It’s Dyslexia Awareness Week. Hazel Davis meets Sheffield businesswoman (no, make that powerhouse) Samantha Nicholson, who discovered she had a reading age of eight when she was 16 and about to do her GCSEs. Sheesh.
Samantha Nicholson is founder of Nicholson and Co Accountancy. She also runs a networking group and the South Yorkshire Business Awards.
You were diagnosed with dyslexia at a late age. Did you not have any idea there was a problem?
The teachers used to say I wasn’t trying hard enough and I was thinking all the time, “But I am trying hard!” My friends would take the mickey out of me because I couldn’t use a dictionary properly – I’d do things like looking up philosophy in the F section. But I just thought that something wasn’t quite clicking.
Nonetheless, I was always in the top two or three sets for things and in some subjects, such as business studies, where the teaching style really suited me, I did fine. I definitely learned coping strategies though, like saying my handwriting was messy to avoid having to write things.
You still managed to leave with a clutch of decent exam results. How on earth did you do that?
In the last year of GCSEs the school provided me with a study buddy to help me revise. This really helped. I left with a D in English, a C in maths and science and a B in business studies. Then I went to college to do business studies. In my first year of college I was sent for a test and it revealed I had the reading age of an eight-year-old.
That must have been a bit of a shock…
Yeah. I decided there was no point in carrying on with college so I quit and got a job. The problem is that you have to tell them you’re dyslexic. I always did quite well in interviews until this point. In the end I decided not to reveal it and I got a job as a receptionist.
I was there for two years and I left as an insurance administrator. Then I wanted to be my own boss so I started making and selling jewellery and doing some accounts on the side. Then I started looking at accountancy qualifications.
…Which you passed with distinction.
Yes. I set up my bookkeeping business on the side in 2007. My business studies background meant I knew roughly what I was doing, if not all the time. So I plodded on.
What were the main barriers you found when you started?
The main way to find business back then was through networking. However, people never took me seriously because they thought I was too young, so I used to pretend that I was an employee in a family business. I am 30 now, with more than 100 clients, and I still get comments like this.
You recently attained your degree. How did that feel?
Great. At one point I was working part-time for a charity, running the business, redoing my maths and English GCSEs and studying for a degree. Oh and looking after my children.
OK, we’re exhausted just reading that.
It did teach me a lot about how much I can do!
Do you feel your early struggles have made you work harder?
Oh yes. But I was glad to have the diagnosis. It now makes me see why I find things hard. It’s also, oddly, made me able to see all sides of things and wonder about the struggles other people are having.
And your business is thriving.
I started with 15 clients. Now I have nearly 100 clients and two staff. It’s grown rapidly. My biggest clients have a turnover of £7m and my smallest £5k. It means no two days are the same as I am working with everyone from cafes to import/exporters.
We’re extremely eager to hear your advice to anyone who finds themselves in the position you were in.
Just go for it. It’s only you that will hold you back. I set a goal that I would have a degree by the age of 30. I did it. It took me six years but I did it. I tell my children they can do anything they put their mind to.
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Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".