Hedge fund manager Hardeep Rai’s world shook when his son was born with severe disabilities. Now his mission is to change the way we see entrepreneurs with disabilities – one start-up at a time.
Hardeep Rai was jostling with the City’s financial elite, relishing the high life as he negotiated deals between his hedge fund employer and some of the world’s biggest financial institutions. Then along came a son who shattered his assumptions – and forced him to reconsider the true measure of success and opportunity.
When Eshan was born on November 18, 2006, doctors found he had been deprived of oxygen for 17 minutes and suffered extensive brain damage. He might not survive the day, or ever wake up from the coma. If he did, they cautioned, he would likely be in a vegetative state.
Hardeep and his wife took Eshan home from the hospital after 56 days. The couple hoped for a miracle but, as months passed, their boy never crawled, learned to walk or talk, to eat on his own, or sleep through the night. Their marriage unravelled under the strain and sheer exhaustion. Hardeep took a buyout from the Gartmore Group and forged his own private equity firm focused on start-ups, found a top specialist school and residence for Eshan – and struggled to find any meaning in it all.
The answer literally rolled into his office one day in 2014: a businessman named Shane Bratby. A neuromuscular disease called Friedreich’s ataxia had driven Bratby into a wheelchair in his 20s, but did nothing to blunt his entrepreneurial insights. He had founded a networking group called Disabled Entrepreneurs, but he could not persuade any bank to finance his vision of incubating enterprises run by, and for, people with disabilities.
“Shane had thousands of people approaching him for money and he was unable to fund them,” Hardeep recalls. “I had a passion to do something in the disability sector, but didn’t see how to use my start-up expertise there. Thank goodness Shane came along. He is a great ideas guy. Our visions and experience fit perfectly together.”
That year, they founded Kaleidoscope Investments, or KI, a company committed to training, mentoring, motivating and seed funding people with disabilities with compelling business ideas. KI has been dubbed a ‘Dragon’s Den for Disability,’ but with one important difference, Hardeep says: “We’re friendly dragons. We’re not aggressive in any way.”
In the past four years, Hardeep reckons, he and Bratby along with Chairman Tim Sherwood have invested around £150,000 of their personal savings into some 30 start-ups that are selling, or in advanced stages of developing, a wide range of products, from fashion-conscious crutches to smartphone apps that help disabled holidaymakers navigate unfamiliar footpaths. “So far, and this is not a joke, I have not made a penny in the last four years. In fact, at times I have had to beg, borrow and steal,” Hardeep says. “But the businesses that KI is mentoring are growing and, eventually, our equity stakes will produce returns.” “There are much bigger issues at stake here. I’m trying to change the way that people perceive people with disabilities,” he says. “And to do that, we must do all we can to encourage people with disabilities to be confident in their own entrepreneurial potential. Each time we foster and launch a new successful enterprise run by people with disabilities, the easier it becomes for society to realise that people with disabilities aren’t as disabled as you think. When you give these people a chance, they can perform remarkably.”
Kaleidoscope has ambitions to make 2019 its breakout year. Rai, a natural networker, says KI is midway through a new venture capital funding round seeking £10 million that has attracted interest from investors in 21 countries. His target by May is to expand KI into a Kaleidoscope Group with two new complementary units. One will be a charitable Kaleidoscope Foundation that serves as a gateway for assessing new clients’ suitability as KI-supported entrepreneurs. Or, if not, referring them to the other, a training and job placement service, Kaleidoscope Recruitment.
“We’ve changed our policy to try and help every person who approaches us. If they want to find a job rather than found a business, we’re aiming to become a one-stop shop for disability and careers,” he says. “Kaleidoscope Recruitment is going to handhold them while they get that job and make sure they keep that job.”
He’s connecting with old City contacts alongside newer Silicon Valley ones and lobbying both to create entry-level positions for people with disabilities and increase their representation on corporate boards and management teams. “I really feel we’re making a difference in promoting greater inclusivity,” he says. “Nobody we’ve wanted to partner with has said ‘no.’ We’re starting to give advice to very large employers that do want to learn and to engage. I do see a shift in mindsets.”
Rai spends each weekend staying overnight at his son’s school an hour away, and seeks a simple connection each weeknight by smartphone. Eshan is 12 now and working on concepts at a one-year-old’s level. Rai doesn’t know if his son ever will gain the level of minimum comprehension and mobility to become a Kaleidoscope client. “I keep faith and hope in miracles, and if something is meant to happen to him, it will,” he says. “But I don’t pray for Eshan to be ‘normal’ someday, because I see him as normal now. I just want Eshan to be happy and to feel loved. On FaceTime every night, if I see him smile, that’s a good day.” And Eshan, he says, already has served as the greatest opportunity creator of them all. “I would never have travelled down this road without my son,” Hardeep says. “I do what I do now in Eshan’s honour, in his name. Whatever has happened to him cannot be undone. What can be done is to create opportunities for others – through him.”
HARDEEP RAI’S ADVICE FOR DISABLED – AND ABLE-BODIED – ENTREPRENEURS
Believe in yourself. Believe in your idea.
Confidence is key. Many people with disabilities lack confidence in their own abilities. Identify your strengths and trust in them. Understand your brand story and what you stand for as a business and let that ethos flow through your business.
Business is team sport.
Build the right team of people around you as they will pick you up when you lose your motivation. Be clear with any staff you have about what is expected of them. Work with a mentor or business adviser, someone with valuable experience to offer. Try not to become overly emotional and continue to listen to trusted advisers.
Plans for ups and downs.
When things are going well, do not become complacent. This is the time to be extra vigilant. Understand what your business risks are and monitor them closely. Be ready to make difficult choices and sacrifices.
Value your customers.
Stay close to your customers. Never take them for granted and evolve with them.
Voices of People with disabilities – for any business.
People with disabilities represent 22% of the UK’s population, according to the latest government figures. They represent a vast market for talent, ideas and of course your products and services. Hiring people with disabilities helps your business to be more empathetic, to see customers differently, to be more inclusive. And including people with disabilities on senior management teams, or boards, allows the business to have a competitive insider’s edge in identifying sales and marketing opportunities specific to the disabled community.
At Accenture, it is our core belief that each of us should be able to bring our true selves to work. It’s something we live by every day. It is this freedom that allows us to do our best work and contribute forward-thinking ideas; it makes us more creative and enables innovation to flourish. With stories like this one, we celebrate individuals who are re-shaping culture, embracing the new, changing the narrative for their community, unlocking overlooked potential, and challenging outdated expectations. . Find out more about Accenture’s commitment to creating a supportive environment where everyone can thrive.