Richard Branson on Taking the Leap Into Entrepreneurship

Richard Branson on Taking the Leap Into Entrepreneurship

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Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.

Q: I am a senior in college, majoring in taxation. I don't think I want this to be my career -- I want to be my own boss. I need to tell my parents my true feelings. Could you please give me some advice? -- Bei, China

If you want to be an entrepreneur, leaving school to pursue your own goals can be a smart move, but it can also be a difficult choice, especially when well-meaning family members and friends are urging you to finish your studies. However, many successful business leaders, including myself, have taken this path and never looked back.

Whatever the type of enterprise you eventually launch, you can reassure your parents that you will be learning marketable skills as you go. After I left school at the age of 16 to start a business, my friends and I learned much more than we ever could have absorbed in a classroom. Since then Virgin has started so many businesses, often in areas in which we initially had little or no knowledge, that it feels as though my education has never ended. (I won't be passing an exam in rocket science any time soon, but my recent work with Virgin Galactic employees has certainly increased my knowledge in that area.)

Your family might ask you, why not continue with your studies? And what constitutes a good education for an entrepreneur? I've found that there is simply no match for life experience. The lessons a budding entrepreneur learns while making mistakes and finding ways to recover from them are invaluable to her development.

If you want to launch your startup right away, be prepared to tell your family about your plans and strategies. Look into contacting local programs that offer seed money for small businesses. In Britain, the government's Start-Up Loans program offers young entrepreneurs business loans on the same basis as student loans. (Virgin Money is helping to administer this program.) Or perhaps your university helps to connect students who want to become entrepreneurs with potential investors; in some cases, universities have even been known to invest in the startups that are being launched by their students.

As an alternative, you might consider both launching your business and continuing with your studies. These days, some universities are giving students who leave school early, better opportunities to pursue their studies as they see fit. I recently met with representatives from the London School of Business & Finance, who are looking to introduce online support for those starting out in business. This will give their students the chance to try their hand at business, with guidance from mentors who have years of experience. This is a great example of the type of program that may suit your goals.

If you choose to leave school altogether, you might educate yourself further by doing some real traveling - and I'm not talking about leisure travel. You will never have more freedom to stay in different cities and countries, dive into experiences, immerse yourself in new cultures and try your hand at different jobs than when you're young. If you know which countries you would like to sell your products and services in, or which ones you will be buying parts from, those would be very good places to start.

It's been great to see my son, Sam, embark on some traveling over the last few years. When he was younger he spent some time in Australia; more recently he went on an Arctic expedition to learn about the effects of global warming, to several countries in Latin America to research a film about the failed war on drugs, and we have gone to Antarctica and Madagascar together, pursuing environmental projects. Sam runs a film production company these days, and being able to call on his own experiences, as well as to enlist the help of friends around the world, has greatly enhanced his career.

You can also point out to your parents that if you do find that you need or want some formal training at some point in your career, learning can take place almost anywhere, anytime. You will be able to look at options ranging from bringing in an expert to talk to your staff to taking a course or two online - whatever best fits your schedule.

Bei, good luck! It can be hard for parents to hear that their child is leaving school, so try to be understanding. Think of this as your first pitch - and the most important one.


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