Why young entrepreneurs need our attention
When I started Virgin more than four decades ago, I wanted to make people’s lives better. I felt then, and still feel, that business has enormous potential to be a force for good in the world. Companies can realize this potential by looking for ways to do things differently, and by putting our people and the planet up alongside profit as our driving forces. These are mutually reinforcing opportunities. Business doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, where some win and others lose. Done right, everybody stands to gain — companies, communities, and the beautiful planet we live on.
To achieve lasting progress we must nurture and learn from the next generation of business leaders. Some of these rising stars are already ahead of the curve, especially in the way they weave together their social and entrepreneurial passions. I think all of us could be doing more to encourage and support them. Businesses have a major role to play in tackling the world’s toughest challenges. To me, it makes perfect sense to tap into the energy of young business leaders who are not afraid to start companies and see how their products and services can make a difference in the world.
Training for success
That’s what we had in mind when we opened the Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg and Montego Bay a few years back. Hundreds of entrepreneurs later, we can point to countless success stories about startups that have created jobs, stimulated economic growth, and reduced poverty. Take, for instance, the amazing story of Clare Reed, one of the budding entrepreneurs supported by the Branson Centre in Johannesburg. Her business, Reel Gardening, produces a biodegradable seed tape that makes food gardening extremely simple, easy and effective. By reducing water consumption by 80 percent in the germination phase, Reel Gardening is at the forefront of the fight against food insecurity in Africa. Since attending the Branson Centre, Claire has created four jobs for previously unemployed mothers in the production of the seed tape. She has also provided training at 150 school and community gardens, thus enabling countless others to take control of their food security and employment.
Over in Jamaica, Branson Center alumna Robyn Fox runs three distinct, but related, businesses: the Mount Edge Guest House; the EITS Café, offering haute cuisine that fuses European and Jamaican flair using the farm-to-table concept; and Food Basket Farm, a weekly delivery service for fresh, pesticide-free produce. Robyn now has a steady stream of customers throughout the year and has identified opportunities to expand her operations further, as well as educate others in the community about farming methods, hospitality and tourism.
Claire and Robyn’s remarkable stories are all the more encouraging considering the challenges that South Africa and Jamaica face. But looking at the bigger picture, they are a drop in the bucket. So, why not take entrepreneurship to a whole new level? Let’s start in our schools. Having left school at 16, I always felt that our education system never really caught on to the idea that entrepreneurship can be nurtured at an early age. Kids and teenagers have so much drive and spirit. They need a curriculum that encourages young people to rise to their full potential, embrace failure, and challenge the status quo wherever they can. To put it another way, secondary education should place greater emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and on emotional intelligence — all key traits of successful entrepreneurs and indeed successful people.
How can this be done? For one, we should encourage schools to bring in entrepreneurs of all ages to talk to pupils about their journeys. There is no greater inspiration than first-hand experience. We should also support more small business competitions in schools, modeled on existing programs such as Young Enterprise in the UK and Junior Achievement in the US. Beyond that, we could all do a better job promoting activities outside of the classroom that support the entrepreneurial experience.
Just look at my own story. When I was in school, my friends and I saw a need for young people to have their own voice on the bigger issues of the day. So we started a magazine for students, aptly titled Student. We were running a business for the first time and made many mistakes along the way, all of them valuable learning experiences. But the factors that most contributed to our success were support from our families and the encouragement of our school. Student soon led to other, bigger endeavors that benefitted greatly from the life lessons that we gleaned from this first entrepreneurial venture.
How governments can help
Of course, schools and families can’t do it alone. Governments need to contribute, too. For instance, they can do more to support young entrepreneurs and future job creators who decide academic pursuits aren’t right for them. Young entrepreneurs frequently cite access to finance as one of the biggest obstacles on the road to success. That’s why Virgin Group, Virgin Money, and our Virgin Unite foundation all support the British government’s Start Up Loans program. The idea is a simple one: Why only give loans to young people going to university? What about young people who want to start a business? I would have jumped on that opportunity when I was young.
This is not just an issue in Britain. Governments around the world should figure out ways to put more capital in the hands of entrepreneurs in order to drive economic growth, broaden the tax base, and create jobs. Special attention should be paid to young female entrepreneurs, who often face many more barriers that limit their access to credit, markets, and social networks. And yet, we know that women reinvest more of their earnings into the health and education of themselves and their families, which has a valuable multiplier effect that we all, men and women, stand to gain from.
Corporations and start-ups
Finally, what can established businesses do to help? One option is to incorporate young entrepreneurs and their businesses into existing supply chains. On Virgin America flights, guests are offered healthy snack foods made by passionate entrepreneurs, such as Krave Turkey Jerky, Holly Baking Company Chocolate Chip Cookies, and Hail Merry Seasoned Nut Blend. All three of these companies were founded by entrepreneurs who went on to create their own companies when they didn’t find the food product they wanted on the market.
In South Africa, Virgin Active opened a health club in the township of Soweto and designed it as a community hub with commercial spaces for local entrepreneurs, including a hairdressing salon and a car wash. It is core to Virgin’s DNA to support and celebrate innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, but in order to reach true scale we need others to do the same.
Another option is to leverage company staff and resources to inspire, mentor and train young entrepreneurs. At Virgin we’re developing a virtual platform to provide our entrepreneurs with the tools and knowledge they need to succeed. Yet technology can only be part of the solution. We’ve learned from the Branson Centres and our involvement with the Start-up Loans program that that there’s no substitute for personal interactions and experiences. So this fall we’ve launched a mentorship program for young entrepreneurs that taps the enormous talents of the Virgin family and our wider community. This is time and money well spent, and it’s an investment in our future that is sure to pay off.
Today, far too many business leaders are forced to race from quarterly report to quarterly report, while elected officials focus mainly on the next election cycle. Up against these established patterns, it is surprising we are making any progress at all. Just a few months ago we launched the B Team in an effort to tackle these challenges head-on and find new solutions. The B Team is a group of global leaders in search of a Plan B for business that balances the pursuit of enterprise with the needs of societies and the environment.
We are off to a good start, with plenty of great ideas and a growing community of like-minded colleagues, but we have a long road ahead us. The good news is that so many of the young entrepreneurs we meet are already very much attuned to the B Team’s call for a new way of doing business. Social, value-driven, and purpose-driven enterprises are emerging in greater numbers than ever before, offering an amazing array of market-based solutions to some of the world’s toughest challenges — from clean energy access to water scarcity and microfinance. There has never been a greater opportunity to become part of the next entrepreneurial revolution. Let’s seize it.