Diverse minds: lessons from a neurodivergent founder

Tech Talent Charter works with companies of all sizes, sectors, and origins. Alicia Teagle is the Co-Founder of SR2, Socially Responsible Recruitment and she is passionate about making recruitment more inclusive. As a neurodivergent founder with over a decade of experience in tech, she knows first-hand why this is so important and what to do about it. Here's what she had to say about her journey.

Alicia, please introduce yourself!

Hello, I’m Alicia. Co-founder of SR2, Socially Responsible Recruitment. Also, the Founder of Technology Volunteers and Women Rock. I started and continue to organise Bristol Codebar (a free programming workshop to help underrepresented folk get into tech) I’m an advisor, NED, and a proud female investor. I have been in Tech for now 11 years, I’m one of the biggest cheerleaders in our industry to promote diverse talent. I am hugely passionate about philanthropy and as a business we gift 5% of our company profits to underfunded charities and groups in our local communities, donating just over £260,000 in 6 years. And I am disabled, with rheumatoid arthritis and a special, unique brain – proudly ADHD and Dyslexic.

How has being neurodiverse affected your journey as a founder? 

I was diagnosed with Dyslexia when I was 12 and ADHD when I was 32 so I have had a lot of time to process that my mind was different from others, and to accept that being so is completely okay! I knew I had ADHD before my formal diagnosis, but getting the diagnosis helped me figure myself out (which is also okay to do in your mid-thirties!).

What are the challenges that neurodiverse individuals face when leading a business? 

Challenges may include communication difficulties and navigating social dynamics, discrimination, and stigma. I would like to highlight that it’s not a ‘one size fits all approach’. Every person on this planet is different, neurodiverse or not. Workplaces need to understand each individual personally to understand how best to support them. Assuming all neurodivergence is the same does more harm than good.

As a leader, I am in the spotlight every day whether I like it or not, and because of this, masking my traits is something I had to let go of quite quickly. I have to communicate daily, be present, and try to be organised. I also have to keep an eye on my impulsivity because every week I have a different business idea. It’s exhausting, and I have to be reined in. It’s also lonely being a leader at the best of times, so being a neurodiverse leader magnifies that loneliness even more. Three areas, in particular, can present challenges for people like me:

  • Networking – I love to meet new people but it’s usually the environment and the amount of people at some events and conferences that I struggle with.  

  • Communication – I have worked so hard on my communication over the past couple of years. Not reacting to situations, maybe stepping outside of sleeping on an issue before resolving it (when possible, of course) would be my biggest tip if you are an emotionally reactive person like I am/was.  

  • Social aspects of entrepreneurship – Having a personal brand in this day and age is a powerful thing but knowing you need to keep that up and ‘try’ and be your authentic self can be challenging.  

Although the neurotypical world creates challenges for people like me, I love and am so proud of my brain; without it SR2 wouldn’t have achieved what we have today. There is so much work being done by employers to highlight, but more importantly understand, the challenges neurodivergent people folk go through every day, and that's a great step in the right direction.

Tell us about the benefits your neurodiversity brings to your role as a founder and leader.

The benefits are endless! We have the ability to think differently, innovate, and bring fresh approaches to problem-solving. When you just say those 3 things you understand why the best entrepreneurs in the world are neurodiverse: Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Jo Malone, and more. The benefit of being openly neurodivergent is that I am free to let my creativity shine. We can excel in precision, analytical thinking, creativity, and innovation. Ultimately, we are wired differently for a reason and I believe that given the opportunity, we make incredible contributions.

What specific strategies and practices have you employed to successfully navigate being a neurodiverse founder in a neurotypical world? 

I lean on my strengths and am not afraid to seek support in areas of weakness. I’m proud of how much I have invested personally to find my triggers and I prepare and plan ahead if I know it’s an area where I may struggle, for example having difficult conversations. I used to be quite a reactive person but from listening and learning about myself I have worked hard to put practices in place to avoid sub-optimal reactions. We have also created an inclusive work culture at SR2 and use communication tools that accommodate diverse preferences. 

How has your neurodiversity shaped your approach to leadership and decision-making? 

I am very open about my dyslexia and ADHD which has created an open environment for my teams to bring their whole selves to work. I have adapted to unconventional solutions where needed and my leadership has and will always be allowing everyone to contribute to creative and innovative solutions.  

What do employers need to know in order to hire and retain neurodivergent employees?

Offer flexible work arrangements! I am an advocate of allowing folk to choose their work hours. While I understand this isn’t always possible and I do encourage core hours, it is scientifically proven that there are 'morning larks' and 'night owls'. As leaders we want our team working at their best whether that's between 12pm and 8pm or 8am to 4pm. There's no point forcing people to be at a desk at 8:30am if they don't work well until 10am - especially when that same person does their best work between 7pm and 9pm. (Read 'Why We Sleep' by Matt Walker to learn more about this). 

I’d also like employers to be thoughtful about managing hybrid office working. Some neurodivergent people thrive in the office environment and some don’t - it’s a sensitive topic. Hot desking and ‘find a space where you can’ can be a huge trigger to neurodivergent people. Not having the same seat, same desk and having to carry neurodivergence aids to and from an office disrupts the adjustments we need to be effective, safe and well. If we are required to come into the office we need as much notice as possible. Some people will require support to do this safely and to be secure knowing where they are going, at what time, where they will sit, and have the things they need around them to do their best work. 

Lastly, employers can provide training on neurodiversity, establish mentorship programs, have a variety of communication channels, offer flexibility in work arrangements, and create sensory-friendly workspaces. It is important to cultivate a culture of kindness and support. And as for useful workplace tools, I can't live without Grammarly!

Neurodivergent folks want to feel successful, settled and safe at work and changing jobs is the total opposite of that, so if we find a company that supports us and our needs, you bet we won’t go anywhere!  

Can you share any resources/tools for organisations?  

Unmasked by Ellie Middleton – I think everyone on the planet should listen or read this book. One tip from Ellie is to listen to audiobooks or podcasts on 1x5 speed – game changer! I am also a big fan of Headway for bite-sized reading and learning if I know my attention isn’t focused - it's been awesome to take in information in small bits. 

The Access to Work scheme is a brilliant resource for disabled people to be able to get coaching (and additional support). It isn’t the easiest thing to complete so employers need to understand the process to be able to support their staff to be given the scheme so they can then go on and invest in coaching and anything else it supports. And/or invest in coaching for their staff. There are so many awesome ADHD coaches now that can help people understand triggers and how to manage these at work (and outside), such as Devon Lowndes who runs Self Agency and is doing some awesome work with organisations.

This has been a guest blog for Tech Talent Charter by Alicia Teagle. For more resources on Neurodiversity, please visit the Tech Talent Charter's D&I Open Playbook.