Some of the most famous and successful entrepreneurs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been individuals who consider themselves within one or more neuroidentity group.
It’s striking to see how many such business icons are ‘neurodivergent’ – and to see how these businesspeople have embraced and leveraged their unique thinking styles for business success.
What is neurodiversity?
The term neurodiversity refers to the natural diversity of human brain wiring. Everybody processes information differently – there is no one ‘standard’ brain.
However, some thinking styles and traits are more common than others. This can lead to behavioral and cultural norms that can disadvantage people whose styles and traits fall outside of those norms. It’s increasingly recognized that people in neuroidentity groups such as autistic people, dyslexic people, and ADHDers bring significant strengths but can be particularly disadvantaged in this way.
Why is recognizing neurodivergence important?
Not only can neurodivergent people perform as well as neurotypicals – they bring significant and valuable attributes to the workplace, from creative thinking to bottom-up problem solving, and a different perspective that can drive the critical ‘diversity of thought’ behind high performing organizations.
Here are six examples of neurodivergent business leaders who have made it to the very top:
Daymond John, FUBU Founder
Daymond John founded apparel and footwear brand FUBU in the 1990s – he is now thought to be worth over $250 million.
John has been vocal in insisting his dyslexia was much more of a help than a hindrance in his rise to such extraordinary business success, describing himself as being “blessed with dyslexia”. Although he struggled at school with tasks involving reading and writing, he found his highly visual brain was a formidable asset in visualising strategy and business plans.
He also naturally ‘dreamed big’ – another significant advantage for an entrepreneur. In an article by the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, John says, “My mother always said, ‘It takes the same energy to think small as it does to think big… So dream big and think bigger.”
Richard Branson, Virgin Airline Founder
Virgin billionaire Richard Branson – perhaps the business icon of our times – created a multi-billion dollar empire across industries such as music, media, and travel.
Like Daymond John, Branson – who has ADHD and dyslexia – has credited these conditions with his business success, saying on his own website of his dyslexia ‘“I see my condition as a gift, not a disability. It has helped me learn the art of delegation, focus my skills, and work with incredible people.”
The founder of the eponymous investment services provider is also dyslexic, although he was not aware of this until he reached the age of forty. He has been clear both on how dyslexia has been a challenge – “if you gave me a book on some subject that I’m not familiar with, it would take me twice as long to read it as anybody else” – but also a strength, noting like Daymond John that it has given him “better visualization capability and conceptual vision” (interview with Steven Moore, The Wall Street Journal (July 28, 2007).
Barbara Corcoran, Founder of the Corcoran Group, Shark Tank Investor
Barbara Corcoran, like others on this list, faced challenges at school: in her case, her grades suffered due to challenges related to dyslexia. After school she turned a $1,000 loan from a boyfriend into a $5 billion dollar real estate empire, leveraging many of her dyslexic traits. “It made me more creative, more social and more competitive,” she told Entrepreneur magazine.
Her formative experiences in an unsympathetic education system left their mark, however. “I feel like my whole life I’ve been insecure about looking not smart,” she continued in the same interview. “So I feel like everything I do is a constant attempt to prove to whoever’s around me that I can measure up. I’m also proving to myself that I’m always running around with insecurity.”
Now, as a Shark Tank investor and highly respected businesswoman, Corcoran is an inspirational example of how someone who faced challenges in education can both overcome these challenges AND outperform their peers. As she says in an article for Entrepreneur: “The kids that are so good at school, that don’t have to fight for it, very often they don’t do as well in life and business because they’re not flexible. There’s no system dictated to them out there like it is in school and they certainly tend not to make good entrepreneurs.”
Ingvar Kamprad, Founder of IKEA
Ingvar Kamprad was a Swedish business magnate and the founder of IKEA, whose first entrepreneurial endeavour was selling matches to neighbours from his bicycle as a young boy. He founded IKEA as a mostly mail-order retail business in 1943, selling a variety of homeware products – the first IKEA furniture was created and sold 5 years later, in 1948.
Kamprad was both dyslexic and an ADHDer – it was his difficulties remembering product codes that led to IKEA’s famously creative furniture names (chairs and desks have men’s names, garden furniture uses names of Swedish islands, and so on…) This ended up being one of the defining aspects of the ultra-successful brand.
Kamprad was also a great example of the positive ADHDer traits of high energy, drive, and creativity.
David Neeleman, Founder of JetBlue
ADHDer Neeleman founded JetBlue airlines, and is now CEO of Azul. A posterboy of ADHD entrepreneurship, Neeleman was the principal subject of an influential Forbes article entitled, ‘ADHD: The Entrepreneur’s Superpower’.
Neeleman has clearly articulated the benefits being an ADHER has given him in his highly successful business journey, telling ADDitude Magazine “I can distill complicated facts and come up with simple solutions. I can look out on an industry with all kinds of problems and say, ‘How can I do this better?’ My ADD brain naturally searches for better ways of doing things.”
Given the advantages he has benefitted from, it’s no surprise to see Neeleman reach the following striking conclusion: ‘“If someone told me you could be normal or you could continue to have your ADD (the original name for what is now called ADHD), I would take ADD”.
Would the next Richard Branson or Barbara Corcoran be comfortable going through your hiring process?
It’s remarkable not just that so many of the very top business people of our time have been neurodivergent, but that many of them actively credit these differences as integral to their success.
But while smart organizations are taking active steps to better attract and retain talent that thinks differently, many organizations that would benefit from greater diversity of thought’ continue to overlook and even unintentionally exclude these talent pools.
Curious if neurodiversity training is right for your company? Download Uptimize’s E-Book for details on Neurodivergence in the workplace.