Richard Branson and the dyslexia advantage


British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson leans out of the window of the drivers cab on board a Virgin Pendolino train at Lime Street Station in Liverpool, north-west England, on March 13, 2012. (PAUL ELLIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
November 7, 2012

At 16, Richard Branson embarked on his first business venture in publishing. Two years later, he set up an audio-record mail-order business, and then he founded Virgin Records, a chain of record stores that would later become one of the top six record companies in the world.

Today, Virgin Group consists of more than four hundred companies in 30 countries, according to Branson’s book, Like a Virgin: Secrets They Won’t Teach you at Business School. The book also describes him as “the only person in the world to have built eight billion-dollar companies from scratch in eight different countries.” He’s exploring the highest of highs (outer space) and the lowest of lows (the deepest crevices of the Earth) — all while folding social and environmental responsibility into his missions.

Your typical entrepreneur? Hardly. His secret to success? Dyslexia.

What many would consider a weakness, Branson has branded his “greatest strength.”

In the entrepreneurial world, he’s not alone: a 2007 survey of 139 business owners in the U.S. indicated that over one-third of respondents identified as dyslexic, meaning they endure a reading disability that makes it difficult for the brain to properly recognize and processes certain symbols. Reading and writing for these individuals — no matter how smart they are — is exceptionally difficult.

“Back when I was in school, few people understood dyslexia and what to do for it.” Branson explained in an e-mail exchange. “My teachers thought I was lazy and not very clever, and I got bored easily...thinking of all the things I could do once I left school. I couldn’t always follow what was going on. On one of my last days at school, the headmaster said I would either end up in prison or become a millionaire. That was quite a startling prediction, but in some respects he was right on both counts!”

That was decades ago. But today, living with dyslexia presents a variety of different challenges. People are increasingly tethered to devices such as smart phones, tablets, and laptops that keep us connected to friends, family and the world. Everything from textbooks to legal briefs exist digitally, which is why coding analyst Abelardo Gonzalez decided he needed to act in order to make technology more accessible for dyslexics.

Gonzalez is the man behind OpenDyslexic, an “open sourced font created to increase readability for readers with dyslexia.” OpenDyslexic works by adding “gravity” to letters, a trick to help keep the brain from rotating them around while also reinforcing the line of text.

When Gonzalez created the font in 2011, he found it strange that so few strides to help dyslexics better use technology had been made. “We have e-books, we have e-ink screens, we have computers — and we do a lot of reading on these devices. There is no good reason why we can’t have dyslexic-specific technology be better than it is right now. I wondered, ‘Why aren’t these typefaces part of e-readers?’”

As it turns out, Instapaper — the popular book-marking tool that allows individuals to save articles to “read later” on their devices — was wondering the same thing. In its Sept. update, Marco Arment, Instapaper’s creator, announced it would fold in Gonzalez’s font as a text option for its users.

“There are a lot of other things that can be used to help that aren’t even necessarily specific for dyslexics.” Gonzalez explained over a Skype conversation. “On the iPhone, you can triple-click the home button and it’ll invert the screen, which will make it easier to read. On a Mac, you can actually lower the contrast using the slider, which can help immensely.”

For Branson, though, managing dyslexia sans technology has worked to his advantage over the years. “From a young age, I learned to focus on the things I was good at and delegate to others what I was not good at. That’s how VIrgin is run. Fantastic people throughout the Virgin Group run our businesses, allowing me to think creatively and strategically. This isn’t a skill that comes easily to some, but when you’re dyslexic, you have to trust others to do tasks on your behalf. In some cases, that can involve reading and writing. You learn to let go.”

Letting go is one thing, but framing a disability as a business asset is another.

“When we launched a new company, I reviewed the ads and marketing materials and asked those presenting the campaign to read everything aloud to test the phrasing and concept. If I could grasp it quickly, then it passed with muster. We would get our message across only if it was understandable at first glance.”

And at first glance, the tools surfacing to help dyslexics navigate technology are looking pretty promising.

Schwartz is an Assistant Editor at WaPo Labs where she explores the intersection of media and technology. WaPo Labs is the digital team at the Washington Post Company focused on innovation and experimenting with emerging technologies. You can find her on Twitter at @emilykendall.

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