Leah Holroyd with her brother Finn. Leah holds a White Bicycle Ltd business card

Leah Holroyd tells us about being named as one of the Top 10 in the Telegraph/NatWest 100 Female Entrepreneurs to Watch list, what it’s like working with her brother, and how improving accessibility benefits us all.

How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you?

I have a rare genetic form of macular degeneration called Best’s disease which affects my central vision. It’s currently in the early stages and means that my central vision is a little pixelated and I’ve started to struggle with night blindness in low light. It’s hard to predict how the condition will develop over time, but I’ve been told I could lose my central vision in my 40s or 50s, meaning I would not be able to read, write or recognise people’s faces unaided.

Ironically, being diagnosed with this condition has opened my eyes (!) to the world of accessibility and inclusive learning. Accessibility was always important to me in my work, but I’ve become even more passionate about making sure that everyone has access to high-quality engaging education and training, whatever their access needs.

Tell us a little about your business.

I founded White Bicycle Ltd in December 2019 with my brother, Finn. We design and build online and blended learning programmes for our clients – so everything is bespoke and tailored to the client’s requirements. This means we get to work on a wide range of projects – from creating Disability Inclusion training for staff at the UN World Food Programme to building clinical skills modules for healthcare professionals at Guy’s & St Thomas’ NHS Trust. We also provide consultancy services, particularly for organisations which are just making their first foray into online learning.

Why did you start the business? Share your story so far.

I had been working in online/blended learning for about a decade, with a spin-out from Imperial College London, at a university in Australia, and then as a freelancer working with organisations like Medecins Sans Frontieres and Pearson. When my younger brother graduated, we started freelancing together and it just seemed to work! So, after a couple of years, we decided to take the plunge and form a limited company. Our skills are complimentary – for example, he takes care of all filming and video editing, while I have more experience scoping projects and guiding clients through some of the higher-level decisions at the start of a project. White Bicycle Ltd has just celebrated its three year anniversary, and we’ve worked with some amazing clients on some really interesting and impactful projects. Finn and I share the same visual impairment, so we’ve both come to focus more and more on accessibility and we want to become the leading providers of accessible online learning.

What do you see as the main challenges facing your business and its continued operation or growth?

In the years to come, we want to focus more on accessibility in online learning. I think there are two challenges there.

Firstly, helping people to understand that accessibility is not a “nice to have”, an afterthought, or a tick-box exercise. Education is a basic human right, and everyone should be able to access quality learning resources – not to mention the fact that it’s a legal requirement!

Secondly, although we’re already doing some exciting work using bespoke code to achieve enhanced accessibility with existing authoring software, in the longer term we’d love to develop our own authoring tool/learning platform which puts accessibility and inclusion at the heart of the learning design process. But this would be a huge undertaking and one which would require external investment at some stage, which is an avenue we haven’t previously had to go down!

What can we do to encourage more disabled entrepreneurs to start businesses – what is holding them back and what can we all do to help change that?

Leah Holroyd Telegraph 100 Image (Credit: Sarah Brick)

I had already started my business before I was diagnosed with Best’s, so I didn’t realise I had a visual impairment when I set out on this journey – and even now, I know I’m lucky that my condition is still in the early stages, so I’m not sure how well I can answer this question.

However, I have been working with a fantastic organisation called Diversity & Ability and have learned a lot from my conversations with their team and from attending their annual conference this year. I think inclusion needs to be embedded in every aspect of promoting entrepreneurship and this needs to be anticipatory – for example, if grants are available, is the application process accessible? Are networking events, business summits etc accessible?

I also think we need to be clear that being inclusive is, again, not just a tick-box exercise, but actually makes good business sense. Often disabled people are fantastic at problem-solving (because they’ve had to do it their entire lives!), so by excluding them we’re potentially missing out on all kinds of innovations and advancements.

We also need to remember that disabled entrepreneurs may have businesses related in some way to their disability (e.g. assistive technology) or they might not, so it’s important not to make assumptions about the kinds of ideas and innovations that could come from this community.

Image shows Leah photographed by Sarah Brick for her top 10 position in the Telegraph/NatWest 100 Female Entrepreneurs to Watch list

What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?

In November, I was named as one of the Top 10 in the Telegraph/NatWest 100 Female Entrepreneurs to Watch list. The judges were looking for young businesses which could demonstrate resilience, purpose, innovation and potential, so it was fantastic to see White Bicycle Ltd up there! It came towards the end of a really busy year, and I am really proud of everything we’ve achieved as a micro business, especially our innovative approach to making online courses more accessible, which has allowed us to create bespoke modules for the UNWFP and Sony Pictures through our collaboration with Diversity & Ability.

If there was one thing you could change about peoples’ perception of disability what would it be and why?

I wish more people realised that inclusion benefits everyone. That’s not to say that we should only make changes if they benefit everybody/the mainstream – it’s more about recognising that everyone has their own particular needs, their own skills, and particular things that will help them to thrive, whether that’s about disability, neurodiversity, or things like caring responsibilities and family commitments. We can all benefit by having more open discussions about these things. In our own line of work, when we think about accessibility, everyone benefits – as a simple example, providing captions and transcripts for video content is useful for someone with auditory access needs, but also for people who may speak English as a second language, or who simply prefer to read information rather than listen to it.

Who or what inspires you?

Amar Latif, who is a blind entrepreneur and adventurer. I’m a Trustee of my local Citizens Advice Bureau and I first came across Amar Latif when he spoke at the Citizens Advice annual conference in 2021. He’s the founder of Traveleyes, a specialist travel agency which runs tours for blind and visually-impaired people, and he was also the first ever blind contestant on Celebrity Masterchef! At a time when I was coming to terms with my own diagnosis and what it might mean for me, it was inspiring to listen to Amar talking about how he’d adjusted to life with sight loss and to hear about all his achievements.

Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?

I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts but I’ll often listen to BBC Radio 4, and I recently came across a programme called Unplayable: Disability and the Gaming Revolution, which is about the advocacy work that’s been done by disabled gamers and the advancements it’s led to. It’s a fun listen and a great illustration of how innovative and creative we can be when we make sure that disabled people are included in our design conversations!