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Neurodiversity in entrepreneurship coaching and mentoring – the what, the why and the how

In support of Neurodiversity Celebration Week in March 2024, the NCME held a panel discussion inviting Rob Edwards, CEO of the Neurodiversity & Entrepreneurship Association (NEA), and Sascha Evans, Founder of We the Creators and a neurodivergent entrepreneur, to better understand some of the key questions around neurodiversity in entrepreneurship coaching and mentoring. These included:

  •       What is neurodiversity?
  •       Why is neurodiversity important for coaching and mentoring entrepreneurs? 
  •       How can programme managers better support neurodiverse entrepreneurs through our practices? 

What is neurodiversity?

The term neurodiversity was coined by sociologist Judy Singer in the late 1990s to build on the term biodiversity, with the aim of capturing the diverse range through which all of our brains function. We all have a neurotype and therefore neurodiversity applies to everyone. 

The term ‘neurodivergency’ (or sometimes ‘neurominority’) applies to those that are ‘not’ neurotypical i.e., perceived not to have a ‘typical’ brain function. This can include conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourettes. Research shows around 1 in 5 people are neurodivergent (Doyle, 2020) and a significantly higher proportion in tech can identify as neurodivergent. The Tech Talent Charter (2024) finds this to be around 1 in 2, or 53% of tech workers. 

Why is neurodiversity important for coaching and mentoring entrepreneurs? 

In entrepreneurship, this is particularly important because neurodivergent entrepreneurs have spiky profiles. This means they perform very well in some areas and not so well in others. The NEA report (2023) describes a higher entrepreneurial alertness in neurodivergent individuals, and characteristics that are commonly associated with entrepreneurs such as creativity, pattern recognition, drive and perseverance. 

The Entrepreneurs Network report (2024) showed over two thirds of neurodivergent founders said their neurodivergence made them a better business person.

Therefore, neurodivergent entrepreneurs require the right support and nurturing to ensure they are provided with an equitable opportunity to realise their entrepreneurial potential.

How can programme managers better support neurodiverse entrepreneurs through our mentoring / coaching practices? 

Rob and Sascha both described best practices they have learned through their coaching / mentoring work. Rob shared his experience from the NEA’s Enterprise Mentoring programme and Sascha shared her experience from an Innovation Bootcamp run by We the Creators.

The best practices can be summarised into the different stages – selection and relationship – of a new, or existing entrepreneurship programme as shown in Figure 1. 

Figure 1. Summary of best practices to support neurodiversity in new or existing entrepreneurship programmes

At selection, a programme manager speaks with mentors or coaches to ensure their understanding of neurodiversity, and selects mentors or coaches who are neurodivergent and can act as role models. To find role models, we would suggest following the Neurodiversity & Entrepreneurship Association and We the Creators as a starting point (Rob and Sascha are happy to help!).

During the mentor / coach and entrepreneur relationship, this involves ensuring a 1:1 relationship, sharing stories of neurodivergent businesses with the entrepreneur that help form the basis of building a peer-to-peer community, and ensuring tailored support to each neurodivergent entrepreneur. For example, providing a few options for session times, aligning to their preference of accountability, or mode of participation to help information be processed in different ways e.g., face-to-face or online with a camera-off option. These can all be helpful measures to ensure the entrepreneurs feel supported. 

Rob also described some of the issues that he observed mentors facing such as having limited resources to refer to on how to be a good mentor for a neurodivergent entrepreneur. There was sometimes a fear of causing upset or offence by saying or doing the wrong thing, or using the wrong terminology. 

Next steps

The best practices identified are intended to provide a helpful starting point for entrepreneurship programme managers. For an existing programme, the best practices can be mapped against to see if any elements are missing, or can be adapted. Some mentoring programmes take place on a ‘2 mentors:1 startup ratio’ for example, which could be adapted if a founder is identified as neurodiverse. If designing a new programme, these practices can of course be taken into account at the start.

A suggestion during the meeting was also whether it was time to start entrepreneurship programmes that are specifically targeted to neurodivergent entrepreneurs, as for example we have seen in recent years, for women entrepreneurs. We’d love to know if you do – please keep us posted! 

Author: Professor Harveen Chugh, June 2024

References

  • Doyle, N. (2020). Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. British Medical Bulletin, vol. 135, pp. 108-125. 
  • Neurodiversity & Entrepreneurship Association (2023). Neurodiversity and Enterprise Education. How can we facilitate neurodivergent student success? Authors: Rob Edwards & Lorna Treanor. Available online.
  • Tech Talent Charter (2024). Diversity in Tech: An annual report tracking diversity in technology across the UK. Available online.
  • The Entrepreneurs Network (2024). Neurodiverse Founders. Author: Eamonn Ives. Available online.