Entrepreneurship and ADHD: Fast Brain, Fast Company?
Entrepreneurship and ADHD are connected in research — and the anecdotal success of businesses ranging from JetBlue to Kinko’s and beyond. Here, entrepreneurs with ADHD reflect on the ways tenacity, ingenuity, hyperfocus, and other ADD traits offer a strategic advantage.
Risk-taking. Impulsivity. Sensation seeking. Hyperfocus. Curiosity. We associate these traits and qualities with some of the most successful, trailblazing entrepreneurs of our time.
But is it coincidence that these same traits and qualities, anecdotally and empirically, are largely associated with attention deficit disorder? Is there a link between entrepreneurship and ADHD?
Several studies have connected ADHD and “entrepreneurial intention,” 1 2 and some have found significant associations between ADHD and self-employment3. Hyperactivity, according to some research, may be the ADHD symptom most closely tied to entrepreneurship. 4 5
In some ways, the ADHD traits most commonly associated with challenges are the same ones lauded by successful entrepreneurs. Still, not all entrepreneurs with ADHD build strong, healthy businesses, suggesting that ADHD traits related to entrepreneurship are complex and may lead to positive and negative outcomes6.
Entrepreneurship and ADHD: 8 Traits Tied to Success
These entrepreneurs – all living with ADHD – credit a range of personal qualities, from risk-taking and persistence to comfort in chaos, for their success in business.
ADHD Trait #1: Risk-Taking and Leaps of Faith
The greatest success stories in business history have involved taking a leap based on what the budding entrepreneur saw in the marketplace at a moment in time. Rejecting solutions that seemed to be “normal,” they trusted their instincts and moved ahead with something unproven while their more risk-averse peers insisted it would never work.
Alan Brown, founder of ADD Crusher and ADD CrusherTV, a video and streaming series on ADHD productivity, got his start in advertising – and admits that it was a mediocre one at that. But within a few years, he worked out some ADHD brain hacks for himself and was named employee of the year.
Shortly after that, and despite finding success in his field, he quit the ad agency to help launch a startup.
“We had no money, no real product, just an idea that didn’t work at first, but we pivoted to a better idea,” he says. “It’s all about taking risks. You don’t take stupid risks, but you do things that maybe someone else wouldn’t be willing to try.”
Impulsivity and risk-taking are strongly associated with ADHD — symptoms thought to be linked to deficiencies with self-regulation and dopamine, the “feel-good” hormone. Risk-taking, which may be highly stimulating for dopamine-starved ADHD brains, is also part and parcel of entrepreneurship.1
David Flink, who grew up with undiagnosed ADHD and dyslexia, took a risk at 18 when he and his college peers conceived of a mentoring program for students with learning differences based on his own struggles in school.
“People who learn differently tend to have higher levels of creativity, so I walked down to the local elementary school and offered to mentor some of their kids,” Flink says. “I thought ‘Hey, let’s give it a shot!’”
That impulse was the foundation of Eye-to-Eye, now a national non-profit organization that pairs middle school kids with learning differences with college and high school students who have met the same challenges. The program is so impactful that Flink was recognized with a GQ magazine “Leader Award” in 2015 and named a CNN Hero in 2021.
“If not for my ADHD, I wouldn’t have been inclined to take a risk [with mentoring], but ADHD gives us the courage — good or bad — to try something that no one has tried before,” he says. “The idea that my learning differences could be a gift for a younger student turned out to be a great thing! Something wonderful came from it.”
ADHD Trait #2: Problem-Solving Abilities
In her prior work as a federal attorney for the SEC, Otsuka had trouble finding blouses that were work-appropriate. “I saw what designers were offering, but it wasn’t working for me as a professional woman. Their blouses were either too sheer or too low-cut.”
She conducted some focus groups and found that other women were equally frustrated with the limited professional clothing market. Though she had no experience in fashion, Otsuka launched her own firm to design, manufacture, and sell high-end silk blouses by mail order.
“I went in from a completely different angle. Essentially, I developed a new mousetrap,” she says. “It never dawned on me that maybe I needed experience or that it might be risky. It didn’t occur to me that this could fail.”
It didn’t fail. Her womenswear line was sold in major department stores such as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Saks Fifth Avenue.
ADHD Trait #3: Resilience, Tenacity, and Passion
Every entrepreneur knows the gut-punch of an idea or a project that fizzled. But ADHD individuals are accustomed to peeling themselves off the floor and, after a bit of recovery time, swinging again.
“We’ve failed in the past, so we are better able to deal with it when things go awry,” Flink says. “We’ll learn from it; we’ll see what happens and we’ll move forward from there.”
“If you fall off, don’t beat yourself up. Get back on,” Brown says. “Just keep working those ADHD brain hacks, and, eventually, you’ll get back on track.”
“When we are connected to our zone of interest, we’re doing something we are passionate about. But that’s not enough,” Otsuka says. “There’s a desire to live up to our potential. We have a fear that we’re running out of time, and we want to do something purposeful with our lives. So we hang in there. It’s tenacity and life purpose.”
ADHD Trait #4: High Energy and Impulsivity
ADHD entrepreneurs think fast, talk fast, and move fast. They act first and think later.
“Those with ADHD tend to spur themselves into action regardless of uncertainty,” says Johan Wiklund, Ph.D., a professor at Syracuse University who studies entrepreneurship. “An impulsive inability to wait comes with a willingness to take risks. The [ADHD entrepreneurs] I studied struggle. But if they had a chance to be like everyone else, none of them would take it.”
“We have to be in action, or we are not happy,” Otsuka says. “To be ‘driven’ is a form of hyperactivity. That is the entrepreneurial trait in a nutshell.”
ADHD Trait #5: Preference for Multitasking
Adults with ADHD appear to enjoy multitasking, even though they aren’t much better at it than the general population7. Dale Archer, M.D., author of The ADHD Advantage, writes: “This strength lends itself perfectly to entrepreneurship because that’s what owners of startups do: juggle many tasks at one time — from sales to R&D, admin, and payroll. When you start something from nothing, you have no choice but to dart from task to task, doing everything for yourself until you can afford enough extra staff and infrastructure to delegate. Creating a new business is tailor-made for those with ADHD.”
ADHD Trait #6: The Drive to Make a Difference
The 1980s TV series “Dallas” fascinated young Bob Dietrich, an ADHD entrepreneur for more than 20 years. “I loved the deal-making, the business, even as a kid,” he says. When he was laid off from his long-time corporate accounting job, he vowed he would never be an employee again.
Instead, he launched a public speaking firm, drawing on his complex personal history to inspire others — including (ironically) corporate groups. Then he saw other speakers struggling, so he set up training programs to help them share their own stories.
Recently, he teamed with another entrepreneur to offer an innovative program, BrainWorx, to challenge the unconscious and conscious belief systems of children and adults with ADHD. “I’ve dedicated my life to causes that are valuable to the community in general,” he says.
Otsuka, meanwhile, developed Coretography, a training program that helps women find their life purpose. The idea for Coretography emerged from Otsuka’s disenchantment with standard career advice.
“I was always looking for the answer to ‘What am I meant to do with my life?’ I went through career coaching, counseling, attended all the workshops, and read all the books, but I still couldn’t figure out my next step,” she says. “The problem was that was I interested in everything!”
Coretography’s six-step program addresses values as well as career. “I believe that ADHD women care more about living a life of meaning and living up to their potential than do others. We have a deep-seated need to make a difference.”
As for Flink, he is committed to fulfilling the promise of Eye-to-Eye. “Mentoring the next generation of students with learning differences is a moral responsibility,” he says. “The scope of the work is monumental, and we carry that responsibility on our shoulders.”
ADHD Trait #7: Comfort in Chaos
“Running your own business and being an entrepreneur requires the ability to manage chaos, unpredictability, and inconsistency,” says Laurie Dupar, who founded her own coaching business. “People with ADHD, with their high interest and tolerance for the new and stimulating, are often at their best in what would be a crisis situation for someone else. In fact, these are the exact situations when they tend to be most focused and clear-headed. We eat chaos for breakfast.”
ADHD Trait #8: Innate Understanding of the ADHD Brain
Early on, Brown fought his undiagnosed ADHD. “I did a lot of things that were not in my best interests,” he says. “I was lucky not to be put in jail.”
As he created ADD Crusher as a “solopreneur,” he learned a lot about his own ADHD. “My formula has been: be aware of how my brain works and does not work,” Brown says. “Just knowing that, versus being in the dark and getting frustrated, can stop the negative self-talk.”
Dietrich agrees: “ADHD is a brain challenge, so work with your brain. Know that you have to study it, figure out the solutions for you, and then make it happen.”
“Making it happen” often means late nights, in keeping with the ADHD “night owl” tendency. Research shows that people with ADHD may have circadian rhythm disruptions that cause them to stay up later than neurotypicals8.
“Some nights I would sit down at 10 o’clock to take care of a small thing. I’d stop, thinking it was about 11:30 p.m. but it was 4 a.m.,” Otsuka says. “Sometimes a lack of time awareness is a good thing.”
Some entrepreneurs with ADHD create businesses to meet their own challenges. ADHD entrepreneur and JetBlue founder David Neeleman introduced e-tickets because he often forgot to bring his tickets to the airport. Ariane Poole developed Ariane Poole Cosmetics because she knew that women want simple beauty regimens. And everyone benefits.
“If I can make something work for the ADHD brain, I know it’s going to work for the neurotypical brain,” says Otsuka.
Entrepreneurship and ADHD: Next Steps
- Free Download: What to Ask Yourself to Find the Perfect Job
- Read: Great Job! A Career Happiness Formula for Adults with ADHD
- Read: How to Ace Your Job Interview: An ADHD Primer
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2Lerner, D.A., Verheul, I. & Thurik, R. Entrepreneurship and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a large-scale study involving the clinical condition of ADHD. Small Bus Econ 53, 381–392 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11187-018-0061-1
3Verheul, I., Rietdijk, W., Block, J. et al. The association between attention-deficit/hyperactivity (ADHD) symptoms and self-employment. Eur J Epidemiol 31, 793–801 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10654-016-0159-1
4Wilkund, J., Yu, W., et. al. (2017). ADHD, impulsivity and entrepreneurship. Journal of Business Venturing, 32(6), 627-656. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0883902616302348?via%3Dihub
7Gawrilow, C., Merkt, J., Goossens-Merkt, H., Bodenburg, S., & Wendt, M. (2011). Multitasking in adults with ADHD. Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, 3(3), 253–264. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12402-011-0056-0
8Wajszilber, D., Santiseban, J. A., & Gruber, R. (2018). Sleep disorders in patients with ADHD: impact and management challenges. Nature and science of sleep, 10, 453–480. https://doi.org/10.2147/NSS.S163074