Despite there being a market of over 700,000 self-employed Disabled workers, access to funding remains just one of the many barriers for Disabled people to enter into entrepreneurship. And for those who work within a corporate environment, a recent study from The Harvard Business Review revealed that only 20% of Disabled employees agreed that their workplace was committed to helping them thrive and succeed. Whilst diversity and inclusion is a topic of increasing importance within the working landscape, there is still a lot of work to be done. I spoke with Lucy Rout, Founder of Tabuu.
Rout founded Tabuu aged 26 following a radical reconstruction of her digestive system to remove a pancreatic cancer. She now needs to take medication every time she consumes food amongst other lifelong functional changes to her body. She founded Tabuu; a range of stylish, modern day pill cases; to address a gap in the market for people taking medication and set out on a mission to remove the stigma. Rout says, “When I searched the market for a pill case to carry my tablets in that combined style with functionality, I was disappointed to find next to no products available. When I searched the media for open conversations around medication, again I didn’t find it. My aim was to disrupt the product category and provide stylish products to give better representation on shelves, whilst also advocating to get people talking about medication. Be that medication that’s taken to support mental or physical health, menopause, sexual performance, contraception or any other reason, I hoped to drive conversation and normalize these topics”.
Having started the business bootstrapped, Rout’s efforts have since been widely recognised leading to her to win a number of awards and being approached to pitch for external investment on Dragons’ Den, the U.K version of Shark Tank. She successfully secured backing from three investors whilst also making what some media have described as “Dragons’ Den History” by securing the first ever investment in combination with a full time job offer from Peter Jones, one of Britain’s best known entrepreneurs and Shark Tank guest investor.
Rout says, “I was really pleased that all 5 investors believed in the brand mission and market opportunity. Peter Jones in particular came across very passionately about advocating to provide better representation through disruption of product categories, which I had seen him put into practice with his backing and support of March Muses, an incredible business on a mission to celebrate diversity by diversifying Christmas with their inclusive holiday decorations. During the negotiation I explained that I was running my business on the evenings and weekends alongside a full time job at a tech giant, to which Peter warned me to be careful of burnout. When he then offered to invest, he went a step further to offer me a job to work for him with the full support of his investment group in a flexible and inspiring environment where I would have also have time to focus on scaling my business. Whilst Dragons’ Den is of course an investment negotiation in the context of a television show, it was a first hand experience I had with 5 successful entrepreneurs and investors who all felt passionately about striving to improve representation across product categories, whilst continually highlighting the importance of mental health, wellbeing and accessibility. The offers of support both via financial investment and the once in a lifetime job offer are fully supportive of that and it to me showed an encouraging direction that I hope investors will be looking towards for the future”.
Having previously come from a corporate background, Rout reflected on how there is still a lot of work to be done to create truly inclusive environments. Following her recent diagnosis of ADHD, she says, “In a previous job, we were against numerical targets, a style of measuring success which I found clear and motivating. Each month I was coming out as the top performer on my team and by the second quarter I’d exceeded the team goal for the year. However, I would repeatedly get called out by my boss for not responding quickly enough to instant messages. We communicated via Slack, emails, the in house messaging system and whatsapp, all of which he felt it was important for us all to be quickly responsive on. I found it distracting to do so whilst also trying to remain focussed on completing the work that would allow me to continue to hit my targets. I explained to him that I found the approach limiting to my productivity. I suggested easy to implement mechanisms I could set up to streamline the communication channels and a process where messages were flagged if time sensitive. He told me it was part of the job and I’d need to learn how to deal with it. Now that I have my diagnosis, I realize that this was actually an adaptation that from a purely commercial lens may have allowed me to exceed my targets even further through being able to focus my productivity”.
There will be many others working in a corporate environment who are Disabled and either do not feel comfortable enough to disclose them, have not yet been diagnosed or are made to feel uncomfortable for asking to deter away from a manager’s preferred working style. I can’t help but think how much unnecessary loss of productivity and potential stress is being caused through lack of awareness and education around the importance of creating inclusive environments in which every employee is given the best chance possible to thrive. It once again all comes back to having more disabled and chronically ill people at the table when these conversations are being had, so that we build policies and frameworks that represent the needs of everyone”.
With Dragons’ Den being seen by over 5 million people, Rout aimed to use the exposure opportunity as a moment to empower others who may also have had a similar experience to her. Dressed in a suit with her scar displayed, Rout explained that she felt it was important to show people that there is space for Disabled and chronically ill founders both in the mainstream media but also within the funding arena.
“I said one sentence about my illness in my pitch to explain the context of why I’d started the business and the brand mission of removing the stigma around medication by opening up the conversation. I said nothing more about it and went on to focus the discussions around the business with the aim of securing backing from the investors. My experience is the reason I started my business and what gave me the motivation to try and disrupt the product category through advocacy. But ultimately I am an entrepreneur trying to grow and scale a business first. When learning how to manage my new body, I searched everywhere in the media to find someone that I could relate to and I couldn’t find it. Since starting my business, showing my scar and trying to drive conversations around medication, I’ve had messages from people all over the world. The one I’m most proud of, was from a parent telling me that her 14 year old daughter who’d had a similar surgery to mine found my website discussing my medication and said she had never felt more seen. It meant the absolute world to me and I wanted to use the exposure opportunity of Dragons’ Den to try and have an impact at scale and do my best to show the representation that I had struggled to find myself. I went into the negotiation having been actively trading with the business for just three months and knowing that I had a lot to learn, however am proud to have achieved the ultimate aim of the show which was to secure investment. I really hope that in 2023 the mainstream media provide more opportunities to highlight and celebrate the many unbelievably talented people; be them entrepreneurs, creative professionals, performers and everything in between; that live with chronic illness and disability,” Rout stated.
Rout concludes, “representation is on all of us to speak up and fight for. We need to see investors make conscious investment decisions to strive to provide inclusivity within their portfolios and we subsequently need retailers to support this with listings on their shelves. We need corporations to ensure that managers and employees have the training that they need in order to create inclusive, flexible environments in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive. Finally, we need the media to show accurate examples of the many incredibly talented disabled and chronically ill people that exist. We’re already late. Let’s make 2023 the year”.