Q: I understand that you chose not to continue school after age 16, but created your own path to success. Do you think getting a university diploma is necessary to become a successful person? I am a university student and sometimes I wonder whether I would do better without it. What are your thoughts?
I believe I have some great and even innovative ideas for new businesses, but face the difficulty of turning an idea into something real. What advice would you give me to overcome this step?
-Felipe Herriges, Brazil
A: Education is a wonderful thing. I am fortunate that at this stage of my career, I have the opportunity to learn about many new subjects, ranging from the impact of climate change to the possibility of colonizing Mars.
I am also lucky in that I meet so many interesting people and have the opportunity to exchange ideas with them -- everyone from former leaders such as Kofi Anan, Nelson Mandela and Mary Robinson to scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock, to Burt Rutan, the engineer leading our Virgin Galactic project.
Indeed, since Virgin’s projects and industries are so varied and our foundation Virgin Unite challenges us to try to solve some of our generation’s biggest problems, my job provides me with an experience I often compare to an extended university course. I’m enjoying every minute of the journey.
But when I was young, school wasn’t easy. I was not a great student, partly because of my dyslexia (which was not diagnosed until later) and partly because of my restless nature. I found it hard to concentrate in class and spent much of my time in school dreaming up and setting up new businesses.
The first few businesses I created -- including one focused on growing Christmas trees -- did not succeed, but those experiences did give me a taste for business and a knowledge of the all-important art of delegation.
By the time I was 16 I was ready to leave school, but my father, Edward Branson, was reluctant to approve my decision. One weekend he came to visit my boarding school and tried to persuade me to continue my studies. He hoped I’d become a lawyer like him. I reluctantly agreed; he drove home to explain “our” decision to my mother, Eve.
She was not happy! She told him to make the long drive back immediately, to reassure me that it was OK to leave. He did, and I left school that summer. I never once looked back, first setting up Student magazine and, a few years later, the Virgin record stores. My father sometimes jokes that the second return trip was the “best drive of his life.”
However, my story is a very personal one; my strategy will not work for everyone. A diploma can be very useful, since it shows that you have gained the skills and other building blocks required to start your career.
But obtaining a diploma is only a first step, and in no way guarantees success. You’ll need to a great work ethic and determination to make it, both in business and life. You also need your fair share of good luck.
I would advise tackling your studies with a positive attitude, and try to enjoy your time at university. Try a few new things while you are there, and maybe even start a business, if this is where your interests lie.
In Johannesburg, we have set up the Branson School of Entrepreneurship to help foster budding entrepreneurs and their fledgling companies. Most of our students are young men and women, determined to study hard and build their businesses. One of the most important things we impart to them is the importance of enjoying your work.
This is one of the enduring lessons of my career. I have always tried to have fun in all ventures and adventures, as I feel this is the best way to go through life. So when you’re setting up your first business, make sure both the business and entrepreneurship itself are things that you enjoy.
When you reach the launch stage, don’t be afraid to make that first leap.
Most entrepreneurs’ first ventures fail -- I know, because mine did -- but the lessons you learn from failure are invaluable and will help you with your next attempts. You have to be very determined and accept that the early stages of launching any business are mostly about just surviving.
Turning an idea into reality is a key step that all entrepreneurs have to master. Try to see your ideas through your customers’ eyes -- it’ll help you determine which ideas have a chance of succeeding.
The high-speed service offered by Virgin Trains’ West Coast line in the U.K. is a classic example.
When we were bidding for our franchise in 1996, we saw that rail passengers were fed up with our future competitors, since their trains were slow, crowded and uncomfortable. They wanted faster trains, airline-style seats, entertainment services and good food. We designed our train service to fit this bill and introduced modern trains, recently with wireless Internet access.
There were some delays, mostly caused by a need to upgrade the tracks for our tilting trains, but I’m proud to say that our record has greatly improved and our passenger numbers are growing quickly.
Good luck, Felipe! If you complete your education, throw everything into your studies and remember, whether you’re working for a company or setting up your own business, to work hard, persevere and smile, you will be on the road to success.
Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to BransonQuestions@Entrepreneur.com. Please include your name and country in your question.
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