Emma Lawton is the co-founder of More Human, a startup to help community leaders scale their communities. Emma has pink hair and one of the most outgoing personalities we encountered during the research for this book. She also has Parkinson’s, a brain condition that affects her movement. We spoke to her about her experiences founding and running a tech company while managing her disability, the ups and downs, and the superpower she’s made of it.
Interviewed January 2021
Emma’s Journey into Entrepreneurship
Erika Brodnock (EB): What made you decide to take the leap into entrepreneurship, and what were you doing prior to this?
Emma Lawton (EL): Before this whole entrepreneurship thing, I had just taken on a new job at Parkinson’s UK (the Parkinson’s Disease Society of the United Kingdom), leading the design team. I had ended up doing a variety of different jobs there, some technology roles and some outreach over the last few years before taking this full-time role with them. At the same time, I was doing a blog project where I did something new every day for a year. And one of the things I decided to do was apply to Zinc, a business accelerator in London. I gave it very little pre-thought if I’m being honest!
I guess, I’ve always had a slightly entrepreneurial spirit; I’ve always kind of set things up on my own. I’ve always dabbled with small ventures—I have had little Etsy shops and made stuff. As a family, we’re quite entrepreneurial in that sense, too. If we need money, or we’ve got an excess of something, we’ll make something with it. My parents, when I was younger, used to make soft toys and chess sets and things like that. So, I guess I was brought up in that type of environment. But I’d never thought I’d really start an actual company. I never thought that would be something I’d do, especially not seven years into having Parkinson’s! But I applied to Zinc and when I started looking into it more I wanted to do it. I was actually really surprised when I got accepted.
Overall, I think I like working for myself. I’ve done a lot of freelance work in my time. I like making decisions about things. I like strategy. And I just saw all of these things coming together in entrepreneurship. In my company now, we’ve got quite a flat structure, we kind of do a bit of everything. And I really like that every day is quite different. I think that’s one of the great things about being an entrepreneur: you never know what’s gonna hit you in the morning!
How Disability Can Isolate
Johannes Lenhard (JL): Can you tell us a little bit about how this entrepreneurship journey and your journey with Parkinson’s have gone together?
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EL: So Parkinson’s is quite weird, because there is a lot of information out there, there’s lots of resources, but it’s very difficult as someone who’s young with Parkinson’s to actually find people similar to you. You have to really search them out. I did quite a bit of hunting, but it was actually my nurse who put me in touch with some other young people, which was really helpful. So had it not been for her, I think I probably would have really struggled. It’s that whole thing about having your tribe and knowing these people are in a similar situation to you, that stops you from feeling lonely. If you don’t know who’s got your back, and you don’t know people the same as you, you can feel lonely even in a room full of people; it is quite a weird experience. I think that’s one of the reasons why we decided to start More Human; we’ve all struggled with loneliness and know first-hand how important communities are in fixing that.
EB: Are you happy to share whether having a disability specifically impacts the way in which you work with others, thinking back before COVID-19 in particular, but also now?
EL: It is often a challenge, because Parkinson’s is one of those conditions that doesn’t really stay the same. If I had something that was consistent, I’d just get to know where the goalposts are and I could tell people what to expect from me. I think people expect me, after seven years of living with it, to be able to say “I’m gonna be bad on this day” or “I’m going to struggle with this at that time”—it doesn’t work like that for me. When I had just started working with my (now) co-founders, I was supposed to go in to do a pitch and my feet started cramping in the morning, and I knew I was going to miss it. I thought: “What do I do? They’re gonna think I’m unreliable, it’s not a great start to our working relationship.” I wanted to be there with them. I wanted to talk about our business and be proud. And in the end, Duncan, my co-founder, had to do it on his own. I just felt really bad. I knew that this was something I couldn’t have controlled. But actually, the not knowing really frustrated me, the fact that I couldn’t tell him for sure whether I’d make it on time or not. I’m easily worried that I’m letting people down, so sometimes I push myself through things. But actually, that’s not good for my body, it’s not good for me.
There’s an expectation that in business you have to turn up on time, you have to constantly be professional, you have to give your best in usually a small window of opportunity or you miss out. Recently, I did a pitch to some friends and family to practice and fill them in on what I’ve been working on. And I knew I didn’t do a good job because my Parkinson’s was terrible. I could barely think straight, and I was in so much pain. I kicked myself the rest of the day, but I shouldn’t do that because actually, there’s nothing I can do about it. Everyone said it was fine. But I knew I could do better than “fine.”
There is this fine line between not expecting too much from myself, not drowning in pressure, but pushing myself just enough to feel proud. For many people who’ve got a disability, actually just getting out of bed and going to work in the morning is considered to be inspirational in a way; I want to push past that and do more than what’s expected of me. I don’t want to ever stop expecting more from myself.
Disability as a Driver of Innovation and Connection
JL: Obviously, as you just made very clear, this disability comes with a lot of challenges. Are there ways it helps you?
EL: It definitely does in a number of ways. Firstly, I have insider knowledge on accessibility and what makes a product work. I’m living with complicated stuff every day, and that gives me a greater insight. I think because of that, I can go with my gut instinct a lot more than perhaps some other people can when it comes to making decisions. Because if you design for accessibility challenges, it’s going to work for everyone. I sort of have that inbuilt.
And the other thing is very different. When you’re a startup founder, a lot of it is about being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right person—just being lucky. I think I am kind of memorable, you know, the shaky girl with pink hair is likely to be the one that stands out in a meeting. I went to a virtual breakfast thing with some VCs and other founders a while ago, and I turned up with my bright yellow dress and my pink hair and talked about Parkinson’s, and I thought, “Well, being memorable, that’s not a bad thing.”
It’s also a great leveler. I’ve met some incredible people that are really high up in some really big companies, who’ve actually sat on the floor to talk to me; they physically and emotionally come to my level. Having something that outwardly shows my weaknesses and challenges makes other people reveal theirs to me too, and it helps me to make connections on a deeper level. That in turn makes any business we do together more meaningful.
What the Industry Needs to Do to Support Founders with Disabilities—and Everyone Else
EB: What would you say is the most important change that we need to make in the tech industry to make it more accessible for people with disabilities, from your own perspective?
EL: At the moment, the startup industry has a really bad reputation for people pushing themselves too hard and not resting properly. When you have a disability, you sometimes need to take time for yourself, you need to actually just do things at your own speed. Sometimes I’ll have to completely put down tools because I can’t do the things that I’m required to do on a task at that time. That’s incredibly frustrating. But the world doesn’t end when I don’t do it, I’ll do it eventually. Slowing the pace down a little bit and being a bit more flexible, you see people as people rather than machines. Whether they have physical challenges or a family to care for or other priorities, there needs to be balance. At More Human, we’re trying to make sure that we’re being good employers, making sure that the human needs of our employees are looked after as well as their work needs. We’re trying to break some of the bad habits that we got into when there were just three of us.
EB: I get that—looking after people’s human needs is absolutely fundamental; to ensure that people feel included. But then how do we get more people to apply or create the jobs that need to be there in a way that means that people from all backgrounds, including people with all levels of ability, are able to apply?
EL: Firstly, you need those of us that are actually doing it to be more visible and do more to share the fact that it is possible. I try and do as much as I can to make that point, to make sure that people know that you can have a disability, you can be a woman and you can be semi youngish, and you can co-found a tech startup. If I can do it, anyone can do it. Those of us that are living that life whilst managing other challenges need to make ourselves more available to people looking to do the same, so they can see themselves reflected in the industry. And it’s particularly important to me when it comes to hiring. I’m asking myself, “Actually is there some way that I can open the door to someone like me to join our business?”