When his son was born with severe disabilities Hardeep Rai reevaluated his life. Now he offers disabled entrepreneurs startup mentoring and finance
‘I have an appreciation for life that I didn’t before,’ Hardeep Rai with his son Eshan. Photograph: Hardeep Rai
Until 2006 my life had been easy. I had most of the things I wanted – a good job, a happy marriage, steady income and family. The one thing that was missing was a child. I was so excited for my son to be born that November.
But, on the day of my son Eshan’s birth, at the last minute, something went terribly wrong. During the birthing process he was starved of oxygen, which resulted in a severe brain injury.
Suddenly my money (I had a well-paid career in finance) had no value – it couldn’t buy back my son’s health. Everything I had worked for lost all importance. I began to reevaluate my life completely.
Through Eshan, who is visually impaired and disabled, I was introduced to a world that I’d never properly thought about before – the world of disability. I began to see what his world was like, a world in which he can’t walk, talk, eat independently, see properly, move with coordination or really express how he feels.
I realised there must be thousands of people with disabilities that struggle with communication, or who aren’t listened to.
Then in 2014 I met Shane Bratby. Shane is a successful entrepreneur who founded Disabled Entrepreneurs, a networking group for disabled people who want to start, or who are already running, a business.
I had nearly 20 years of experience in finance and had spent almost two years working with James Caan, first as a director at one of his businesses at Hamilton Bradshaw and secondly as a mentor for Start-up Loans. I was on track for a bright career in the City, but that no longer appealed to me.
When I met Shane, I was helping to raise money for startups and he came to me for help on his business idea. Since Eshan was born, I knew I wanted to work with disabled people but wasn’t sure in what capacity .
Shane told me about the difficulties disabled entrepreneurs have in raising money to start a business. He said people with disabilities don’t want to just receive charitable donations or be given grants.
I hoped we could go into business together to ease this problem; he would connect me with the disabled community and I would offer my experience of building a business and raising finance.
Shane and I discussed the topic for months, before we co-founded Kaleidoscope Investments. We offer funding to disabled entrepreneurs, or entrepreneurs with business ideas that seek to help people with disabilities. We take a stake in each business, but we won’t take more than 30%. At the moment it’s between 5% and 25%.
It was around April 2015 that we saw our idea had real potential. We held a breakfast event for budding or existing entrepreneurs with disabilities. It was a chance to present our business to them, and hear from them in return. We had 30 spaces and 70 people attended. A BBC journalist, who is blind, attended and included us in an article, which helped raise our profile. Now we are working with 15 companies and have met 350 disabled entrepreneurs in the last year.
There have been challenges. There’s a slower pace working with disabled entrepreneurs, health issues and hospital appointments can delay business meetings and growth. I continue to be inspired by their resilience, determination, enthusiasm and passion.
Our aim is to have invested in 60 businesses by the end of 2017. We connect those we invest in with mentors and help them to put together a business plan and launch their business. We also offer business training as they grow.
I have worked with entrepreneurs with a wide range of disabilities, from people with multiple sclerosis, to people with mental health issues. One of the people we work with is paralysed from the neck downwards, but he types faster than I can by using his eyes. But there is a common thread – they are driven by a desire to want to help other people, often because many have had to endure their own difficulties.
Every single day is different in our business. I’m continuously meeting with people about their business ideas, as well as trying to raise additional funds for the business. I do a lot of travelling to people who are unable to travel.
If it weren’t for Eshan, I would have probably continued to chase my own financially driven goals and dreams. Yet, through his disability, Eshan opened up my eyes to other things that mattered. Through him, I have an appreciation for life that I didn’t before. His smile and laughter is my daily medicine and gives me a deep sense of peace and happiness. I’ve never enjoyed anything in my life as much as I enjoy what I do now, all because of, Eshan.
Hardeep Rai is the co-founder of Kaleidoscope Investments.