Celebrating the Difference
Is dyslexia a gift? As a child struggling to read, write and fit in, Olivia Bollen would have said absolutely not. However, as a 22-year-old, running her own luxury gift box business, Olivia embraces the edge dyslexia gives her.
What was school like for you?
In all honesty I couldn’t wait to get out of school. I think this is because dyslexic people can’t be moulded into a small box. We are the thinkers, the creatives and the ones that come up with ideas that change the world, so to try and make them think like everyone else is crazy. My school experience was dependent on my teacher each year.
One year I literally wound up in an attic with about 15 other out-of-control kids considered ‘special’. It was a jungle. I was a really quiet kid so I sat in the corner and did nothing. Some of my favourite school memories are from amazing teachers who understood that dyslexia didn’t need to be a limitation. One of them made it fun and interactive with activities that used our hands and speaking out loud – using the senses rather than just reading and writing. But a year later I had a teacher who was the complete opposite. Rather than thinking, ‘I wonder why she doesn’t want to write this essay or read aloud?’ she would punish and embarrass. A teacher can make or break a child; they can make you feel so awful. I can still feel those emotions.
I really wanted to be’normal’. But I truly believe that without dyslexia, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
What was the turning point?
I was really lucky to be able to have assessments and one-on-one tuition. My tutor was amazing – she was like my mentor. But school was still really hard and I only really ‘got it’ in year 11. It took me a long time to accept support. I really wanted to be ‘normal’. So initially I went in to the big gym to do exams with everyone else. I used to be so anxious hearing people write page after page. I’d feel completely screwed. After the Christchurch earthquake, I moved up to Auckland and started at Diocesan for the last few years of high school. The learning support ladies staff there were my saving grace. They actually forced me to take advantage of special accommodations for exams – reader-writers, extra time and a separate room. I learned the value of that help and to take it without feeling guilty. As much as friends said, ‘you’re so lucky you get a reader-writer’, this truly was levelling the playing field. If I didn’t have support and accommodations, I would think I was really dumb. I probably would have dropped out of school.
Once I left school, I felt confident enough to pursue my passion and get a Bachelor Degree of Business in Market Insights at AUT. In my last year, I worked as an intern at SPOTIFY in Sydney. It was an incredible company. They had a very relaxed environment and you weren’t confined to a desk. We could sit on a couch with blankets and cookies and do proposals. They knew I was dyslexic and considered it an attribute.
What strategies do you still use?
By the time I reached uni, I’d really perfected what worked for me and how to ensure I’d get the best results. One of my favourite strategies that I still use is visually mapping and planning everything. At school or AUT, if I needed to write an essay plan or prepare for an exam, I would get huge sheets of paper and draw colour-coordinated picture references for every single aspect. Now this applies to my business plans, pitches and anything in-between.
I still have to say something out loud before writing it and my spelling is still terrible. When I was little that was awful, but now I don’t consider it important. I can use spell check or just Google a word if I’m not sure of it.
One of my teachers showed me how reading with a coloured plastic folder could help control my eyes running around the page. I still to this use a finger, ruler, piece of paper or anything I can find to control my reading.
Why do you now consider dyslexia a gift?
I believe my dyslexia has meant I can think creatively in an industry that can often be extremely boring and predictable. In general, I feel as though I can see things in the ‘big picture’. My imagination for what I want to do in life or in business is never hindered and, because of this clear vision, I am never scared to go out and try to achieve it.
I feel so thankful that from day one, my family always told me that even though I might not have felt it, having dyslexia was a gift. It took me a long time to accept that. I really wanted to be ‘normal’. But I truly believe that without dyslexia, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Taking care of business
When Olivia lived overseas, she used to despair at the quality of gift boxes to send her loved ones. She saw a gap in the market and a few months after graduating from AUT, launched her own company. Taken Care Of luxurious, customised gift boxes now travel all over the world. For more on Olivia’s venture, see https://takencareof.co.nz