De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) welcomed award-winning entrepreneur and alumnus Mark Esho back to campus to talk about the incredible story of resilience that is his life and career.
He spoke to students about overcoming the adversity and discrimination he has faced as a disabled black man to build several successful businesses in web development.
Born in the UK in the 1960s to Nigerian parents, Mark was fostered out at six months old to a British family, to live in a small mining village in Leicestershire, while his parents focused on their career – a process common in many Nigerian families at the time.
He describes his childhood as ‘relatively happy’ despite feeling slightly out of place as the only black child in the village and surrounding area.
Shortly after turning five Mark contracted polio. He said: “I was riding my bike in the day - I remember because that was the first day I rode it without stabilisers.
“That night in bed I had a very violent fit. When I woke up in the morning I was paralysed from the neck down; which of course, was hugely traumatic.”
Despite a bleak prognosis, Mark made great progress in the Leicester Royal Infirmary. By the age of seven he was able to move his upper body and by eight he was walking with leg callipers, but life proved difficult as a disabled child.
His parents, unhappy with the prospect of him attending a special needs school, took him back to Nigeria. He described the transfer from living in a quiet UK village, to the large, noisy city of Lagos, Nigeria, as ‘a huge culture shock’ – made even more distressing by regular visits to witch-doctors to try and cure him of his polio.
Mark returned to the UK at the age of 18, and graduated from DMU in 1994 after obtaining his Master of Business Administration.
He praised the access arrangements at the university for helping him to graduate: “DMU was fantastic for me. Previously my education was disjointed because the schools that I attended didn’t make any provision for disabled people. I would attend, struggle with access and then withdraw.
“DMU made sure, even back then, that I had access to all my lectures and the library.”
He saw education as a way to try to ‘level the playing field’, and believes a formal education is important for entrepreneurs. “An education trains you to learn, and you get used to learning in the way you need to constantly in business,” he said.
Mark began to consider creating his own business when the chronic fatigue caused by post-polio syndrome left him unable to work a regular full-time role.
Pursuing his interest in computers, he taught himself web design and search engine optimisation (SEO), and when he realised the business potential of this field he started the SEO company Rank4U.
Mark built the business on free trials for businesses in exchange for testimonials, and went on to start one of the first ‘no placement, no fee’ models.
Since then, he has founded many more businesses, including a web-hosting site, a digital marketing agency, and a property investment company.
As an entrepreneur, he understands that encountering failure is inevitable, but considers it part of the process. “I like to fail, because I learn. For me, to a certain extent, failure is a blessing,” he said.
Throughout his life, Mark has had to overcome bias against his disability and skin colour, but believes the key to combating this is to ensure that there are more disabled role models in business.
He said: “Just take a look at the Paralympic Games. People had a much better perception of disabled people afterwards. Just as we might see better representation now in certain industries for black people– such as black footballers, or actors - we aren’t seeing enough diversity in our entrepreneurs. It’s the same for disabled people, we need to see more people with disabilities in business.”
During his talk, Mark also discussed the importance of vaccination. Incidences of polio in the 1960s, while still fairly common in Nigeria, was rare in the UK due to widespread vaccination.
“Many people thought I’d caught polio in Nigeria, but no - I’d caught it here in Leicester. My parents had thought that my foster family had given me the vaccine, and vice-versa, so I’d kind of slipped through the net. There is no cure for polio, and that’s why it’s very, very important to get vaccinated,” he said.
Mark works closely with the Rotary Foundation to make polio vaccinations accessible in developing countries.
Mark’s full story can be read in full in his autobiography, I Can. I Will. which became a number one best seller on Amazon in 2018.
Posted on Thursday 7th November 2019