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Richard Branson was a billionaire and 50 years old when one of his Virgin Group directors sensitively ushered him out of a boardroom and drew a picture to demonstrate the difference between net profits and gross turnover.
“He had a sheet of paper that he had already coloured in blue and he drew a fishing net in a blue sea with fish in the net,” Branson tells me in an interview.
“He told me: ’I don’t think you know the difference between net and gross profits’.
I had to admit that I didn’t, so he said: ‘Well, the fish in the net are your profit and the rest is your turnover.
“Of course, I thought it was the other way around and that we were much wealthier than we were. But I now name-drop net profits and gross turnover to everyone I come across in business.”
The point of the story is that Branson describes himself as “badly dyslexic”. However, he adds: “It doesn’t matter a damn if you want to be an entrepreneur. It helps if you can add and subtract but that’s about all you need to know.
“What matters is how you deal with people and whether you can create businesses that are really customer-focused and a step ahead of the competition.
“If you can create something that really makes a difference to peoples’ lives, more money will come in than goes out and you will survive.”
Made By Dyslexia
Branson, who built his first fortune at Virgin Records before becoming equally well-known for his dare-devil round-the-world ballooning and founding Virgin Atlantic, rail operator Virgin Trains
and financial services group Virgin Money, believes that dyslexia played a huge role in his business success after leaving Stowe School at the age of 15.
“I was hopeless at schoolwork and people didn’t really understand dyslexia then so it was just assumed that I was not bright when it came to academic things,” he says.
“I almost definitely wouldn’t have left school at 15 and I wouldn’t have started a magazine or built Virgin if I had not been dyslexic.
“I suspect I would have ended up having a much more conventional life. My father was a barrister and my grandfather was a judge.
“They expected me to follow suit, but because I was dyslexic there was no way I thought I could do that. That turned out to be a big advantage.
“Because I was dyslexic I became a really good delegator. I would find wonderful people to help me edit the magazine, help me do interviews and count up the figures.”
Branson is supporting “Made by Dyslexia,” a global charity with has a mission of helping the world understand the value of dyslexia and ensure that all dyslexics are identified and supported.
“I think dyslexia helped me on the creative side with simplifying things,” he says. “When Virgin advertises, for example, we would not use jargon or things that people didn’t understand.
“I think it has influenced the way I talk to people and communicate in articles. I keep things simple. That helped build the Virgin brand and people identified with it much more as a result.”
The Value Of Dyslexia
The Value of Dyslexia, a report published last year by Made by Dyslexia with consultants EY, argues that dyslexic individuals are by their very nature “hard-wired” to fill a gap in organizations for creative, different thinkers who can make sense of the rapid change and disruption in today’s world.
Branson agrees. “I think dyslexia definitely made a difference for me, though all dyslexics are not identical.
“I will try things that are seemingly impossible and then try to make that impossibility possible. That may come from my dyslexia.”
One example he cites dates back to the early days of Virgin Atlantic when it tried to borrow $10m to install seat-back videos in its aircraft.
Branson couldn’t persuade a bank to lend the sum but was determined to get the screens installed before rival British Airways.
“One day, I just suddenly thought: ‘Screw it, let’s do it’ and rang up Boeing,” he says. “I said: ‘If we buy 50 brand new 747s, will you put seat-back video in with them?’ and they said yes.
“So we ended up borrowing $2.5bn in order to get $10m for seat-back videos. I think maybe you need to have a little cheek, which I think comes with being dyslexic because you do things slightly out of the normal.”
A Positive Trait
Research by Made by Dyslexia and YouGov last year showed only four per cent of people viewing dyslexia as a positive trait and only 19 per cent believing it enables creativity.
Branson helped launch the world’s first dyslexic sperm bank last year, filling a gap as the London Sperm Bank did not at that time accept dyslexic donors.
Does dyslexia still affect him today? “I would say that over time to a very large extent I have educated myself out of most of the drawbacks,” he says.
There are still what his staff call “Richard moments,” however. “When I was trying to fly around the world in a balloon, whether it was my dyslexia or something else, there was a lever that separated the balloon from the capsule for when I landed,” he recalls.
“They put a massive sign on it saying: ‘Richard, don’t touch.’ On another occasion, I skydived and pulled the cord that got rid of the parachute, rather than the cord that opened the parachute.
“Whether that’s dyslexia I don’t know, but there’s definitely a side to me that I don’t completely trust in situations like that.”
Made by Dyslexia has received support from dyslexics including Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Darcey Bussell and Soho House founder Nick Jones.
Founder and chief executive Kate Griggs says: “There’s a huge advantage around dyslexic thinking that the world isn’t really aware of because it just focuses on the difficulties.
“However, communicating is a really strong dyslexic skill. Dyslexics have an amazing ability to take a lot of information, simplify it and communicate it.
“They’re able to see the big picture, looking across different areas and seeing things that others can’t. And they’re really good with people.
“The British intelligence and security organization GCHQ actively employs dyslexic people because of the way they think and their ability to connect in a way others cannot.
“We need to change how the world perceives dyslexia so that it really understands it properly and dyslexics are nurtured and encouraged to focus on their strengths.”
March 7, 2019 at 02:06PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs