A Helicopter View

This year, Dyslexia Week gives us a chance to celebrate some amazing success stories. Debra Charles is one of the many entrepreneurs who have dyslexia. Her time at Newport Girls’ High School was not happy:  ‘People used to say, ‘For goodness’ sake, you’re so thick sometimes’, and I believed it.’ Nevertheless, she had the skills and determination that led to a successful career working with Westinghouse in robotics and with Apple technology.

She is now CEO of her own smartcard technology firm Novacroft. The big breakthrough came in 2002 when she won a contract with Transport for London.  Here her skills have made a tangible difference: ‘In the early days it would take a student 48 days to get a card to travel round London. We have reduced that to 24 hours.’

Professor Julie Logan at Cass Business School, City University London has published several studies showing that both in the USA and in the UK there is a much higher incidence of dyslexia in successful business owners than in the general population. She calls dyslexia an ‘unusual talent’ and Debra agrees: ‘ I know you can see dyslexia as some kind of disability.  However, it is a positive card to have as it enables you to do things differently.’

Professor Logan identified some key traits in dyslexic entrepreneurs.  She found that many believed that they were better at communication than their non-dyslexic counterparts. Debra finds that dyslexia gives her what she calls a ‘helicopter view.’ instead of being mired in minor details she can pick out the main features of a project and communicate these to others.  ‘It provides an opportunity to look out at what is happening and create a picture in my mind. If it’s important I can get others to share and add to that picture.’

Delegating and collaboration come more naturally to many with dyslexia, perhaps because they are more keenly aware of their own limitations and so appreciate the need for team work. Dyslexics seem to grow their companies more quickly than non-dyslexics, according to Logan, and this may be because they have a clear vision and are prepared to take risks.  Novacroft currently has around 270 team members and a turnover moving beyond £10m, but Debra takes pains to create a sense of belonging as their website testifies: ‘ We still have a family feel. And just like any other family we look out for each other, get the support we need to learn and grow.’

The company works with government departments, businesses and charities. They know budgets are tight and try to help government get more for less and to make life easier for their customers. In all their work, especially with charities, they aim to reduce admin costs, to provide digital facilities and to bring together stakeholders.

Debra has come a long way from her school days : ‘I found school difficult as there were loads of things they said I couldn’t do. It was only after leaving that I started to be inspired.’ Now, like many other successful entrepreneurs it seems that she has the ability to see the bigger picture, is tenacious in pursuing her goals and has a very creative take on what business needs to succeed.

Sal McKeown is a freelance journalist and author of; How to Help your Dyslexic and Dyspraxic Child, published by Crimson Books which has a Foreword by successful entrepreneur and former winner of the Apprentice Tom Pellereau.