Chatting charity with Sir Stelios

Last month, the prestigious Stelios Award chose it’s 2018 winner. The award celebrates the best talent and most innovative ideas from disabled entrepreneurs across the country. We sat down with founder of the award, and creator of easyJet, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, to find out exactly why he created the award, and how he deals with the tough decision of choosing a winner.

What was it that encouraged you to create the Stelios Philanthropic Foundation, and the Stelios Award?

From my father of course! As a self-made shipping magnate, he instilled in his children that the better off owe a debt to society. Wealthy people have a duty to give back.

So, my first experience of philanthropy was with dad’s money. As is often the case with second generation businessmen, I was dealing with his estate – part of which involved making charitable donations with funds from his legacy.

He passed away in 2008 but left very specific instructions about charity beginning at home, so naturally he focused on Greece and Cyprus.

As a self-made man he didn’t go to university, but he thought that university education was something noble and worth doing: that’s why he initially directed his philanthropy to supporting university education.

There are so many good causes out there – how did you decide the Award would honour entrepreneurs with disabilities? 

My Foundation makes annual donations to many of the big well-known charities – Royal British Legion, NSPCC, Great Ormond St Hospital; when Leonard Cheshire approached me for funding I said rather than write a cheque – the fire and forget option – let’s do something together that will both last and make a difference.

We’re now in our 12th year and by inviting people who have a disability and are starting a business, I think we are making a small but determined effort to make a difference in people’s lives.

It’s a niche programme but it’s close to my heart as it involves people being entrepreneurial and giving them a career path that doesn’t involve them having to put up with employers’ often unwitting discriminatory recruitment practices or condemning people to a life on benefits.

It’s worth remembering that when it comes to earning a living disabled people are far less likely to be employed than non-disabled people. Fewer than 50 per cent of working-age disabled people are in work, compared to 75 per cent of non-disabled people.

Also disabled people’s day to day living costs are 25 per cent higher than those of non-disabled people, and they are around three times as likely not to hold any qualifications compared to non-disabled people – further reducing their employment chances.

Credit to Josh Wintersgill

All the candidates had such amazing projects – how did you decide who would win?

I tend to say this every year, but it was an incredibly hard decision this time around.  There was a very rich mix of talent and in terms of the decision-making process it was tough.  There have been years where I’ve chosen two winners, such was the difficulty in narrowing down the candidates, but Josh found a gap in the market that really spoke to me.

In terms of the process, we watch a short film of each business. I talk to candidates about their plans and strategies and look at their offerings.

The panel then discuss how the business can shape or push forward a sector and make a difference.

Throughout the summer there have been stories about the difficulties disabled travellers have had transferring on and off planes, and I’m delighted to give this young man the opportunity to market a product that’s obviously needed.

The winner is always someone who shows commitment and business sense. But there is always a spark that is too hard to define.

Credit to Leonard Cheshire

What do you hope for the future of Able Move?

On the day of the awards we had a Dragon’s Den-style scenario and I was impressed by Josh’s presentation. Business-wise, it made perfect sense.

He was passionate about the product, the proto-type was excellent, and the marketing materials already prepared by Able Move were of a very high quality.  He clearly has an exciting future ahead of him. By serving a market with which he is intimately familiar he seems likely to secure a bright future for his idea – and his business.

What advice would you give any budding young disabled entrepreneurs?

Essentially, the same as I would give to any other entrepreneur. Don’t lose heart over setbacks – as you will be bound to meet plenty along the way.

Hard work really is one of the best tools to success. You remember Gary Player, the golfer, who said “the harder I practice, the luckier I get”? As long as you’re enjoying what you are doing, hard work shouldn’t be too painful.

Pick things that you find enjoyable and don’t allow disability get in the way. Also I think all markets are competitive so try not to get put off by that. Instead, try to look for areas where there is a relative lack of efficiency which you can improve upon and exploit.

But above all never make a bet you cannot afford to lose.

Read our interview with 2018’s Stelios Award Winner, Josh Wintersgill, in the upcoming issue of Enable.

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