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What Richard Branson's Mother Taught Me About Raising Entrepreneurial Kids

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By Mary C. Mazzio

Much has been written about whether entrepreneurs are born or made, with no real consensus. My own opinion, which is anecdotal, is that entrepreneurs can be made -- and that parents play a central role in making them.

I had a remarkable epiphany while producing Lemonade Stories, a documentary film about extraordinary entrepreneurs and their mothers. The film, which features Richard Branson (of Virgin), Russell Simmons (of Def Jam), Arthur Blank (of the Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons) and Tom Scott (of Nantucket Nectars), among others, examines the impact that mothers have on sparking creativity and entrepreneurial spirit in their children.

During her interview, Eve Branson talked extensively about her son's shyness as a boy, which she described as "disabling." That evening, as my crew sat down to dinner, our director of photography and our gaffer started buzzing about Eve's comments. This in itself was unusual. Normally when filming interviews, my team is focused exclusively on their craft (e.g. the operation and movement of the camera, monitoring of sound levels, and positioning of lights) and is not attuned to the actual content of interviews. But I knew we were onto something special when they both described how they might incorporate Eve's advice into how they were raising their own teenage children.

When Richard Branson was a young boy, he refused to talk to adults and would cling to the back of Eve's skirt. When he turned 7 or so, Eve decided that his behavior was no longer tolerable. "Shyness is being introverted and thinking only of yourself," she said. On the way home from a shopping trip to a nearby village, Eve stopped the car about 3 miles from home and let Richard out. "You will now walk home. You will have to talk to people to find your way home," she told him. By the time Richard arrived some 10 hours later, Eve was apoplectic. (She had not accounted for the time he might stop to look at bugs and inspect rocks.) But it worked. Richard started to become more comfortable interacting with adults.

On my flight back to the States from London, I thought about my son, who, too, was shy. When he shrank back from adults, I would often apologize: "I'm sorry, he's so shy." Until my conversation with Eve, it had never occurred to me that being shy was being selfish. When Eve put shyness into that context, I decided that this particular trait would now have a very short shelf life in our household.

I began Project Stick-Out-Your-Hand-and-Look-People-in-the-Eye. And my son, who was 7 years old at the time, very quickly learned that there was a significant upside to interacting with adults and making them feel comfortable -- like new sunglasses on his birthday from the couple down the street. Now, at the age of 15, my son operates like a Senator, looking adults in the eye and shaking their hand. It is a lesson that will serve him well as an adult -- and one that I wished I had learned early on.

Based on what I learned from the mothers in Lemonade Stories, it occurs to me that if American parents want to raise children who think entrepreneurially, have initiative and become innovative and truly independent adults, it might serve us all well if we stepped back and let our sweet darlings make mistakes and fall on their faces from time to time.

I feel personally indebted to the Eve Bransons of this world -- women who taught their children to be independent and gave them space to experiment, to fail. Russell Simmons' mother gave him a $2,000 loan when no one else would; his business of producing parties hosted by rap artists was losing money and he was questioning his ability and line of work. He said in his interview for the film that what was important was not the money his mother gave him, but rather what it represented: the faith that she had in him. After that day, he never had to ask his mother for money again.

Mary C. Mazzio is an award-winning documentary film director, Olympian and former law-firm partner, is founder and CEO of 50 Eggs, an independent-film-production company. Mazzio wrote, directed and produced the award-winning films TEN9EIGHT, A Hero for Daisy, Lemonade Stories, Apple Pie, We Are BlackRock and the just completed The Apple Pushers, which was narrated by Edward Norton and funded by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. This article was adapted from Mazzio's essay in #FixYoungAmerica: How to Rebuild Our Economy and Put Young Americans Back to Work (for Good), a book of 30-plus proven solutions to help end youth unemployment published by the Young Entrepreneur Council.