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‘My ADHD diagnosis led to new career supporting neurodiversity in business’

The Neurodiversity & Entrepreneurship Association was set up by Rob Edwards to celebrate and nurture self-employed businesses being led by neurodivergent people. The Association is a membership organisation that brings together conversations about neurodiversity and entrepreneurship, with academic researchers, business owners and support professionals as part of its network.

The NEA has already won a £25,000 grant to work with neurodivergent entrepreneurs from across West Yorkshire. The programme, funded by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority as part of its commitment to inclusive business, is supporting 20 business owners and those with early business ideas, over a nine-month period. All of the participants are working with dedicated coaches, mentors and trainers to develop their business ideas.

Rob himself is a neurodivergent entrepreneur, having received an ADHD diagnosis 18 months ago. He says: “All the way through the assessment process, I was still convinced that they would say I was just lazy and disorganised, and to pull myself together! When they didn’t and told me that I had ADHD, it made me re-evaluate so much about my time in school, in employment, and in running my own business.

“I’d grown up believing that I was bad at the detail of things, generally muddled and idle, and that it was down to luck when I completed projects. At the same time, I felt like I had a million ideas whizzing around my head and had to keep lots of plates spinning. By comparison, other people seemed very organised and focused. I spent a long time feeling stressed and unhappy as a result”.

ADHD is a condition that comes under the umbrella term of neurodiversity, used to describe people with conditions like autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia (DCD), dyscalculia, OCD, Tourette’s, dysgraphia, acquired neurodivergency and other neurological issues. According to the charity ADHD Aware, one in five people are thought to be neurodivergent and yet, Rob argues, much of the business support that is offered via council and corporate providers struggles to take into account the nuanced approach that can help maximise success for neurodivergent entrepreneurs and business owners.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Rob speaking at a conferenceRob speaking at a conference (Image: Rob Edwards)

“The data about neurodivergent entrepreneurship is limited. Whilst it is known that 13.3per cent of self-employed people in the UK are registered disabled, it is unclear what percentage of this group are neurodivergent.,” he says.

“With 4.2m people self-employed in the UK, according to Office of National Statistics data, neurodivergent entrepreneurs are currently forming a significant section of this whole and, whilst negotiating the challenges that come with being neurodivergent, are bringing valuable skills to their small businesses and the UK economy like creativity, lateral thinking, perseverance and determination”.

In 2014 Rob set up a conferences and marketing business with his wife Sally, and began to work with enterprise and entrepreneurship networks in the UK and overseas. Rob found that self-employment gave him the flexibility and headspace to carve out a better work-life balance; this became increasingly important as their son Jake, who is now 11, was diagnosed with autism in 2016.

“We went from not really knowing anything about autism to finding out as much as we could. After I then finished my MBA at Bradford University and was considering further study, I started to look at where entrepreneurship, autism and, more broadly, neurodiversity, came together. Although I could find great stories about neurodivergent entrepreneurs, there was no data and no dedicated place for people to come together to discuss what was working well, what wasn’t and what we were going to do about it. Like a lot of neurodivergent people, it quickly became a special obsession for me and led to the launch of the NEA”.

The NEA already has plans to set up similar programmes in Wales, Southampton, the North-East and India, supporting and showcasing neurodivergent entrepreneurs worldwide. Rob says there is a need to celebrate and nurture neurodivergent self-employment everywhere in the world: “Many of our members have had a very difficult time struggling to fit into a work environment that didn’t accommodate them. Setting up, and running, your own business is already a tough and lonely road to take. When some aspects of neurodivergency are included in the mix like feelings of overwhelm, rejection and anxiety, it can be even harder and that’s where we want to welcome people into the NEA to be part of a supportive and exciting group of fellow entrepreneurs.

“To be able to work with them, promote what they’re doing, support them if they need it, and connect them with other people who can help, is exciting. To be able to share their stories and see them grow as business owners is a privilege”.

* To find out more about the NEA and its work visit the Association website at nea.global