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Branson Centre Of Entrepreneurship - Caribbean: 'From These Little Acorns, Empires Grow'

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BRANSON CENTRE OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Open for business: Sir Richard Branson and friends at the grand opening of the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship - Caribbean. | Virgin Holidays and Chris Willan Photography

At its most basic level, entrepreneurship is about creating, growing and providing. In other words, fundamental human nature. And while some like to think pursuit of the American Dream is a uniquely American thing, the reality is that entrepreneurship knows no borders. With the right support and resources, businesses can flourish almost anywhere on the planet. This is part of the guiding philosophy behind the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship - Caribbean, which opened to great fanfare earlier this month in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

And let's face it, if you're going to start a business, Jamaica can be a pretty idyllic place to do it.

The Branson Centre, a facility that provides training, mentorship and opportunities for young entrepreneurs in the region, was established by Virgin Unite, the non-profit foundation of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, in partnership with Virgin Holidays. The first Branson Centre opened in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2005, as part of an effort to help support rising entrepreneurs, create jobs and grow local economies.

With a festive ribbon-cutting ceremony, a panel discussion on entrepreneurship and a spontaneous toss of his socks into the crowd (Richard being Richard), Branson welcomed the Branson Centre's inaugural class of 14 entrepreneurs on Sept. 8, along with Chairman Patrick Casserly, Development Director Lisa Lake, Virgin Unite CEO Jean Oelwang and Virgin Holidays Managing Director Amanda Wills. (For a photo tour of the Branson Centre, click here.)

Branson, a member of the HuffPost Small Business Board of Directors, says he hopes the centers will give aspiring moguls "a leg up" in their entrepreneurial journeys -- which is why he plans to continue opening them across the globe over the next several years. In an exclusive interview on location in Jamaica, he outlined his vision for the newest Branson Centre, underscored the importance of mentorship and explained why the devastating fire at his Necker Island has proven to be an entrepreneurial opportunity in disguise.

So tell us a little about the Branson Centre's mission. Where did the idea come from?

When I was a child, 15, I left school to start my business [Student magazine]. I knew how to produce a magazine, just about, and how to sell a bit of advertising and to distribute it a bit. I was hopeless with figures, but I was lucky enough to find a family friend who helped me sort out my accounts and mentored me on the figures and helped me deal with my dyslexia. So I was just fortunate to find a mentor to help make sure the magazine survived. And as a result of that, the Virgin empire has grown, and as a result of that, we're here today. In those very early days, most businesses fail. Nineteen out of 20 businesses fail. So by mentoring people here in the Caribbean or in Africa, we can make sure that hopefully 10 out of 20 succeed and we help people, give people a leg up.

What will these young entrepreneurs experience here?

They will meet lots of successful entrepreneurs. In Jamaica, at the opening, there was Butch Stewart, who set up Sandals, there was Chris Blackwell, who discovered Bob Marley, there were numerous entrepreneurs there and they are all willing to help. These young entrepreneurs will have the benefit of sitting down, listening to these people, the difficult moments they had, how the dealt with them. They will learn how to deal with people. Do you criticize people? Do you praise people? They'll learn the powers of delegation, hopefully they'll learn not to take on everything themselves. And over the years, we'll be filming all of these discussions... and future entrepreneurs will be able to sit down and see these films, see people in person, have discussion groups about them. Then, if they've already got a specific business, they'll have people to hold their hands while they get their businesses established.

As you discussed very thoughtfully in your remarks at the Branson Centre's opening, there is an ongoing debate -- that I happen to enjoy -- about whether entrepreneurs are born or made. I think we share a similar belief, that people are born with a certain entrepreneurial spirit and instinct, but that can be cultivated, that can be refined. How does a facility like this play a role in that? Because there is a lot between instinct and actual success.

You have to go back and think, "What is an entrepreneur?" An entrepreneur is somebody who had either come up with an idea to make a difference in people's lives or would like to make a difference in people's lives. A successful business is simply somebody creating something that is going to radically make a difference to other people's lives. Maybe not radically, but make a difference in their lives -- and there are some people who are always thinking, "How can things be done better?" They're flying on an airline thinking, "How can I improve this experience with my airline? What could I do?" They are in a restaurant thinking, "How can I improve this? What can I do?" If they're seeing dirty streets, "How can I do it better?" It's that kind of individual that I think is going to make a good entrepreneur.

How much of the Branson Centre's offerings reflect what you found helpful as a young entrepreneur yourself?

For a lot of these entrepreneurs, 80 percent of what they learn they are going to learn by just being out in the jungle, trying things and occasionally falling flat on their faces, picking themselves up and trying again. So we can maybe help them with that other 20 percent, that quite important icing on the cake. The jungle can be an unfriendly place and that extra 20 percent that we can help them with might get them through the jungle and get them to the clearing on the other side. From these little acorns, empires grow. Almost every single big company in the world started with an entrepreneur -- just like these guys today, with one little idea. And the world desperately needs more jobs to be created, more entrepreneurs to give people some respect. Having 10, 15 percent of people out of jobs, 20 percent in some countries, is a horror story.

Mentorship is tremendously important for entrepreneurs in Jamaica, the United States, everywhere. But a lot of them don't know where to turn. Beyond sitting down and writing Sir Richard a letter, what would you suggest?

A family friend can often be a very useful mentor. The accountant that helped me with my figures was a family friend. I think that even if you don't know the person, if you were just to ring up somebody that you admire or respect, somebody local in the community, and you've got a problem trying to work something out for your business, I think they would be flattered by the fact that you asked -- and they'd be willing to help.

Were there any mentors you reached out to early on?

Yes, Sir Freddie Laker was a pioneer airline man. He went bankrupt, but I had him to lunch and talked to him about how I was going to start an airline and he gave me some very useful advice. One of his best bits of advice was that they'll do anything they can to put you out of business, they'll use every dirty trick in the book. And that he'd like to leave me with three words of good advice -- and that was, "Sue the bastards."

You live in the neighborhood, so to speak. What will be your involvement with the Branson Centre here in Montego Bay?

I'll come and speak at it and speak to the students and meet them when I'm in the area, and I will twist arms and write letters and bring groups of entrepreneurs to Jamaica occasionally to try to turn them upside down and tip a bit of money out of their pockets to help these young entrepreneurs get going. One aspect that we're doing is trying to raise little bits of money to help their businesses. Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records, which was a famous record company that discovered Bob Marley and a lot of other great bands, he's given some money to help young entrepreneurs set up. So people like that.

Speaking of the neighborhood, like most people around the world, I was heartbroken to see the images of the fire on Necker Island. How is the recovery going?

Things are great now. You get over the initial shock, and I'm so pleased that everybody is well, which is the great relief. So now we're just having fun planning the rebuild and people who booked the island are all running around saying they're going to come anyway, so we'll keep the staff employed. We've got 70 staff there to keep the island going. I think I said Dunkirk spirit very much exists on Necker, and we'll have an even better island in a few months' time. And a byproduct of it is it's fantastic for local employment in the BVI [British Virgin Islands], so we're creating jobs. Very entrepreneurial!

Setbacks, of course, are a big part of entrepreneurship and a big part of life. In one of your blog posts right after the fire, you were already talking about rebuilding. As an entrepreneur, how do you deal with setbacks -- and how are you able to pivot so quickly and focus on the positive?

Well, as an entrepreneur, you've got to fight to do everything you can to avoid failure, but inevitably, failure is going to happen on occasion. You know the moment it's happened -- don't dwell on it. Pick yourself up and look forward positively, learn from it, start again and create something even better.

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