In March 2018 Campaign Magazine voted you one of the 10 winners of the 2018 Women of Tomorrow Awards - awarded to women who consistently demonstrate exceptional leadership qualities and go beyond their brief. Who or what inspires you?

I’m inspired by those who use design to improve the quality of life for vulnerable people. What had the biggest impact on me and my career is a book called “Design Meets Disability” by Graham Pullin. Dr Pullin describes the tension between assistive products and mainstream design and suggests radical parings such as “What if Paul Smith met hearing aids…” I read this book and it made me see the world of disability totally differently. As someone who works in design, it made me stop and wonder why we still have such a great disconnect between mainstream products and services and assistive products and services.

I’m also really inspired by day to day problem solvers, who cope with ongoing difficulties and push past barriers. This is one of the things I love about having experience with disability, because you learn to find short cuts and work arounds to lots of different daily challenges. To this point, I am inspired by the patience, tenacity and good humour of my sister Cara who has been supported by SeeAbility for 18 years. This also applies to the carers and key workers at SeeAbility who work hard to help her.

Having found success in your branding career, you’ve also found a way of marrying this expertise up with your passion for disability inclusion – can you tell us more about why you’re driving change in this area?

Well, I don’t think it’s very fair that non-disabled people benefit from beautiful products, great service and comfortable experiences and disabled people don’t. There are 1 billion disabled people globally, and currently they are being left behind by this era of consumerism and innovation.

After reading Dr Pullin’s book, I continued to follow the academic world of inclusive design and in 2016, I thought “wouldn’t it be great if we could break out of this echo chamber of theory and make inclusive design a part of the mainstream design and branding process.” I thought that if more high street brands considered how disabled people use their products and services, they would be inspired to find ways to improve.

So I founded Think Designable; the alliance for inclusive brand practice. Our mission is to improve society’s relationship with difference by harnessing the power of mainstream brands and challenging them to represent the needs of disabled consumers accurately, though inclusive design. I see this as human rights disguised as consumer rights.

What are your proudest moments on the way?

It’s been such an exciting couple of years that it’s hard to pick. I think the big highlights would have to be: Hosting the first disability panel at the Festival of Marketing; campaigning for and presenting the first Diversity and Inclusion Champion award at the Masters of Marketing Awards and gaining support from the Minister for Disabilities, Sarah Newton. But the moments I love the most are when people feel encouraged to share how important this is to them on a personal level. Similarly, when people in the media world tell us that we helped them to think about disability in an entirely different way.

What is the greatest obstacle you have overcome?

The apathy of others! Unless people been touched by disability personally, they tend not to have too much of an interest in it. Getting them to care or see the opportunity can be tricky, encouraging them to invest and change is even harder.

You’ve stated that you want ideas about inclusivity to reach the wider public, to be harder to ignore, and to inspire those capable to take action. This is starting to happen now, with savvy brands becoming more attuned to tailoring their services beyond mainstream needs.

What else in your opinion, needs to happen to facilitate more mainstream inclusive practices?

Awareness is one thing, but we need this to convert into greater board-level commitment and proper organisational investment. Crucial to this will be the hiring of people with disabilities, as well as the commissioning of research teams who see the value in disabled insight (or as Open Inclusion put it ‘edge-case’ insight.)  Additionally, with growing competition between brands, we’re already starting to see thing hot up – especially in the world of fashion. So we need more brands to market their efforts in order to keep up momentum.

Why do you think it’s taken until now for brands to see the value of considering all needs?

I think societal views of disability have meant that progress has been so slow. Disability has previously been seen as the remit of charities and governments. As such, it’s seen by most as low interest, unattractive and undesirable.

I’ve discussed the sudden acceleration with a few people and the consensus seems to be that it’s picked up in recent years thanks to the internet. The online world coupled with accessible technology has given a voice to millions of disabled people, and their carers, in a way that has given them greater power than ever. It’s now incredibly easy for disabled users to write blogs, articles or critiques of customer experiences, which is WONDERFUL. Because these voices are now being heard.

How important do you think it is for a great leader to publicly acknowledge his or her strengths and weaknesses? Would you be willing to share yours with us?

Hah! I think it depends on whether that admission is helpful or relevant. I’m not sure I’d want to know too much about a pilot’s tendency for clumsiness for example. Some stuff we are probably better off not knowing, right?

But it all depends on how such weaknesses are positioned; for instance, not enough leaders feel confident enough to admit that they have impairments, because disability is still seen as a weakness. This has negative cultural implications. So it would be helpful for board members to share their disabilities (should they wish). For instance, Richard Branson has dyslexia, which is a great thing to know because it means he has experience of adversity. It’s also heartening for younger people with dyslexia who perhaps see it as a career limiting thing. It’s important for disabled people to have ambition and strong role models. So in some respects, his difference isn’t a weakness, it is in fact a strength!

In terms of my weaknesses, physically I have autoimmune issues such as asthma, rhinitis and psoriasis, as well as a herniated disc in my lower back, so life can get a little uncomfortable. But other than that, I’d say my weaknesses are chocolate, cake and Christoph Waltz…