Saturday, 17 March 2012

Blind self-made millionairess

Although this blog is mostly about deaf /hard-of-hearing people, I enjoy learning/reading about what people with other disabilities have achieved in their lives.

I am writing about Liz Jackson, a blind self-made millionairess who participated in the BBC program: The Secret Millionaire. Please see the following link:

The article says " Monday morning in an open-plan office in Basingstoke. Fifty telemarketers talk on the phone and tap away on their computers. Not maybe everyone’s idea of an exhilarating environment, but Liz Jackson, founder and Managing Director of Great Guns Marketing, is brimming with enthusiasm.

“I was a telemarketer for eight years before I started my own company, and I still love that telemarketing job, I think it’s great and I think that working with telemarketers is brilliant.”

We’re sitting in the headquarters of Great Guns Marketing where Liz has taken time out of her busy schedule of sales meetings, media interviews and conference speaking to talk. Aged 36, her company has six branches in the UK, employs around a hundred people and has an annual turn-over of £2.5 million. It’s a far cry from 1998 when Liz borrowed a few thousand pounds to launch her business to business telemarketing company in the front room of her flat.

But the fact that Liz’s company got off the ground at all is all the more impressive because she also had to deal with the sudden loss of her sight two months after the launch.

Liz’s sight had been getting worse for some time but surely her confidence and self-belief must have taken a battering?

“I don’t remember it being a blow at all and I don’t remember thinking I had anything to prove because I was blind. I’d just met my husband Ali so I was in love, I’d started my company and I’m a Christian and my faith teaches me to be thankful for what I’ve got as opposed to thinking about the things I haven’t got. I found out about the Access to Work scheme and recruited a PA to help me read, but apart from that I don’t remember feeling emotional about it or feeling down. I don’t think it really changed much.”

Liz puts her unfailing confidence down to the love and support of her family and growing up in a stable environment where none of her relations have ever divorced.

“I also think that my faith breeds confidence because I don’t think that everything is on my shoulders and that God has some responsibility too.”

Her parents fought hard to keep her in mainstream school against the wishes of the local authority who wanted to send her to a boarding school for disabled children. Nevertheless, school was tough. She was “academically rubbish” and only loved doing drama which didn’t involve sitting in a classroom.

Her experience of junior school led to her subsequently rejecting any help she could have had because of her visual impairment, like extra time for exams.

“I had to have an electric typewriter in the classroom. I was nine and typing while everyone else was writing and the typewriter was hard to use and it took me ages to cut out my work and put it in my book. The funny thing was that my handwriting wasn’t the worst in the class!”

She went to college but soon turned to her careers adviser to talk about an apprenticeship.

“She set me up with an interview with a company near Basingstoke and I got a job as an office junior. I was doing admin at first which I was rubbish at. My eye condition meant I had tunnel vision so I couldn’t read a whole word at once. My spelling was atrocious, especially because I was entering information into a PC from hand-written documents.”

Liz never disclosed her sight problem to her employer, even when things got so bad that she feared her job was in jeopardy.

“I was not interested in the idea of having bad eyesight or support for it at that time because my experience of help and support at junior school had been hideous.”

The first step in her rise from struggling office junior to successful telemarketer came when her boss heard her answering the phone one day.

“He said ‘you sound good on the phone why don’t you have a go at cold-calling?’ To be honest I think I would have done anything at that point to keep my job.”

She took to cold-calling straight away. It gave her the opportunity to exploit the talent which landed her an A for GCSE Drama.

“Every single time you pick up the phone you’ve got to put on a performance, even if you don’t feel like it. Also, it’s incredibly challenging. At 17 I was ringing managing directors of manufacturing companies which was thrilling. I was making four or five appointments for my boss a day and he was going to meetings and winning clients. Sales then became a passion and I knew I’d never do anything else in my life.”

She was promoted to become a telemarketing manager and travelled to America when she was 22 to set up a branch there.

It was the support of her boss that convinced her that she could have a stab at launching her own company.

“My boss made me believe that I could achieve. When I told him I was thinking of setting up my own business he said that he would be my first client. I had nothing to lose. I was 25 and had store card debts from buying clothes, make-up and perfume. I had no kids, husband, or mortgage to pay. I was foot-loose and fancy-free. At that age why wouldn’t I have a go?”

Her blindness has proved to be significant in generating publicity and business for Great Guns.

“It’s been an advantage for building up the business because from a PR point of view people like to write about me. There aren’t many blind women in their thirties running companies.”

The confident and self-assured Liz I meet contrasts starkly with the person who appeared the previous week on Channel 4’s The Secret Millionaire. She spent time with a local talking newspaper, a social club for blind people and a sailing club for disabled people weighing up which of them to donate her money and marketing expertise to. She was rattled by the experience of coming into close proximity with disabled people, particularly blind people.

“Where it was an environment like the sailing club where I was surrounded by able-bodied people, blind and deaf people, and people with no legs or arms, I didn’t mind at all because it was just inclusion and community. But I found the environment of being surrounded by blind people very difficult and one that I wouldn’t want to repeat. It was salsa dancing which I hate anyway, so I was pushed out of my comfort zone. I was very aware of being on television and blind people were bumping into me and nudging me from either side. I was thinking that I would kill anyone if they tried to make me dance with one of the men. The scenario of what it must have looked like just freaked me out. I’ve never been around many blind people. Not because I’ve stayed away from them on purpose, I’ve just not met any blind people in my everyday life.”

She would like blind friends though and regrets not being able to tap into support from other blind mothers who could have given her tips on caring for her baby Maddy after she was born two years ago.

Was she tempted to employ any of the disabled people she met while filming?
“I would employ any disabled person who came for a job with excellent communication skills. I’ve often been asked why we don’t employ more disabled people, the answer is that they don’t come for interviews. It’s a tough job, you’re making over a hundred calls a day.”

It’s also intriguing that for all the confidence that has propelled her to success, Liz relies on her PA to escort her everywhere instead of using a guide dog or cane. But astonishingly, Liz says that it doesn’t bother her.

“Not really. I don’t see it as a failing because so many people are dependent on me. I did white stick training last year when I was working two and a half days a week and I enjoyed it. But then business got really busy and I’m not allowed the time off.”

Nevertheless Liz had been totally blind for years before she picked up a cane.

“I started not being able to move around on my own when I was 26. I was told at that time that I could go on a residential course for two weeks but I couldn’t afford the time because I was running a start-up company.”

Her business is beginning to recover from the hit it has taken from the recession so she is anticipating a return to white cane training soon. Her ambition is to master it in time to walk Maddy to school when she starts in two years.

In addition Liz is looking forward to resuming her Braille lessons which also went on the backburner since the recession took hold.

“My sighted daughter has a passion for books and I can just about read a Kipper book to her because of Braille. My real passion for learning Braille is so I can read to her. But it’s also valuable in terms of labels. Her Calpol has Braille on it so I can tell that it’s Calpol and not her vitamins.”

Liz laughs dismissively when I ask what she is doing in Basingstoke when she could be living an opulent lifestyle in London or New York instead.

“Home is where the heart is and my heart is in Basingstoke. My family is here and my husband’s family is here so my daughter gets to play with her cousins and uncles and aunts and grandparents all the time. My school friends are here and all the friends we’ve made since then; our church is here too.

“Everything that’s important is here. I can’t imagine being in some horrible place like New York just to live in a poxy penthouse. I don’t see the attraction - unless all you care about is posh jewellery and nice clothes.”

So where will Great Guns be in ten years time? Will Liz still be Managing Director? I reckon her charm and warmth would make her a great radio host. She likes the idea but it isn’t something she’s thought about seriously.

“My team is getting to the point where they are becoming strong enough to operate without me so I’m thinking what I can do aside from this. My dad and I wrote a book called Start Up, I speak at lots of conferences so I’m keen to develop that, and maybe some TV. But I would only do TV if it was like The Secret Millionaire where I could make a difference to people’s lives. But I would never give up Great Guns for anything else.”

From disabilitynow website

Very inspiring!!

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