Disability and entrepreneurship

Running any business presents challenges. But how much bigger are they when you live with a disability? And can overcoming them make you a stronger leader?
Published —
15.11.17
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THIS year’s Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs has been won by a south London developer who created a video diary app allowing people to manage their mental health.

Hannah Chamberlain won £30,000 after pitching MentalSnapp to a judging panel including easyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, whose foundation presents the annual prize.

“For far too long mental health issues, which are a form of disability, have been virtually ignored and swept under the carpet,” said Haji-Ioannou. “Using an app is a very modern, high-tech way to deal with a very old but very topical problem.”

Neil Heslop, chief executive of the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity, which co-organises the award, added: “MentalSnapp is an exceptional example of innovation from a disabled entrepreneur in the UK.”

Sir Stelios presents Hannah Chamberlain with the winnings

Some 72 applicants entered this year’s award, with Chamberlain judged the winner from a shortlist of five finalists who were each awarded £10,000.

She plans to plough her prize money into a new version of the app, which is due for launch in January.

“I am overjoyed. We’ll take this money and use it for good,” she said.

“We’ve got plans for intelligent responses to the videos, tailored to what our users want, all designed to help people actively and confidently manage their mental health with private video diaries.”

The Tribune caught up with each of the finalists to hear about their business journeys.

Hannah Chamberlain, 44, MentalSnapp

Chamberlain unwittingly took her first step towards app development two decades ago, when she discovered that recording her feelings helped her deal with bipolar disorder.

A freelance film-maker, she worked on projects such as the British Library’s oral history archive and the charity Mind’s Time to Change campaign.

And it was while filming an interviewee that she felt she could help others manage their mental health.

“It was clear that she found the process of telling her story on film incredibly validating, and much more so than using a paper diary,” Chamberlain says.

So in 2015, after spending two decades working on mental health-related films, she set up MentalSnapp.

“I wanted to make something so that more people could experience that.”

After a year and a half of user research, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, her company launched the app with a freemium model in January with investment from Bethnal Green Ventures.

It allows people to record confidential video diaries, rate their mood and name their feelings, so that they can review their mental health over time, better understand what affects it and deal with their emotions more effectively, says Chamberlain.

Chamberlain was hospitalised three times in her 20s and hopes that empowering people to manage their conditions will lead to fewer others finding themselves in emergency care.

“I’m always going to be a mental health entrepreneur and I’ve decided to use my personal experience as expertise,” she says.

Chamberlain believes recent years have seen attitudes change in terms of the stigma associated with mental illness. When pregnant with her son seven years ago, she found people to be particularly understanding.

“The real turning point for me was getting over my own self-stigma. Getting over that has opened huge doors for me because I’m not ashamed,” she adds.

James Brown, 53, Mobiloo

Brown has first-hand of inspirational events. As a visually impaired cyclist, he claimed Paralympic bronze for Ireland in the tandem road race at London’s 2012 Games.

But his job managing local government activity schemes for disabled children made him realise how many with severe disabilities were excluded from life experiences.

“A bunch of kids couldn’t take part in our residentials because of a lack of accessible toilets,” he says.

So two years ago he set up Mobiloo to provide mobile facilities, complete with hoists, adult-sized changing benches and maintenance attendants. Its seven vehicles serve public events, such as concerts and sports matches, but can also be booked privately.

“We do lots of events like sailing, where we drive the Mobiloo down and kids can get changed and dried,” says Brown.

Without Mobiloos, says Brown, the alternatives for the UK’s 250,000 people who need more than a standard accessible toilet are to risk injury or infection by getting changed on a toilet floor, or to stay at home.

The company is committed to keeping costs down and reinvesting income to improve facilities, and is in the process of registering as a charity to open more funding streams.

Brown says he’s well supported by a Department for Work and Pensions-funded support worker who acts as his “eyes”.

But there have still been plenty of challenges through his entrepreneurial journey.

“I was told by someone I knew on an interview panel that I didn’t get a job because I was visually impaired and that they hadn’t asked me about it because they thought they couldn’t,” he said.

Unable to drive, Brown once spent between five and seven hours on public transport each day for a year, just to travel 35 miles from home to Bristol and back.

Now, however, he says he’s at the helm of a company with huge potential. Having already fielded enquiries from the US, he says the publicity afforded by the Stelios Award competition could help the company grow even faster.

Jane Hatton, 57, Evenbreak

In 2011, Hatton founded job board Evenbreak to connect companies actively looking to recruit disabled staff with jobseekers who felt their applications weren’t being taken seriously on other sites.

Hatton’s background is as a consultant, advising employers on equality and diversity. In 2004, an historic injury sustained in a riding accident started causing lower back problems. Spinal surgery proved unsuccessful, before an experimental procedure worsened her condition and she was no longer able to sit without pain.

“I was in my 40s when I became disabled and thought ‘this is up close and personal now, I need to do something about it’,” says Hatton.

Government funding provided a driver to transport her from the Midlands to meetings in London.

Jane Hatton

But she says: “I’d spend hours lying in the car watching streetlights whizz by – not a nice way to travel – then stand up for meetings. It would take me two days to overcome the pain of one meeting.”

Moving to London meant she could stand on public transport and attend networking meetings that would previously have proven unjustifiably costly. At home, she works lying down using a raised computer.

“I run Evenbreak as a social enterprise, rather than a charity, because I don’t want disabled people to be seen as charity cases. But it means angels and investors aren’t interested,” she says.

Nevertheless, Evenbreak became profitable by year four and employs four disabled staff who work flexibly from home. Hatton now hopes to expand via social franchises abroad and to help employers realise the value of disabled employees.

“There are lots of business reasons to employ disabled people. Often we don’t run away at the first sign of problems because we have to deal with challenges and think creatively about them every day. On average, they also take far less time off sick than the average employee and have fewer workplace accidents.”

Dominic Lund-Conlon, 35, Review My Wheelchair

Lund-Conlon spotted a gap in the market for a quality wheelchair review website six years ago when buying his own chair.

“There are 1.2m wheelchair users in the UK and there was no review resource that was up-to-date, that had pictures or video and that told people what they wanted to know,” he says.

He documented what proved to be emotional process through a personal blog but afterwards – being a busy father-of-three – got on with life.

Last year, while attending the disability trade convention Naidex, Essex-based Lund-Conlon realised there was still no resource and had a “now or never” moment when he decided to set up Review My Wheelchair.

As a director of smart ticketing standards body ITSO, and with years as a public sector transport manager under his belt, Lund-Conlon had plenty of communications experience.

But his efforts did not initially meet universal industry approval.

“One manufacturer asked why I wanted to review a chair and told me ‘we are the experts’. But I have 35 years’ life experience as a disabled person, that’s what give the reviews credibility,” he says.

Ten months on and Lund-Conlon, whose congenital myasthenic syndrome causes muscle weakness, says the site’s cachet attracts a more collaborative approach from companies keen to learn where they can improve.

The site includes images and videos showing how products stow in cars, or handle kerbs and rougher terrain, and allows readers to leave their own ratings.

The Stelios Award prize money will enable Lund-Conlon to upgrade the laptop he uses to produce the site, as well as tying up various legal and administrative loose ends.

Next on the agenda will be expanding the reviewing community.

“I’d like it to be the single resource not just for wheelchair users but occupational therapy professionals but it’s important to ensure consistency and quality to maintain credibility,” he adds.

Katherine Fortnum, 27, Katherine Fortnum Ceramics

Fortnum runs a business of two halves.

When not creating ceramic sculptures, ornaments, homewares and jewellery inspired by the natural world, she’s teaching workshops in her Market Harborough studio, Leicestershire.

But until she was announced as one of this year’s Stelios Awards finalists, few outside her family knew she produced her intricate works while living with a disability that means she has little feeling in her left side.

After a heart operation aged 13, Fortnum overcame a series of health difficulties – including a stroke and brain haemorrhage – to graduate in design crafts at De Montford University. She started Katherine Fortnum Ceramics in 2014.

“It’s all about adapting and changing, treating challenges as new opportunities. I build all my ceramics one-handed,” she says.

She can’t lift heavy objects or drive, and her brain injury might cause her to abandon a half-finished project after days of work.

“It can be heartbreaking,” she says. “But if I’m not having a good day, instead of creating ceramics I might work on my website or social media.”

Fortnum did not openly talk about her disability for fear of being stigmatised.

“I wanted people to look at my work and think ‘she’s done well’, not ‘she’s done well considering…’,” she says.

Her struggles have made her a more resilient businessperson, she says, and helped her build an understanding with clients who might have joined a workshop for therapeutic reasons.

As a Stelios Award finalist, Fortnum is embracing the fact her achievements have come in the face of challenges. The prize will help enhance her marketing and increase her profile.

“I’m pushing my limits and creating detail in a way I have never explored before. I’d love to get my sculptural pieces in art galleries in London and sell my work in Selfridge’s or Fortnum and Mason.”

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