Tech: Transform, Expand and Connect
“Tech, if done correctly, has always been a great way to include
and enable disabled people to engage.”
Interview: Sue Wilcock Pictures: Warren Page
Mike Adams OBE talks to Essex Director
When in the company of Mike Adams OBE, CEO of disability organisation, Purple, it doesn’t take you long to realise that he has a purpose and a determination, to ensure that the world is more inclusive, and that levels of inequality are reduced across the board.
“Ultimately, my drive at Purple is to change the conversations around ‘disability’, repositioning it away from welfare and support to a commercial opportunity. Globally, the Purple Dollar is worth an astounding $13 trillion, yet fewer than 10% of businesses have a plan to access this market.
“Here in the UK, this amounts to £274 billion, representing the UK’s 14.1 million disabled people – over 1 in 5 of the total population.
“So, Purple is all about bringing disabled people and businesses together and having a conversation. Something that values disability and recognises disabled people as both consumers and a pipeline of talent.”
However, Mike accepts that it’s a complex issue.
“Around 80% of impairments are hidden, and businesses don’t really have a handle on this. We know that 75% of disabled people, or their families, have left a shop or website due to poor access, so businesses are losing money at the physical and virtual door.
“Tech is always a good way to include and enable disabled people, and in an attempt to improve things, we are providing organisations, who aren’t particularly easy for disabled people to access, an opportunity to tap in and use our recently launched platform, EnableAll.com. We are not creating a disability ghetto. This is an e-commerce marketplace.”
To gain an understanding of the drive and passion behind Mike, there is a need to look back at his life, and the instances that have shaped him into the business leader he is today.
“I was born in Southend in February 1971. Looking back Mum and Dad had absolutely no idea that I was going to be the way I was. So, my severe disability came as a great shock when I came along.
“When I arrived, the doctors were very clear, telling my parents, that for the sake of my brother and sister, it would be best if they forgot about me and sent me away to residential special school as soon as possible.
“They were forced to send me away at six months old, but they didn’t forget about me. They travelled to Chailey Heritage in East Sussex to see me regularly. I was at the school until I was 16, although as I got older, I did go home for the school holidays.
“You have to realise that at that time, there was no SEN provision in mainstream schools, and to be honest, going away was the best thing for me; it enabled me to get my academic qualifications and to learn the social skills to lead the life I have today.
“Of course, if this was now, then it absolutely wouldn’t happen. I do think about the negative emotional connotations around my disability, although I never thought that I wasn’t wanted, or had feelings of being separated. In fact, I have an incredibly strong bond with Mum and Dad, as well as my siblings.
“I was just OK at school, getting five O Levels, and going on to do A Levels in Geography, Economics and General Studies.”
“When I was growing up, I wanted to be a business leader. I was interested in economics and people. I was always happy to have an opinion, and I wasn’t ashamed of putting my head above the parapet, even though I looked different.”
“I wanted to go to university to do a degree in Business Studies. But at 17, I had lived a life where the biggest voice was the medical profession, and this degree was a sandwich course, which included multiple work placements in different companies. I was advised that with my disability, it would be too difficult for me to do this. I didn’t question it, I just accepted it and decided to do a straightforward Economics degree instead.”
However, the next step was to find a university that would be able to accommodate Mike and his special needs.
“My careers officer sat with me on a Friday afternoon, and starting with ‘Z’, we worked up the list calling the universities one by one. The first two questions we asked were: “Are you able to accommodate a disabled student and the needs of his carers?” and “Is the campus and halls of residence accessible?”
“We got all the way to Coventry University before we got “yes of course” as an answer. We then had to ask whether they ran the Economics degree course, and what A Level grades were expected for me to be accepted on the course.
“This was just one of the examples in my life where people make assumptions and then layer on “we’re doing this in his best interests”. My entire decision on where I went to university and what I studied, was based on that careers officer, and the conversations on that Friday afternoon. You could argue that, although he sat with me and called the universities, he imposed constraints on me and my choice of course, and made assumptions about what I could and couldn’t do, which weren’t necessarily true.”
“Being clear about ‘unpicking’ those assumptions and giving disabled people in the UK a voice, rather than enabling people just to say “no” because they are protectionist, they are the principal drivers for me and what I do now.”
Another example came closer to home with Mike’s intent to learn to drive.
“I was 16/17 and Dad was adamant that I would learn to drive “over his dead body!” He wasn’t worried about me, but about “all the other lunatics on the road” and how vulnerable I would be.”
However, Mike wouldn’t be put off. He was determined to pass his test by the time he left for university.
”I’d got my place at Coventry, and I needed to pass my test before I went, so I could be independent and drive myself there and back. I bought a red Ford Escort, but it needed to be specially adapted for me to use. So, social workers and family – including Dad – fundraised for me to pay for the adaptions.
“I got the car on my 18th birthday in the February, and the plan was to pass my test by September.
“In those days, you could put in for your driving test way in advance, so it was booked for the 21st August. But there were problems getting the car adapted and it wasn’t ready until the 3rd of August, meaning I had to learn to drive in 18 days!”
Off to university
Yet he did pass and having been at a specialist residential school and college until he was 18, Coventry University was Mike’s first taste of mainstream education.
“Over the three years of the course, I would have at any one time, two CSV Carers looking after me. They were volunteers and were a mixture of people, who all supported me with everyday things such as preparing meals, bathing, getting dressed etc. Effectively I had become an employer at 18 and I quickly learnt how to manage people.”
Mike describes himself as an absolutely A-typical university student and like most, he enjoyed the late nights, going out and getting drunk. As he was finishing his final year, Mike was persuaded by friends and others to “unhinge your ego” and go for the role of President of the Student Union.
“I was up against five other candidates and my campaign slogan was ‘Adams Means Action’. I was elected and the upshot was that I stayed on for a fourth year at Coventry as full-time President.”
“The role meant I ran the Student Union, which was a big business in itself at that time. You were a connection between the students and the senior echelon at the university. I was exposed to different people and learning about how to manage a business; I was 21, going on 40!”
“The bonus was that I could go into any pub in Coventry and get a free drink, as the landlords knew if I drank there, the students would follow. I was savvy, and I knew how to make things work. Looking back, I was tapped into all those people around me who were running businesses. I learnt from them, and I stashed everything away in my bank of knowledge.”
The result was that the role confirmed Mike’s desire to be a business leader.
A life changing moment
“As I was finishing my term as President, I went back to realising my dream and I applied for a position on a graduate business programme with a national well-known company.
“I was asked to attend an interview, and I can honestly say I have never swotted so hard, getting myself prepared.
“The day of the interview arrived. I went into the room and was faced by a panel of six people. We exchanged pleasantries and I was asked the question: “Who are you, and why are you here today?”
“Before getting much past saying my name, the Chair of the panel put her hand up and said: “We are going to stop this interview right now, as you know and we know, you are not going to get this job, but you must be used to disappointment, and we’ll say goodbye.” I walked out of the room. It was only 45 seconds, but it was that moment when something ignited in me. It was like someone had flicked a switch and I was transformed from being average at everything, to something else. I was determined and passionate about never wanting another disabled person to experience what I had just been through.”
“Everything I do now, I can pinpoint back to what that individual said to me in the interview that day. It was that moment when I knew something had changed in me. It was a trigger which had lit a fire. It was absolute discrimination but on reflection, I am thankful that she said it, as it made me realise my purpose.”
So, with no plan B, Mike was left wondering what to do next.
“Call it serendipity, but at that time, the government had been pumping money into supporting disability in the university sector, and the Vice-Chancellor at Coventry offered me a job as their first Disability Officer.
“I knew from my experience; it was one thing providing lifts and ramps to help those with disabilities to get around university. It was quite another to work on improving access to the academic curriculum.
“I took the job and set about engaging with academic staff, to talk to them about how they made the courses more accessible. All this was happening just at the beginning of everything going online. I was a bit of a trailblazer and after a couple of years, I was asked to head up a national disability team, overseeing all the universities across England and Northern Ireland.
“In this role, I did a lot of travelling and at 23, I was a very young leader. This came with its challenges I guess, not to do with my disability, but it was about my age and having to manage people that were older than me.”
For the next five years, Mike continued in this role based in Coventry.
“I had got married in 1999. So, when I was asked to continue in the job I was doing, as they had received another tranche of funding, it was then that I took the opportunity to relocate back to Essex. I felt a need to live closer to my parents.”
Building education and experience
So, Mike moved back to Chelmsford.
“I had a plan though. I knew that if I wanted to be a business leader, I needed a further qualification and I decided to do a part-time MBA at Anglia Ruskin University.
“I really enjoyed it. Yes, it was hard, but it gave me subconsciously the framework to make business decisions, to understand them and to plan. I graduated in 2005 and then over the following couple of years, both as a result of the MBA and the work I was doing with the national disability team, I received an Honorary Degree from the University of Gloucestershire and became a Visiting Professor at Leeds Metropolitan University. I also received an Honorary Doctorate from Anglia Ruskin University.”
However, Mike realised that his next step to achieving his goal, was to gain experience outside of the disability sector.
“I saw an advert for a Non-Exec Director (NED) at my local NHS hospital. I had the qualifications and life experience, and I thought I would be very different to the NEDs they had previously, bringing with me a totally different approach and skill set. I applied and was asked for an interview, which went brilliantly. They took the gamble, and I was appointed.”
“That is one tip I would share. If you are thinking about making a change, then find your difference and make it work for you.”
“Around the same time, I left the national disability role, and became Chief Strategist for the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) based in Central London. I had realised that to be a good leader, you need to have experience about everything that goes on in the organisation. I was good at doing the fancy stuff, dealing with people, standing on stage and being the voice, but I didn’t know enough about the boring, but still important stuff that went on behind the scenes in business. When I was at university, it was often said, that to be a good Vice-Chancellor, you have to understand how the car parking works, and that analogy is so true.”
So, taking on the Chief Strategist role meant that almost overnight, Mike disappeared into the background.
“It was so different. My leadership style changed from being charismatic and leading the fray, to being more of a coach and a business planner – I like to think I was enabling brilliant people to be more brilliant!
“I did the DRC job for two years, doing the ‘hard yards’. It was challenging commuting to London every day, as what were simple processes for most people, like hailing a cab, were difficult and problematic.
“In 2007, when my first child was on its way, I decided I wanted to stop the commuting and get a job closer to home in Chelmsford, and to play a full role in being an active dad.
“I applied for a CEO role at the Essex Coalition of Disabled People (ECDP). With a good reputation, it was a user-led organisation operating as a charity and a limited entity. The revenue income came from commissioned work running services for disabled people and donations. Its objective was to enable disabled people to lead independent lives, to give them choice, control and get them into employment.”
Mike started at the ECDP the same week as his daughter was born unexpectedly six weeks early.
“It was a bit manic with what was happening at home, but starting at ECDP, I quickly realised it was a mess. There was no leadership, and the senior managers weren’t very good. I consulted with HR and decided to make them all redundant. It was a brave decision, but the right decision.
“I started to rebuild the organisation, and I went back to being a charismatic leader, increasing the organisation’s profile locally and nationally. Pretty quickly, I realised that ECDP was a closed shop; if you weren’t disabled, you couldn’t be part of it. Although we felt marginalised, we were becoming exclusive ourselves.
“My aim was to make us accessible to anyone that shared our values of understanding disability and a commitment to equality.”
“What I knew was that if you were going to transform the lives of disabled people, you needed to connect them to businesses, either as a customer, or an employee. And technology was always going to be a large part of the answer.”
“The government had done some work around the ‘Purple Pound’*, which is defined as ‘disposable income of disabled people and their families’. It was a huge number and what was obvious was that it wasn’t even considered by businesses.
“I worked on the principle that if we were able to get businesses to have more disabled customers, they would then want to employ more disabled people.”
In 2012, Mike received a letter from Buckingham Palace saying The Queen had awarded him an OBE for his services to disabled people.
“It was a surreal moment, and I was very humbled. The presentation was in November, and I stood in the queue with Gary Barlow and Kate Winslet waiting to get my award.”
The colour purple
In 2014, Mike got divorced.
“This was a pivotal moment for me personally, but it was the right decision. By now, I had two children. I was 43, and for the first time in my life, I was living on my own. I had very little support, but I was looking after the kids two nights a week.
“Looking back, the easiest decision would have been to stay in my marriage and be unhappy, but it wasn’t the right decision. I have carried this through to my work. You have to confront things and make the difficult decisions and not take the easy option.
“This thought was the catalyst for me transforming ECDP into what it needed to be. It was a moment where I had to get off the fence and I did something that was blindingly obvious – to take disability, which had been seen as a charity for so many years and promote it as an opportunity.
“We rebranded to Purple in 2016, and as part of our launch, we opened the London Stock Exchange in what was a key moment in communicating disability as a commercial, as well as a social issue.
“I had thought about it for years, but to make the connection, it was all about the technology; the infrastructure that enabled access.”
“However, things really took off when online marketplaces like Amazon and Etsy became common as a retail option. As ‘Purple, we were working on an e-commerce platform that would engage with the disabled community as customers, tapping into the Purple Pound.
“To make it work, we needed tech to enable the platform. Then when Covid hit, we suddenly realised that everything was there, we just needed it to be fully accessible.”
The catalyst for action was when Mike was approached and asked whether he would unveil the new platform at the World Expo in Dubai in December 2021.
“I said “Yes” and then we had to go and build a prototype. We knew what we had and didn’t have, and we also knew that you can’t access a market you have no experience in. So, we decided to bring in an e-commerce expert to work in-house with the team.”
“We worked long hours under huge pressure to get the prototype e-commerce platform ready for the show – the deadline was not moveable!”
The result was that Mike travelled to Dubai in December and unveiled ‘EnableAll.com’ to the world.
Since then, as well as progressing EnableAll.com to fully launch to the public in early February, Mike and the team have been the driving force behind ‘Purple Tuesday’.
“Taking place on the first Tuesday in November each year, it was pitched as the first ‘accessible shopping day’. On 1st November last year, events took place in the UK and internationally, which were aimed at inspiring the leaders and staff of organisations, to promote awareness, develop understanding, and implement solutions for better accessibility in their customer environments. The event reached 23 million people with nearly 40,000 interactions on social media throughout the day.”
However, the ‘jewel in the crown’ for Mike is EnableAll.com.
“Since that presentation in Dubai, we have now progressed to full launch. Using technology, EnableAll.com takes everything to the next level, normalising accessibility. Its difference is that when you log on for the first time, the platform notes your disability, and from then on your entire customer journey is bespoke to your particular needs.
“I am the happiest that I have ever been. Personally, I am with Kristine and together, we have gone on to have twin girls and a boy; we are getting married in March.
“Professionally, I feel I am achieving my childhood goal. I am now leading the team at Purple and together we are showing the world the art of what is now possible.”
For more information on Purple, visit https://ukdlink.biz/edmitec