CAN entrepreneurship be taught? Can an aspiring business leader learn to choose the right plan, take the right risks, select the right team and then navigate all the turbulence that follows?
With most of the West's major economies showing sluggish growth at best, many in politics and business are keen to find answers, because a new wave of energetic entrepreneurs is urgently needed to kick-start trade all over the world, shake up the markets and create jobs.
In my experience, success as an entrepreneur depends upon a fairly unusual combination of personality traits and instinctive skills, most of which can only be honed on the job. Formal coursework is not enough. Most novice entrepreneurs need the kind of guidance only a trusted mentor can provide.
It's critical that experienced executives and CEOs volunteer to coach young entrepreneurs in their communities: this is one of the most immediately rewarding and concrete ways successful business leaders can foster economic growth in their region. There are many young entrepreneurs who, if they are given the critical boost of great advice as they launch their startups, will someday bring in new jobs.
Through our foundation Virgin Unite and with the sponsorship of Virgin businesses and local companies, our team has set up two Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship, non-profit organisations where entrepreneurs, mentors, community members and investors can gather to discuss projects, learn practical skills and spread the word about their ideas.
Since we set up the first Branson Centre in Johannesburg, SA, six years ago, more than 100 entrepreneurs have taken part in our programme, and at present, 11 of their businesses are in operation, employing many people. One of our recent "graduates" is Lesego Malatsi, a fashion designer and entrepreneur whose stunning designs were showcased at London Fashion Week in September.
We opened the second school in Jamaica just a few weeks ago. The new class of 15 people is working on launching businesses in industries ranging from hospitality to education services to recycling.
As a mentor, there are six things you should keep in mind:
1. A GOOD COACH TELLS IT STRAIGHT
Your most important job is to help a novice entrepreneur cut through confusion and misinformation to the truth. The evaluations may be intensely personal: what sort of leadership style does she have? What can she do to improve? It may be difficult for your mentee to hear your critical comments, but you must explain very clearly what is going wrong.
2. BUILD A MENTORING TEAM
Many entrepreneurs need help in more than one area. My dyslexia made keeping accounts difficult when I was young, so a family friend who was an accountant stepped in and helped me. His advice was crucial in helping me to understand how things worked and how to run a business. If you are not able to provide all the advice your mentee needs, help her find someone who can.
3. TEACH BOLDNESS
When the founders of our centre in Jamaica evaluated prospective students for the current class, they found all of those who applied identified obtaining better access to capital through our programme as a key goal, but only 14% had asked for a loan. In different cultures, there are different barriers to approaching prospective investors; almost everyone needs advice and help in this area. Share your experiences, review the pitches and practice approaches.
4. MAKE THE INTRODUCTIONS
Start-ups often struggle to attract customers then to keep costs under control as orders increase. Access to investors makes all the difference for many businesses. Be prepared to call industry contacts and old friends from university; whatever it takes to help your mentee connect with those who will see the potential of her business, just like you do.
5. GET THAT MESSAGE OUT
When I was just getting started in business, Sir Freddie Laker, the famed British airline founder, advised me to build company promotions around my own personality -- a strategy that has worked well for Virgin. He believed small entrepreneurial businesses could survive and prosper if they were known about and marketed properly. Potential marketing opportunities are often overlooked by newcomers - it may be up to you to point out the possibilities.
6. PERSISTENCE IS KEY
Setting up businesses is a risky occupation. It is important we help newcomers understand that an early venture's failure is a badge of experience, not the end of one's career; that the most important thing to do if things go wrong is to bounce back.
©2011 Richard Branson. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
. Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/richard branson. Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and include your name, country, e-mail address and the publication where you read the column.