Charlotte Valeur: 'My autism is my strength'
Charlotte Valeur, founder of Global Governance Group, talks to Lysanne Currie about being diagnosed with autism in later life – and why neurodiversity is a boon for the boardroom.
Six years ago, after a childhood friend asked her if she thought she was autistic, Charlotte Valeur took an online test. “I went through the full diagnostics,” she says. “And I scored high on everything. I’m not even marginally autistic. I’m full-on autistic.” It was another two years before her diagnosis was professionally confirmed. And although nothing outwardly changed (her siblings appear to have taken the news in their stride), in reality everything changed: “So many people say ‘suddenly it all makes sense’.”
Growing up in Copenhagen, she’d been marginalised at school (“I was a very quiet child”), and gained less than spectacular grades. “I came out of school believing that I was stupid,” she recalls, “because they didn’t know what to do with me. You find that a lot of autistic boys, especially, end up being expelled from school – that is just how the school system works. They don’t fit in and league tables are not helping.”
Starting work in banking proved to be the making of her: she excelled as a banker in both Copenhagen and London – “a bit of a female trailblazer in capital markets” and a blunt-speaking “one of the boys”. “It was more difficult for me to relate to women,” she says, citing research that suggests autism is more of a “male” syndrome. “Autistic women tend to be more like neurotypical men,” she says. “They might be tomboys when they’re young, which people felt I was. I remember wanting to be a princess, but I also liked sitting in trees, because it’s safer to be up a tree than down on the ground with all the people.”
After having her first two children, she set up her own business and started gracing boardrooms. She went on to become a director of seven public companies, including three chairmanships, and Chair of the Institute of Directors. A success, whichever way you cut it. Yet she is also the first senior business leader to speak out about being neurodiverse – which might give some indication of how deep-rooted these prejudices are. Sadly, many employees still can’t shake off images of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. They enquire after her “special talent” or even how she deals with empathy.
“It is proven that autistic people do not have less empathy than others,” she says. “In fact I believe we could have more – [even if] we might display it differently.” Ludicrously, she was even turned down by one company, as The Times reported, for apparently “scaring the life out of the board members”.
At a time when only 16% of adults with autism are in full-time paid employment, such attitudes have to change. Valeur is spearheading that drive. According to a 2017 study published in the Harvard Business Review, neurodiverse people are able to bring particular talents, such as pattern recognition or memory skills. With companies keen to broaden their perspectives and skillsets, especially in the boardroom, autistic people have a lot to offer.
“I do think that being autistic has made my career,” says Valeur. She believes it is one of her strengths, and argues that it gave her the focus (or “hyperfocus”) she needed for working in the City: “We are all equally valuable. There is value in all people.”
Movingly, she describes the way in which autistic people will try to fit in, often from early childhood. “We do that throughout our life,” she says. “Some people call it masking. We have to learn it mechanically. It’s not intuitive.”
Small talk, in particular, proved doubly challenging for the Danish former merchant banker. “I’m quite open,” she says. “I’m quite direct. I’m probably too honest. I don’t do small talk. I mean, how long can you talk about the weather? I realised when I started speaking to British people that they loved talking about television. And there were certain things in television that they talked about more than others. So I found the pattern. And I made myself watch the things that they were talking about, so I could chat to them about it at work. I watched Coronation Street and sport for 18 months just to have something to talk about with colleagues.”
Of those cliched “Rain Man” skills, she will admit to possessing a photographic memory to some degree – and she has proven to be a whizz at memory games: “I went to a London Business School leadership conference with 120 people,” she says. “They showed us a chessboard for five seconds, and you had to replicate it on a paper one. Of the 16 pieces, I got 11 – and I was an outlier.”
A risk-based exercise also saw her score well: “I’ve been trained in risk since I was a stock exchange trader, so my brain works really well in that space. And it was a beautiful example of [the benefits of] having a neurodiverse person on the board.”
This is why diversity is so important, she says: “It’s about having different sets of eyes to see. Not seeing things broadly enough has huge implications for businesses around the world.”
Valeur cites autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen’s new book Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention: “He basically says that if we didn’t have those outliers that systemise us to a certain depth, then we as humans would not have evolved. Because to develop a language from scratch, you have to be able to do that.”
She likens autism to the “mad professor” archetype: “Because some can be deep thinkers in certain specialised areas, they need everyone else around them to be able still to function, because they forget to pay their bills and forget to eat.”
Change the filter
In 2020, the autism research charity Autistica launched its Know More campaign in a bid to convince government, business and the general public to fund research into autistic people and their families. Similarly, Valeur is now in the process of launching an Institute of Neurodiversity – which she wants to be a voice for neurodiverse people in the world and “a place they can go to for support”.
She’s currently speaking with a variety of organisations and individuals, including MPs, to canvass support for their application to be both a charity and an institute with members, with the aim of representing, celebrating and creating awareness of neurodiversity, as well as helping those members to connect with their peers. “We’re probably a month away from sending the applications off,” she says. “And then hopefully, it won’t take more than six months [to launch].”
Valeur cannot call it an institute until it has government approval, so in the interim she has set up LinkedIn and Facebook groups, a first step to “support the development of neurodiversity networks everywhere”. The Facebook group says it wants to “bring together neurodiverse individuals and their allies so we can be a strong, joined-up voice in the world. We have a lot to add to the world and together we form a significant percentage of the global population. Our purpose is to change this and influence the creation of an equal, inclusive world in which neurodiverse individuals are well understood, represented and valued equally to everyone else.”
She reminds us that there isn’t a “cure” for autism. “We’re born this way. This is what we are. We can learn to be more like other people if we have to – in much the same way as saying that women have to be more like men to succeed. But wouldn’t it be nicer if we didn’t have to?”