak into your phone, it can record. The technology is a massive improvement. But again, knowledge comes from reading. If you read, you can educate yourself. If you have a poor education, if you keep on reading, it broadens your mind. And I love reading. I've always enjoyed it.
Ronan O'Brien (35:32):
Super. Colin, same question to you.
Colin Culliton (35:35):
Yes, I find reading a great joy. It knocks me out at night, so it probably does take me two weeks, maybe even three weeks to get through a book. But I tend to read a book at all times, and then devour them on holidays when I get a bit of time. On audio books, I haven't gone into that, but I've got into podcasts. And I don't know about the rest of you, but I have a great memory and I love facts and I love general knowledge and rubbish like stuff that other people would think is completely a waste of time. I love hearing and remembering and recalling to people to bore the pants off people. So I listen to a thing called There's No Such Thing as a Fish, which is kind of mad facts done by the guys who do that QI TV program. The researchers for that, they have a podcast. And I love that because it's stuff that I just know nothing about and I just devour it.
And it's funny, I've shared it to my family and none of them seem to like it. I seem to be unique in that. And again, the memory thing is a gift and a curse. You remember everything good and bad for years and years and years. And people don't believe me, but I can remember being back to two and three because we moved house when I was four, and I can remember stuff that happened before we moved house clearly, even though I'm in my mid-fifties. So I think there's gifts alongside dyslexia that really do pay off in the longer term.
Another thing I've noticed is that if you've got a curiosity, and I think this applies to people with dyslexia and without, you have a lifelong learning and I think reading is the way to make sure that you do that. And I feel sorry for anybody who really doesn't love reading, but they can now compensate for that with audio books and with podcasts to keep them informed.
Ronan O'Brien (37:11):
Joanna, same question to you, but with relation to your son. How does he consume media? Is it any different to any of his friends?
Joanna Gardiner (37:21):
I would say probably not now. He's on his Mac in the morning, he's on the news. He's an absolute lover of history, politics. In fact, my other son said to me last night, "Can we please not talk about politics at dinner every night." But he's really into history and devours all that kind of stuff.
Does he read books? Not really, although he can read perfectly. He's much more, I suppose he's of that generation where it's hard to get them to read books. He gets all his information from news and documentaries and that kind of stuff. He has a massive, detailed knowledge of everything to do with history. He loves that. But his real love is music. So he is constantly making music. It's all digital stuff, techno. He DJs. And here's the kid that it was tough at school, it was really tough for him, and then he can perform in front of everyone with this music and move and he's cool.
So I think coming back to, I think finding that gift is the main thing. And even as an employer, I'd hope to try... People don't tell you though, and then you don't know whether they should ask. But I have noticed one of my top commercial people, I noticed he was buying and selling cars. I knew what he was earning. And I was like, "How is he doing that?" And he dropped out of our college and he was in our warehouse and now he's our international commercial manager. And he definitely had some kind of skill learning. But it was only by accident that you find these things out.
Ronan O'Brien (39:03):
Martin, both yourself and your daughter. And I'm still pushing this because I am a massive... I would read maybe two to three audio books a week whenever I'm in the car. It's a default university to me. Martin, how have you seen this?
Martin McKay (39:18):
I must spend 20 quid a week on Audible. I'm a huge audio book fan. I walk the dog for an hour in the morning, listen to Audible, and on my commute here, to and from work. So about two hours a day of audio books. Do you know what's a really good book? I would encourage anyone who's interested in this to read, it's by Malcolm Gladwell and the book is called David and Goliath. And chapter five in that book is about dyslexia. And there's been some really good cognitive research into this. People with dyslexia find reading difficult and they work harder at it. And because of that, they think more deeply when they're reading and they end up with a richer understanding of the content that they're reading. And if dyslexic people can persevere and develop enough skill to read, they end up learning more deeply. And if you don't believe that, read chapter five or listen to chapter five of the Gladwell book.
My daughter reads and she went to get diagnosed. There's lots of different kind of flavors of dyslexia. Some people have difficulty reading, some people can read fine but have more difficulty writing. The way her dyslexia manifests itself is actually in memory. And if she reads silently, she won't remember, it turns out. Or certainly she'd not remember it very well. But if she reads aloud... And this is one of the reasons why our software helps people with reading. It reads software aloud to people and it highlights the word as it's reading it. As well as processing it visually and forming a memory through your visual cortex, you process it orally and you form a memory from in your audio cortex.
When you then seek to remember this and recall the information, there's a bigger memory, there's more of an imprint in your brain. So you're much more likely to recall it. The best way to maximize that learning is to, if you can, process it both visually and orally at the same time because you have a higher chance of recall. And it's been shown to elevate comprehension. And the whole purpose of reading is to comprehend. If you can comprehend it better by listening at the same time, that's a good outcome.
Ronan O'Brien (41:30):
It's very interesting point. It's kind of an interesting segue to when I was thinking about coming in and having this chat, I was thinking for me, my brain... You need to learn as dyslexic how your brain works. And it's individual for everybody, I'm sure, dyslexic or not, but I need the full picture before I can get down to the weeds. If I can't see the full picture... The way schools are taught, look, learn this equation, learn that equation. And then after chapter 10, "Oh, here's why all this comes together." Specifically in something like applied maths. I needed to see chapter 11 and work backwards to chapter one. So go, "That's the big picture, let's work in a kind of smaller thing." But I've been considering that because it was such an effort and so much work, as you said, to read a book or to achieve something, or something that someone else would take half an hour to write an essay could take me three hours.
I got used to hard, long work and long spells of concentration, and I was so out of my comfort zone for so much of my teenage years, for all of my education, that when it came to career time, my dream would've been to be a management consultant. I only gave that up when I found out not everyone does exactly what you tell them to do. "Oh, that won't be for me then" at that. And frankly, none of the big consulting guys would even have considered letting me in for the interview because they only wanted the half of the class that I was there to make it look good. I feel that I always knew I was going to run my own business, but I always knew that I was going to stay out of my comfort zone. And I encourage a lot of entrepreneurs to do the same, to get out of their comfort zone, to make mistakes.
And the longer you're out of your comfort zone, certain things fall within the ream of your comfort zone, and then you need to get further out. And for that reason, I think there is a lot of patterns of entrepreneurs work longer and harder. You see it all day long. They're willing to work in the evenings. Even when they're not working, if they're out in a walk on their own, they're thinking about it, they're chewing over, they're listening to all your books in the car. Or even as I've used your services, just literally have the laptop read out a complex contract a couple of times in the car. So by the time I get there, it looks like I spent all night memorizing the thing and considering the notes. Whereas actually, I was just utilizing the time differently. So that's where I'm trying to unbox the superpower that is dyslexia. Does anyone have any similar thoughts?
Martin McKay (44:10):
My daughter works her ass off. She works really, really, really hard and she's developed a work muscle. She just can apply herself and she is incredibly diligent. And she works that hard because she has to, but it's just completely normal for her now. And I think that's probably the case for a good number of dyslexic people who they have to find a way. If they want to succeed, they have to find a way. And very often it just means working extra hard and then they just develop that kind of work ethic. And she's got that. She's very lucky to be able to have that. And she realizes now that her dyslexia is making her think differently. She used to be not confident about writing and now she realizes that in fact the people at Queen's are really good.
There's a lady I know called Kate Griggs who runs a charity called Made by Dyslexia, and she convinced LinkedIn to put dyslexic thinking in as a skill. So if you've got a LinkedIn profile, now you can go and add dyslexic thinking as one of your skills. She's now got the confidence to realize that it's actually, it's a strength. It's something that needs to be dealt with, she has to deal with things a little bit differently, but she does see it as a strength.
Ronan O'Brien (45:34):
Paul, I wanted to ask you, so once you've been kind of beaten down with the school systems, some people are saying, "Look, academics is not for me, an office job might not be for me." Your business is very hands on. You've got a lot of installation of stoves, you've got doors, you're obviously the biggest door manufacturer in Ireland and the UK. Apprenticeships and skills and hard labor skills and techniques, they're often very good careers. How do you see that in relation to neurodiversity?
Paul Fitzgibbon (46:07):
From my own experience, I go back, I started more in a manual... I used to love physical work, I used to love lifting and stuff. It was hard work. And then as a business grew, you move more into an office role. There's a skill set you learn and like anything, there's challenges in it, but you grow and you develop. I suppose to be successful, it's great to learn every aspect of a business. So you develop sales, manufacturing. I can understand the whole process for manufacturing. It's about time management. Something I would just keep putting back. I love solving problems. You'd look at, "How can we improve production?" You simplify the process, you look at the amount people at it. Technology, again, is a great help. Moved into a marketing role, moved into a sales role, moved into... I think as being an entrepreneur with dyslexic, you learn to master every role.
And again, work ethic is a big part of it. The one thing that we always had was that we used to start at nine o'clock on Monday to Thursday, work till 11 o'clock at night. People, they go, "You're crazy." We did it for about 10 years in a row, but we were going into business and our main focus was always come back. It was to generate, to make money, to make an income. It took us 10 or 15 years to make money. But at the end goal, that was a goal we set.
I loved learning and I think the whole thing is, look, there's challenges. I would look at any person at a young age, if they're not going to college... Every parent wants people to go to college. The opportunities and apprenticeships out there at the moment, any trades person, if you are currently building a house, a trade person can just ask any price they wanted because there's a shortage of skill.
And like any profession, there's good trades people and there's bad trades people. People will come in there, starting the trade, and then they're developing to become a business owner, running the business where they employ people like that. But I think that there's a skill set out there... Every parent wants their child to go to university or go to college. And I just think, if they can sit down with people, there's massive opportunities to learn in the trades. Is it frowned upon people, but it's a great avenue to be in. I really think.
Ronan O'Brien (48:40):
And Paul, if I can, and I know you're very humble, but not to impress people, but to impress upon people. So you're saying you did manual work and then you moved into the office. I mean, I know these numbers, but could you share how many doors, how many staff, rough levels of turnover, whatever you're comfortable with. Because I'm seeing somebody that, "Oh, he's got a very humble small business." It's not a small business, it's a mammoth business.
Paul Fitzgibbon (49:06):
At the moment, we employ about 650 people. We own our own manufacturing plant in China that employs about 450 people. Between Ireland and the UK, at the moment, on stoves in Ireland, we sell about 15,000 stoves a year. Doors, we sell between Ireland and the UK, we're about 40,000 doors a month, is what we're selling. So the numbers are huge. We employ in Ireland, about 70 people, in the UK, 80 people. So it's a big business. Multimillion business.
Ronan O'Brien (49:44):
Yeah, 650 people. I mean, I just wrap your head around that. It's the fact that people that maybe were the C students or the D students are, in reality, the one that then go and hire the A students and the B students. And I suppose it's a nice way to finish up the conversation here, to think that that is something that someone really needs to think about. When you're in the class and you're teaching all the students, if you're a teacher, or if you're a parent saying, "Oh no, my child's got this thing that might hold them back." In reality, the teachers should be thinking, "Well, hang on, this person's going to set 650 families and provide their income and their wage. And we need to make sure that we give our lecture or class in a way that those that consume data and regurgitate learn." But also from a holistic kind of, here's the whole view and here's a different angle on it so that everybody learns and takes it away.
Because at the end of the day, maybe it's the C students and the D students on academic papers that are the ones statistically more likely to become entrepreneurs. Of the ones that become entrepreneurs, statistically far more likely to succeed to a very large scale business, like we all have. And yeah, I think if the word got out there a bit more, I really wish it would, people would take a double take and say, "Wow, this is definitely something we need to encourage, to enable." And if you have the fortunate circumstances of being the dyslexic to put on the CV, to put on your LinkedIn profile, Martin, as you said, I'm going to add that straight after this meeting. So I think that's super. Has anyone got any little closing remarks before we finish up?
Joanna Gardiner (51:31):
Yeah, just to add to that, this neurodiversity and increasing acceptance, and I think the stat you used was 75% of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year alumni identified with dyslexia. That's the kind of information that should be getting out there, if possible, that will change the way we think around dyslexic children. And you use that word disability, but they put that on the paper. When they give you a diagnosis, they say that word. And it's a tough one. And I remember hiding it from my son because, of course, he isn't the most wonderful young man. Imagine that that's what they put on the page. To think we've gone from that to dyslexic thinking as a valuable asset is, I think, the most important thing. Even that we're all talking about this and increasing acceptance of dyslexic talents and gifts is, well, I think we'll have cases where parents will be hoping to have a dyslexic-thinking child. I think that would be the ultimate way to be and really encouraged by the conversation. And I'm going to try and do more in my own workplace actually. So, thank you.
Colin Culliton (52:57):
And actually, Joanna, it's a very good point. I think, I could be wrong, but I think I had to do a test once a year to show what my reading age was, my writing age was, and my maths age was in some place in town. And they used to call it how many years behind you were, I think they used to call it the retarded, how many years retarded you were in reading and writing. And I wasn't a very sensitive kid, but I was a kid and that was a hugely troubling thing for me to have to read. And I just think all of those things need to improve now because the truth is, you're right, Ronan, there's an awful lot of C students who have A students working for them. And I'm sure there's a lot of A students with C students working for them.
I think people need to realize that diversity is not just a word, it's something that we all need. And I think branding kids with names and titles can be very damaging to their self-esteem. And I was lucky, I was a cocky kid, but there was plenty around me who weren't. And I know there was people that were hiding dyslexia all through their lives. And I see it in the way that they're handling themselves. As an employer, I see it as well. And I think it's a shame because, at some stage, people will realize, "Do you know what? We're all different and that's the way it should be."
Ronan O'Brien (54:13):
You made me laugh there when you mentioned the retarded scale. I was talking to, or I was watching a lecture from a public speaker, happened to be dyslexic. I mentioned that his spelling was so bad that on the signature he had "Best retard" as his best regards. So he dropped the S and the G and for six months everyone thought it was some sort of sick joke and inappropriate. And he had no idea until someone said how offended they were. And he went back and realized that for six months he'd been saying "Best retard" on his name, which is hilarious. It's highly offensive. I get that. But I also saw the humor in it. Sorry Martin, go on.
Martin McKay (54:57):
Kate Griggs, who runs the charity, the Made by Dyslexia charity, her signature line says, "I'm dyslexic, expect small spelling errors and big thinking."
Colin Culliton (55:09):
Excellent. Well said.
Ronan O'Brien (55:11):
Well listen, that's fantastic. Thank you for all the listeners who've joined us today on the Texthelp podcast series. We'll be hopefully on YouTube, as well as all your usual podcasting platforms. But if you can drop a review or comments and let us know. And if you've got specific questions, throw them into the comments there. I'd like to do this again, maybe with the same group, maybe with some others, but maybe raising some new questions. So if you can, raise the questions, get in touch with Texthelp and ask, and hopefully we'll have another chat like this again cause it's been a lot of fun.
Meet the panellists
Owner, Zatori Results Ltd
Ronan is a self-confessed serial Entrepreneur. He is the owner of Zatori Results Ltd which operates multiple businesses including www.TheCostumeShop.ie, www.BuyTrophies.ie and www.TheMobiiltyShop.ie. Ronan also owns Martek Ltd which is a Marine Engineering business. Ronan specializes in conversion optimization and digital customer acquisition strategies.
With past experience as a radio DJ, Ronan acts as our MC for the panel discussion. Having dyslexia himself, Ronan offers expert commentary on his own experiences from education through to the workplace.
CEO, LWA Group
Colin is the CEO of Marketing Communications company, The LWA Group. He started his business, then known as The Printed Image or TPI, when he was 25 years old. Colin is a passionate entrepreneur who was chosen as a EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Finalist in 2016. The LWA Group, which was a Deloitte Best Managed business for 11 years, had its roots first planted when it started as a small printing firm located in Finglas the northside of Dublin in Ireland. The LWA Group is now a four company creative collective, focused on helping clients achieve great things in the area of Marketing Brand and Communications.
Colin’s aim now is to grow LWA Group by adding a number of innovative Marketing Comms businesses in Ireland and the UK to the people first businesses currently making up The LWA Group.
Founder and CEO at Texthelp
Martin founded Texthelp in 1996 to help people with communication difficulties. What started as a company focused on people with profound Speech and Dexterity Disabilities has become a world leading Assistive Technology company creating smart, inclusive software that helps people read, write, express their thoughts and share information more accurately & fluently – across all stages of life. His goal is to make sure that by 2030 Texthelp will have advanced the literacy and understanding of one billion people.
Martin has spent his work life developing technology for people with disabilities. In 2017, he received the Presidential Award in recognition of lifetime contribution to dyslexia and literacy from the International Dyslexia Association. Martin is a EY Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist 2022.
CEO, ELAVE skincare by Gardiner Family Apothecary
Grand-daughter of the founder of the first Irish skincare apothecary, Joanna continues that tradition today with sensitive skin care brand ELAVE skincare. The multi-award-winning ELAVE Skincare is developed and manufactured in the integrated Pharma GMP manufacturing facility in Dundalk, Ireland which is licensed to produce skincare to world recognized medicinal and medical device standards.
ELAVE was awarded Best Sustainable Skincare 2022 and Best Cruelty Free Brand 2021 by Global Health & Pharma Awards and has multiple Green Parent Awards and Best Beauty and Lifestyle business with Guaranteed Irish Business Awards in 2022. Joanna is a past EY Entrepreneur Finalist and serves on the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Alumni Board since 2019.
Owner, Castle Leslie Estate
As the second youngest of six children, Sammy was never expected to take on the running of the Castle Leslie estate. In 1991, aged 24, she set about rescuing the estate before its sale to a foreign investor.
Today, the Estate is thriving. Held by the Castle Leslie Preservation Trust, she now leases the Estate and runs the hospitality business, Castle Leslie Estate, on the basis of a social enterprise, adding benefit to local communities, supporting local business, charities, and creating footfall and jobs. With CLE up and running, she’s been able to shift her focus and passion toward the promotion and preservation of other historic houses throughout Ireland. Sammy acts as a Trustee for Birr Castle and was a Founding Board Member of the Irish Heritage Trust.
Sammy is committed to trying to capture everyone’s story equally, recognizing the importance of all built structures, Ireland’s intangible heritage, exploring cultural diversity and protecting as much of the complex and fragile natural environment as possible.
Founder & CEO of Henley Stoves and Deanta Doors (ard-Ri Group)
Paul is the Founder and Director of the ard-Ri Group with over 30 years of experience in business development, sales, operations and manufacturing. He is also EY Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist 2020.
Ard Ri stands as a market leader in the homeware market, partnering with 1,200 retailers - all of which has been built up through hard work and determination. The Ard-Ri group consists of market leading homeware brands such as Deanta Doors, Henley Stoves and Fitzgibbon Interiors. The ard-Ri group has over 700 employees driving a global operation spread across Ireland, China and the UK.