If you're lucky, you'll experience many life-changing moments -- encountering people or circumstances that enable you to gain a new perspective, to newly appreciate things you routinely take for granted, to understand how truly lucky you are.
Last month, I experienced just such a moment, when I met 13 entrepreneurs from the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Montego Bay, Jamaica, along with 10 other members of the HuffPost Small Business Board of Directors, and our fearless leader Rod Kurtz.
Our mission was to mentor the first class of Jamaican entrepreneurs, who were specially selected to undergo a 12-week "developmental program" at the newly opened Branson Centre. While I think (hope) we accomplished that first official task, in the process we got as much as we gave.
Even though the word is French, with some notable exceptions (Sir Richard Branson being one), many in the United States define entrepreneurship as somehow being uniquely American. It’s not, and indeed it never was. Meeting the Jamaican entrepreneurs reinforced my long-held belief that, as Paula Kerr-Jarrett, a native of Jamaica and a director of the Branson Centre, put it, "The principles of entrepreneurship are the same everywhere."
Aspiration is one of those principles. Indeed, entrepreneurs dream big. It's the nature of the beast. We set BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), the term coined by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their classic bestseller "Built to Last." There is no product we can’t sell, no market we can’t conquer. The Jamaican entrepreneurs aren't lacking for big dreams. Their visions encompass lofty goals such as building a cultural center for Jamaican artists; restoring the endangered coral throughout the Caribbean; exporting a range of health products derived from the Moringa tree; establishing a country-wide recycling system; and (from my mentee, Edris Whyte) inspiring a new generation of young people to pursue higher education.
Unfortunately, entrepreneurs also share common struggles. And while not belittling the challenges we American business owners face, it's relatively harder to be an entrepreneur in Jamaica. No one likes to do taxes, and we Americans are particularly adept at complaining about excessive rules and regulations, but in Jamaica it typically takes over 400 hours just to file business tax documents.
The Board was particularly struck by the situation of Alecia James, the founder of Signature Cakes and Desserts. James already has built an island-wide reputation for making delicious cakes and artisan desserts for her clients. On some occasions James needs to produce thousands of pastries in just a few days. Her challenge? She does all that in her 750-square-foot house, nestled in a suburban Jamaican neighborhood. James shares one of the house's two bedrooms with her 6-year old son, so the other can house giant mixers and baking equipment. Her small kitchen, where she creates her desserts on one counter, is dominated by an 8x8 foot "reach-in" cooler. Essentially nearly every square inch of her home is a bakery.
These Jamaican entrepreneurs aren't startups. Edris Whyte's site Study in Jamaica ranks in the top 250 most-trafficked sites in Jamaica -- and that includes the Facebooks and Googles of the world. Alecia James' clients included some of the country's best-known restaurants and hotels. And yet neither they, nor many of the other entrepreneurs enrolled in the program, have enough infrastructure. They don't want for much. James' laptop keeps turning itself off, while Whyte needs an all-in-one printer.
Most of us are familiar with the concept, "pay it forward," which is repaying a good deed done for you, by doing one for someone else. This concept is not new -- in fact, Benjamin Franklin was a big believer in paying it forward. In a letter, Franklin once wrote, "I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you ... meet with another … in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money."
Franklin was right, of course. It only takes a little money to make a big difference. Every dollar makes a small ripple in the life of an entrepreneur. Paying it forward amplifies those ripples, creating ever bigger ones, until eventually we've all contributed to what amounts to a tidal wave.
You can be part of that tidal wave by going to Virgin Unite, the nonprofit foundation of the Virgin Group, and paying it forward.
The main training room in the Branson Centre is dominated by an enormous chalkboard -- the "Wall of Fame," which is covered with messages of congratulations and encouragement. The Wall is dominated by one message from, appropriately enough, Sir Richard Branson. It underscores the commonalities we entrepreneurs experience, and is in fact a mantra we should all adopt -- "Screw it! Just do it!" There are no wiser words.
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