By Eric Markowitz
More than a third of business owners may be dyslexic. But most reveal the reading disorder is a gift that aided their success.
Ted Turner, Henry Ford and Richard Branson. Dyslexia may have nurtured their street smarts and resilience.
A new film airing tonight on HBO2 examines the role of dyslexia in the lives of successful entrepreneurs and corporate leaders around the world. The film, Journey into Dyslexia, directed by Alan and Susan Raymond, presents several prominent dyslexic adults including Ben Foss, inventor of the Intel Reader; Steve Walker, New England Wood Pellet founder and CEO; and Carol Greider, Ph.D., a 2009 Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine.
They're in good company. Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, Ted Turner, and Cisco CEO John Chambers are all dyslexic. Even Henry Ford had the disorder.
"Are these people more visionary, can they see things differently?" asks Carl Schramm, CEO of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to advance entrepreneurship, who also appears in the film. "They come to the realization that society pronounces the number of skill sets that are necessary for success that they don't seem to have. And they go out and build the environment in which they will impact. That's sort of my working hypothesis to explain why all these entrepreneurs exist who have traits of dyslexia."
The correlation betweeen dyslexia and entrepreneurship has long been a subject of scientific inquiry. In 2004, the Cass Business School in London found that 20 percent of English entrepreneurs polled said they were dyslexic, while managers "reflected the UK national dyslexia incidence level of 4 percent." In the U.S., however, the results were even more persuasive: the same researchers behind the U.K. study found that 35 percent of American entrepreneurs surveyed identified themselves as dyslexic.
"The study also concluded that dyslexics were more likely than nondyslexics to delegate authority and to excel in oral communication and problem solving and were twice as likely to own two or more businesses," according to The New York Times, which first reported on the research back in 2007.
When Time magazine asked Richard Branson, the media mogul and founder of Virgin, whether his dyslexia hindered his businesses abilities, Branson had a pointedly candid response. "Strangely, I think my dyslexia has helped," he said. "When I launch a new company, I need to understand the advertising. If I can understand it, then I believe anybody can. Virgin speaks in normal language instead of using phrases that nobody understands, like 'financial-service industry.' "
Still, a 2010 Roper Poll showed that four out five Americans associate dyslexia with mental retardation even though it has nothing to do with intelligence or mental illness of any kind. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke defines dyslexia as "a brain-based type of learning disability that specifically impairs a person's ability to read." The institute notes that people with the condition "typically read at levels significantly lower than expected despite having normal intelligence."
Some academics attribute dyslexia's correlation with entrepreneurship to the fact that the disorder required them from a young age to rely on intuition and social cues. "There are many positive attributes that can't be taught that people are generally not aware of," Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a professor of learning development at Yale University, told BusinessWeek in 2007. "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."
Having a disability like dyslexia, however, forces one to develop street smarts as well as how to handle hardship and failure—solid preparation for life as an entrepreneur.
"Many of the coping skills dyslexics learn in their formative years become best practices for the successful entrepreneur," BusinessWeek noted. "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."
Eric Markowitz reports on start-ups, entrepreneurs, and issues that affect small businesses. Previously, he worked at Vanity Fair. He lives in New York City.