Why Poor Students Make Great Entrepreneurs

Suzie Glassman

5 lessons dyslexics can teach us about success on your own terms


I wasn’t a poor student — far from it. I finished in the top three students in my MBA program while holding down a full-time job, running marathons, and dating. So when my daughter couldn’t learn basic sight words in Kindergarten, I didn’t understand. I found myself screaming at her to focus.

I thought she didn’t try hard enough. I wanted to tear my hair out when she struggled with grade-level reading in second grade. Chapter books were a nightmare in frustration.

Now, she’s nine and in third grade. Not much has changed, but after months of online learning and homeschooling, I finally realized something was wrong. She has dyslexia.

I won’t lie. My heart broke for her. My mind went to the darkest place — one where she doesn’t graduate from college and earns minimum wage her entire life. I wanted school to be easy for her — the way it was for me. I wanted her to be successful. So I did what I always do when I don’t know anything about a subject. I started reading and boy, was I wrong.

Some of the wealthiest and most successful business leaders in our history have/had dyslexia. They are entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Charles Schwab. They are authors like Vince Flynn, Agatha Christine, and Ann Rice. They are inventors like Thomas Edison.

Most of all — they were poor students who can teach us a lot about entrepreneurship and what really matters when it comes to creating wealth. I’ll first explain the connection between entrepreneurship and dyslexia and then cover five lessons we can learn from studying their unique style.

Entrepreneurs and Dyslexia

Dr. Julie Logan, professor of entrepreneurship at the Cass School of Business, conducted ground-breaking research on the surprising connection between dyslexia and entrepreneurship.

Dr. Logan found that in the U.S., 35 percent (out of 15 percent of the general population) of entrepreneurs have dyslexia. In the U.K., 20 percent (out of 4 percent of the general population) are dyslexic. The difference in general population numbers is because the U.S. puts dyslexia into a larger category of total learning disorders and the U.K doesn’t.

By comparison, only 1 percent of corporate managers report having dyslexia. Think of it this way. Corporate managers are the ones with straight A’s. They live to impress, are quick to follow rules, and take all the steps necessary to move up the ladder. They fit a mold that dyslexics mostly don’t.

Not sure what dyslexia is? Most people assume it’s where people write letters and numbers backward. That can be one component, but non-dyslexics do that too up until a certain age.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes defines dyslexia as:

“A brain-based type of learning disability that specifically impairs a person’s ability to read, further noting that people with the condition typically read at levels significantly lower than expected despite having normal intelligence.”

The hardest part for children (including the amazingly successful ones mentioned above) is that they are often bright enough to go undetected and never receive help, especially in early grades. School is a constant series of failures.

Yet, they grew up to be some of the most successful men and women on Earth. Maybe dyslexia isn’t a disability. Authors Brock Eide, M.D., M.A., and Fernette Eide, M.D., argue just the opposite in the Dyslexic Advantage.

They highlight five key components from Dr. Logan’s research that remain consistent among successful entrepreneurs with dyslexia. Here’s what non-dyslexics (including myself) can learn from these seemingly terrible students.

Remarkable Sense of Vision

“They’ve got a very clear idea of where they’re going and what they’re doing, and holding that end point in sight is a very powerful tool because it can be used to harness other people around that vision.” — Dr. Julie Logan

The doctors explain people with dyslexia have a set of strengths that are especially valuable for thinking about past or future states whose components are variable, incompletely known, or ambiguous, and for making practical, or “best-fit,” predictions or working hypotheses in settings where precise answers aren’t possible.

While our brains don’t work the same way, we can see how important having a clear vision statement can be. According to Harvard Business Review, the ability to visualize and articulate a possible future state for an organization or company has always been a vital component of successful leadership. Yet, many CEOs either skip this step or don’t remain true to their original vision.

Leaders like Al Neuharth (founder of USA Today) can and do shape the parameters for success through a vision for the future. And, just as important, they possess the ability to oversee that vision’s implementation.

Define your vision and stick to it.

Confident and Persistent Attitude

These individuals endured a school environment not meant for them. They learned failure and resilience from an early age.

Advising dyslexic children, Richard Branson wrote:

“I would bury my head in the sand and just try and get through to the next class, but this isn’t what you do in real life. You can’t ignore your problems, you have to face up to them, deal with them and move on. There is an answer to every problem.”

At some point, most dyslexics figure this lesson out. When given the right guidance, they develop a can-do attitude. They’ve seen themselves struggle to answer a problem, and eventually, get it right with patience and persistence.

Getting up time and again after failure is something people pay a lot of lip service to in business school. Most haven’t lived this reality since they were five-years-old.

According to Forbes, 90 percent of start-ups fail. Steve Jobs was fired by the company he helped found. Bill Gates’ first company was called Traf-O-data. Never heard of it? See my point? Keep going.

The Ability To Ask For Help

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It took starting a business for me to realise how important it is to ask for help. We all have different strengths and we should work together to bring these out in each other.” — Richard Branson

Dr. Logan’s data explicitly showed most dyslexic entrepreneurs employed significantly larger staffs than their non-dyslexic counterparts. She states they know what they’re not good at due to past failures in school and surround themselves with more capable and intelligent people.

One study found many entrepreneurs find it difficult to make the transition from complete control to delegating. This can hinder growth and lead to dissatisfaction among employees.

Take a cue from the Branson’s of the world and surround yourself with good help. Focus on your strengths and let others fill in where you are weak.

Excellent Oral Communication

People with dyslexia often develop amazing oral communication skills because they struggled with the written word early on.

“Those who can communicate well can inspire those around them to achieve a vision; they can network to build resources around an opportunity and motivate others to act; therefore, having enhanced communication skills would provide an entrepreneur or a manager with a definite business advantage.” — Dr. Julie Logan

Branson once saved Virgin Airlines from going on strike when British Airways couldn’t. He simply told them why he couldn't give them a pay raise, and everyone went back to work.

If speaking in public doesn’t come naturally to you, there are ways to improve, including quitting reliance on visual aids, listening more than you talk, and asking for honest feedback.

They Use Their Intuition

While Dr. Logan hasn’t proven this (yet) in her research, she repeatedly interviews entrepreneurs who use their intuition to make important decisions.

She describes one successful entrepreneur who said he never does market research. He can stand next to a store he’s thinking of purchasing and simply watch how consumers interact with what they see.

These entrepreneurs use a right-brain approach to making decisions instead of left-brain logical reasoning.

According to Inc. Magazine:

“Branson openly states, I rely far more on gut instinct than researching huge amounts of statistics. The venerable Steve Jobs was reportedly in the same category.”

Inc. says one way to build your ability to use intuition is to quiet your inner critic. Business professionals often feel they’re not good enough, or they’re going to make a mistake. When the voice in your head gets to be too much, separate yourself from it. Go for a walk, use humor, advocate for yourself, and talk back to it — ask it what it’s trying to protect you from.

Final Thoughts

Branson wrote an open letter to kids with dyslexia. In it, he states:

“Being different is your biggest asset and will help you succeed. My dyslexia has given me a massive advantage in life. It has helped me to think creatively and laterally, and to simplify things, which has been a huge asset when building our Virgin businesses.”

Whether you have dyslexia or not, we can use these lessons to engage in more right-brained thinking. The Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Richard Branson's of the world are simply here to show us the way.

Start using these lessons today:

  1. Have a vision for your venture, and stay true to it.
  2. Keep a confident and persistent attitude.
  3. Ask for help.
  4. Develop your oral communication skills.
  5. Use your intuition.

I no longer grieve the loss of my straight-A dream for my child. It was my dream — not hers, anyway. I have a feeling she’ll end up teaching me far more in the long run than I could ever teach her.

Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

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I write about health and fitness with the goal to help you live a healthier, happier life.

Denver, CO

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