I was told I’d be lucky to keep a job but now I am the Co-Founder of a million-pound company
Joseph Williams is the proudly disabled and neurodiverse Founder of a seven-figure SaaS tech start-up and is leading a battle cry to utilise the incredible skills within the disabled community.
Entrepreneur and inclusion activist Joseph Williams faced relentless trials holding down a job in his early career, encountering significant barriers and bias because of his differences.
To mark Autism Awareness Week, the now CEO, who lives with autism spectrum disorder and several other long-term health conditions, is sharing his story to highlight the working world’s need to do more to remove barriers to participation for the disabled community and utilise the incredible skills within it.
Williams had always had behavioural issues as a child and struggled with his studies. But after the untimely death of his mother, he left college and home at 17 and because of a lack of education, began work in a call centre – the only place not in retail that would interview him without a degree.
One day a manager noticed his ability to read data and got Williams involved in campaign management. He went on to develop the highest performing campaign and then business quarter in the company’s history, earning him a promotion into the parent company where he thought his career would kick off.
Williams, 32, who now lives in Walthamstow, London, with his life and business partner, was always good at working hard but struggled immensely with adapting to the workplace. The politics, the unnecessarily complicated processes, and the egos you need to navigate often left him feeling withdrawn and isolated.
Instead of being able to explain his confusion and ask for additional support, he was told by a HR manager to not make a fuss and disclose his neurodiversity, or his sexuality, if he wanted to keep his job and get ahead. “When I started my career, the working world was a lot less open. The Equality Act hadn’t passed yet and anyone who was different was instantly side lined. It was really tough.”
After the tests he faced in his first role painted a picture of what work would be like for him, Williams became a business consultant, like many other neurodiverse and disabled people do. This is regularly driven by the reality of limitations and inaccessibility in the workplace.
The statistics on autistic employment in general are bleak, with autistic people likely to be underpaid, on zero or low hour contracts and poorly supported, with many feeling they are unable to disclose their diagnosis at work*.
The biggest challenges people with autism face in relation to employment are the lack of access to opportunities and discrimination**. This may not be overt discrimination but people with autism can face daily micro-aggressions at work, a common challenge facing all marginalised groups. “Words like ‘crazy’ and ‘mental’ are used on a daily basis to describe negative experiences.” Williams added. “They further entrench the negative attitudes and low expectations of disabled people which permeate across society.”
In a report from the ONS, it showed that autistic people are the least likely to be in work of any disabled group, with just 21.7% of autistic people in employment. Another study of autistic adults in employment found that nearly half (47%) hadn’t spoken to colleagues outside of HR about their diagnosis***.
“Popular stereotypes of disabled people as permanent wheelchair users or as blind from birth persist, shaping public perceptions and informing policy approaches in organisations. It is simply no longer acceptable to put a disabled toilet in your lobby and get a Disability Confident badge on your website and call it a day.”
“There are a plethora of skills, vital to organisational success, that manifest within the neurodiverse and broader disabled communities. When you are constantly working into a system that does not set you up for success, you develop resilience, determination, creativity, and a positive attitude. You become more reliable, innovative… and very good at delegating.” He laughed.
“When my business and life partner Cayelan, and I were building our business, we knew we wanted to create a hiring process where the unique skills of every single person could and would be elevated to organisations, and all arbitrary barriers to entry would be removed for people who are systemically excluded from opportunities in the world of work.”
“When you focus on what people can do instead of holding them back because of where they learnt to do it, you unlock endless potential for innovation and performance capability in your teams.”
To help change the future, Williams, along with several other disabled entrepreneurs, have recently started a campaign to bring more awareness to the vast but systemically underutilised talents that are currently hidden within disabled communities. All successful business owners in their own rights, the group are calling on Venture Capitalists and Private Investors to not overlook their community, now representing over 1 billion people, globally.
“Workplace disability awareness might be growing but still has such a long way to go. My message to other neurodiverse people is to stop letting society define the value of your capability and contribution, and to be the author of your narrative. I hope that my story and our broader campaigning can highlight how autism, or any long term health condition, should never be a barrier to career success or to adding your value to society and the world of work.”
**Autism Europe, employment
***National Autistic Society New shocking data highlights the autiatic employment gap
Notes to editor
Liz Ashworth / Victoria Edmond
FOUR PR & Marketing
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Clu is a SaaS company on a mission to make the working world work for everyone by fixing the biggest challenges facing recruitment and talent mobility. Over the past 9 months, we have developed the Clu v1.0 platform to match job opportunities to candidates and help organisations make better, more informed hiring decisions from significantly broader pools of talent. By improving the accuracy of recruitment and removing systemic barriers to the job market for marginalised groups, we are enabling economic participation and social mobility at scale and offering a first-of-its-kind solution in a broken £419B market currently operating at 50% efficiency. The company was founded by LGBTQ couple Joseph Williams and Cayelan Mendoza. Williams has built up 15 years of marketing, product development and innovation experience working with the likes of News Corp, Twitter and BBC Studios. Application and development specialist Cayelan Mendoza, previously worked for Apple and prop-tech scale-up VU.CITY.