Debra Charles, founder & CEO of Novacroft
“I spent the majority of my life thinking that I wasn't really good enough, and if you can help people get rid of that emotion, imagine what great things people can do.”
When Debra Charles was at school she was told that she would never be a leader due to her severe dyslexia. Years later however, she looks relaxed as we meet in the classroom of a north London secondary school, having long-banished the insecurities that plagued her “demoralising" time in education.
She says: “I was adopted as a child, struggled at school and felt quite isolated. From school I mainly remember lots of homework and really struggling to fit in. It was a long time, probably into my teens, before I was diagnosed with dyslexia. At the time it was quite frightening, because the word dyslexia sounded like it was something really terrible.
“I put a lot of effort into schoolwork. I think I became very insular, so I found it much easier to just be on my own and study. I studied subjects that others didn't want to do. I loved music and was good at it, art too. I think it was because nobody else wanted to do it and I thought, ‘Well, I like it and I can do well at it.’ It was scary being diagnosed with dyslexia because I felt like I was labelled and that it was a bad thing, particularly as I wasn't doing well at school, so it was another thing that made me sound like I was going to be even worse.”
Debra was regularly assessed for dyslexia because she was underperforming at school. "I always felt different. The fact I was adopted and being told I was thick made me feel alone. It wasn’t until I got older that I saw someone as inspirational as Richard Branson doing things differently and I thought, ‘Wow, he’s amazing.’
“Then, when I was 13 years old my mum introduced me to a lady who's an actress, quite a famous one. She has dyslexia, and I spent some time with her and she was great. I thought, ‘Well if she's got dyslexia, it must be okay.' That was a massive turning point."
Despite these challenges, Debra dreamt of running her own business. She was inspired by her entrepreneurial mother who showed and judged Labradors around the world.
However, a careers advisor told Debra that she would “never be a leader” as she didn’t fit the framework.
“I thought, 'How dare you say that to me? You don't know me.' It's probably something I would go back and thank that her for because little did she know that, she actually ignited a fire in me to be able to make a difference.'
After leaving school with no qualifications, Debra secured her first job as a retail manager, at the Lewis’s Group. Later, she applied for a job as a marketing coordinator at Westinghouse, where she climbed up the ranks to a senior position, overseeing the coordination of the firm’s business activities in Europe.
“Working in the field of technology and robotics made me realise that you can change the world. Then I went to work with Apple and I thought, 'how have I managed to get these jobs?’ When I look back now, I see it's because I put such a lot of effort into everything I did. I worked so hard, and I think that passion was in me to use technology and people.”
The death of her parents in 1998 was the catalyst for Debra to go it alone and set up her own business, and a year later she launched Novacroft, named after her mother's kennels. The company develops, implements and manages smartcard programmes for government departments, retailers, the Royal British Legion, and for Transport for London fare schemes such as Oyster.
She says: “There are so many amazing people in the world, and I spent the majority of my life thinking that I wasn't really good enough. If you can help people get rid of that emotion, imagine what great things people can do. For me, it was, ‘I have to. I've lost my parents.’ The fear of anything has disappeared, so I need to help others to be the best version of themselves and to not spend decades thinking that they’re not good enough. For me, it became a natural thing to be a leader.”
Debra used her part of her inheritance to fund the business, which she describes as a risky strategy. However, the risk paid off. In July 2010, Novacroft made a £1.2m profit, which she reinvested back into the business.
"I hope I don't die tomorrow, but if I did, I know I’ve achieved a lot. In the last two decades, the team members that have worked at Novacroft have flourished, and progressed into other roles at different companies and do great things, which is fantastic. To see somebody, even just one person, grow really makes me very happy. It's a great sense of achievement."
Debra is passionate about making a difference and set up the Entrepreneur's Allotment project in 2017 to support and nurture young entrepreneurs. “I reflected on my journey and part of my responsibility now is to leave a legacy and to help others. I set up the Entrepreneur's Allotment programme because I want to leave a legacy. I've done quite well so far with Novacroft and bringing team members together; making a difference in society, and helping people grow.
She also wants to encourage and motivate vulnerable and marginalised young people who are facing adversity to believe that anything is possible.
"For me, another big part of my journey is igniting Entrepreneur's Allotment and working with diversity and various other organisations to understand how I can really create a model that's going to help and inspire children to see the jobs that are available for them.”
Debra is quick to emphasise how artificial intelligence and robotics are disrupting every aspect of work, career opportunities and redefining productivity. However, she is fully aware of the negative stigma associated with having a learning disability and how it could affect the self-confidence of a successful business woman, let alone young dyslexics entering the job market. In 2016, Debra launched the #SayYesToDyslexia campaign to improve the perception of dyslexia.
"As an entrepreneur, overcoming the daily challenges of dyslexia is quite an interesting one really, because I don't think of it on a daily basis. It's one of those things where I'm more conscious of it when writing on a whiteboard or in terms of memory it can be quite interesting. For me, I do a lot of work to make sure I'm prepared for everything. I do a lot of mind mapping. I have huge pieces of paper, so when we're coming up with ideas, we use the paper to create the visual for it, and then it's really about being very mindful about what I'm writing."
So what would her advice be to budding entrepreneurs be? "Imagine yourself at a point in the future, like in five years time. Then imagine a particular time and day, maybe at exactly this moment, but in five years time. Who are you with? What are you doing? Who's not with you? What have you achieved when you look back? You're creating a real vision of what it is that you're doing and then work back in chunks of time, so a year at a time, looking at that vision in order to turn it into reality. When you get back to today, you turn that into a plan. If you can do that, you can get other people involved.
“Seek out people; join groups that you fit in with. People that you feel are going to help, because in terms of the loneliness of running a business, the bigger it gets, the more you're going to speak to people that are in the same boat. It's just people don't talk about it. Get advice. Seek advice. Don't take every piece of advice, but the more information you absorb, you find something out about it.
“Lastly, it's important to be kind to yourself, because if you're not looking after your wellbeing, then you can’t keep your passion burning. If you're not doing that, then you can't look after anybody else in terms of encouraging them or their wellbeing. Other people can help you really turn your visions into reality, and that's a really important part of business success.”
“When I think of the future, what else would I like to achieve? I want to see my son become a man and be happy. I want to see Novacroft and the team members go from strength to strength. I want to drive around Lake Como in Italy. I love a road trip. I just want to be happy, really. Get on my bike, do a bit of cycling, just do stuff where you're smelling the air, seeing the sun, and having a nice time.”
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