Neil Barnfather spoke out as he joined some of the country’s most successful business people on shortlists for two awards at the inaugural Great British Entrepreneur Awards, which are backed by the prime minister, David Cameron.
He has been shortlisted for both the “serial entrepreneur of the year” and “most captivating entrepreneur of the year” awards, with the ceremony to take place in London on 19 November, during Global Entrepreneurship Week.
Barnfather has an impressive CV. He left home at 15 to work in London, and after a stint with Nokia set up his first business, a vending machine company, and found that he excelled at “giving customers what they wanted”.
Since then, he has started 18 more businesses, running profit-making companies in areas from “aviation to vending, from circuit boards to consumer services”, and was an international business ambassador for the British Chambers of Commerce for eight years.
He is currently chief executive of eHosting, a web hosting firm for about 140,000 businesses worldwide.
In his nomination for the awards, he says: “I’d not claim to have invented the wheel, nor been at the heart of some amazing revolution in terms of business modelling or concept, but I am uncannily good at observation; why something is selling, why it is not, what’s wrong with the processes involved and how they can be improved.”
And he adds: “My biggest wish is to show now that disabled people, such as myself, can be more than a welfare cheat or Paralympian, that I can be a contributor, an employer, someone of value and worthy of admiration.”
He told Disability News Service that he was “shocked and astonished” when he heard he had been shortlisted in two categories, particularly as disabled people do not usually feature in “the mainstream, big boy, top league” awards.
He was particularly pleased to be shortlisted after being told by Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou that he was “too successful” to be considered for the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs, the annual competition run in conjunction with Leonard Cheshire Disability.
Barnfather believes that the “segregation” most disabled young people face at school, even if they attend mainstream schools, makes it much harder for them to learn the social skills they need to thrive in the business world.
“We don’t have the inter-personal skills properly developed… and so the snowball never forms in the first place, and so it can never start rolling,” he says.
Any optimism a young disabled person might have when they leave school soon leaks away as “the real world suddenly and very rudely gives them a rather abrupt awakening call” and they realise the obstacles they will face in seeking to build a career.
Barnfather puts his own success down in part to learning from his father, also a successful businessman, and also visually-impaired.
But he also says that his impairment allows him not to be distracted by flow charts and powerpoint presentations.
“You’re not distracted by visual things. As a businessperson who is blind, you tend to take a much more holistic approach constantly.
“Disabled people are natural entrepreneurs because they are forever thinking outside the box and forever thinking of ways to get around things.”
There are things he cannot do as well as his sighted colleagues, such as networking and note-taking, and he believes he is immediately at a disadvantage when he enters a room of business people he doesn’t know.
“The other people in the room are debating whether they can take me seriously,” he says. “It’s not about me, it’s because they have never seen another disabled person doing it before. Being eccentric has allowed me to stick in people’s minds, in a good way.”
He believes that this eccentricity helps mark him out, as does his blindness.
“My charisma is the compensatory factor for the fact that they haven’t seen someone like me doing that job before.”
Barnfather struggles to point to any other really successful disabled entrepreneurs in the UK. “Frankly, I would suggest they don’t exist,” he says.
What he has that other would-be disabled entrepreneurs don’t possess, he says, are charisma, eccentricity and attitude. “I have never gone into anything thinking I am less than the other people in that environment. Generally… you have to think you are better than them.
“The only successful disabled business people I have come across are the ones who exhibit a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. They have got something about them.
“If you’re not disabled you don’t need it, because the other non-disabled people know you can achieve.”
He adds: “That would be my legacy dream. If I could somehow through winning this award and similar sorts of things make employers and those sorts of people think, ‘If he can run a multi-national business and be really successful at it, maybe when I get that application from a disabled person I should… consider them a little bit more seriously.’”
He adds: “Have I seen another disabled person doing what I do? The answer would be no.”
But he hopes his example will encourage other young disabled people – he is still only 31 years old – to become entrepreneurs, and to be successful.
His message to other aspiring entrepreneurs, then, is simple, yet seemingly hard to achieve. “My message,” he says, “is that developing your personality is very key to being able to achieve and being able to be successful.”
He also defended his decision – as a disabled person – to join the Conservatives last year, in the middle of the most brutal cuts and reforms to social security and support for disabled people since the birth of the welfare state.
“I believe the only way to bring about change is to be part of the change,” he says. “I am not in agreement with everything the Conservative party does, but I would hope to be able to question and challenge their policies and thinking.”
Despite the party’s attack on the equality agenda and support for segregated schools, he says he now wants to focus his efforts on campaigning for equality for disabled people.
Barnfather is hoping to use his business success and entrepreneurial skills to develop The One Eighth Foundation, a social enterprise that aims to work globally towards “genuine equality and social integration” for disabled people.
“We have disabled people being segregated in society, being treated differently and we need a revolution, which is what my foundation is all about,” he says.
He says there is a need for a disabled people’s movement. “We have had a black rights movement, we have had a feminist movement, we have had the gay rights movement, but we have never had one for disabled people.”
When he is told by Disability News Service that there already is a disabled people’s movement, and that it has been functioning for the last 40 years, he is shocked.
“I didn’t even know there was one,” he says. “If it did happen, I am not even aware it did and I have no idea of what it did for me. I genuinely didn’t even know we had it.
“I mention this a lot to the disability world… you’re the first person in a year-and-a-half of telling my dream to disabled people who has said, ‘But we already have a disabled people’s movement.’
“So I’m afraid if there has been a movement, the disabled community didn’t seem to know about it or didn’t acknowledge it as a serious movement.”
Barnfather also hit out at the “disability community” for failing to recognise his achievements.
In just one year as a member of the Conservative party, he says, he has met the prime minister three times, the former minister for disabled people Esther McVey four times, her predecessor Maria Miller twice, as well as work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, health secretary Jeremy Hunt and education secretary Michael Gove.
In contrast, he has never been approached to take part in conferences, events or discussions by any disability organisations.
“Serious power-houses in the government like what I say,” he says. “But as far as the disability community are concerned, I am a non-entity.
“The disability community is like a bucket of crabs. If one crab looks as though it is about to get out, the other crabs pull it back in.
“That’s why I thought we hadn’t had a disability movement, because we don’t know how to work together, to co-operate.
“We are all power maniacs because we don’t have any power in our own lives. That’s an incredibly sweeping statement, but I do feel there are truths in it.”
24 October 2013