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.
More importantly, as Richard Branson notes, to become an entrepreneur requires the decisions and then, the proper actions for taking multiple risks. Risk-taking is important for feeling the very basic sense of entrepreneurship…
Being an entrepreneur requires one KEY quality: the willingness to take risks. And this is where I see many promising entrepreneurs and new business owners struggle. Especially women. You see, when I mentor a client, she always starts out saying she is finally ready to step up and build a wildly profitable business. Then, we get to the place where she is required to “take a risk”. Opportunity x lands right in her lap. And what often happens is—while she finds x exciting—she gets uncomfortable and starts to shrink back. “I can’t spend that kind of money on x,” she says. Or, “I’m not ready for x yet.” Or “x is too big for little old me! Why don’t we start with y or z first?” Or, “x sound great, but let’s save it for next year.” This is not unusual, because honestly we are not programmed to “go for it”. When we are born, we first crawl, then walk. In school, we go to grade one, grade two, grade three, and so forth. In college, we become freshmen, sophomores, juniors then seniors. In the working world, we start out as assistants and then we move up to managerial roles. The problem is, this “grade school” way of thinking stays with us for life. And when you also add in the fact that essentially at a DNA level women are wired for safety, you can see why this becomes a big hurdle. If you are ready to step up into a bigger purpose and make a big change in your life, this type of ladder-type thinking will defeat you. It feels safer, but in the end, it will get you nowhere. At the most, you may make a step in the right direction, but most often you’ll end up back where you started.
Another important element of your starting effort, is to get out of your comfort zone, fight against your daily routine at work and discover new business paths:
When was the last time you stepped out of your comfort zone? It’s easy to get stuck in a routine, especially at work (more so if you’ve been doing the same job for a while), and taking on a new challenge is a great way of getting out of that rut. At Virgin, I use two techniques to free our team from the same old routine: breaking records and making bets. Taking chances is a great way to test myself and our group, and also to push boundaries while having fun together. I have always loved a challenge. When my family and I went to the British county of Devon on holiday when I was four or five, my Auntie Joyce bet me 10 shillings that I wouldn’t learn to swim by the time we returned home. And somehow I didn’t learn while thrashing about in the sea. I was determined to prove her wrong, so when I spotted a river during the drive home, I asked my dad to stop the car, then ran out and jumped into the water in my underwear. At first, I sank and started swallowing water, but I kicked upward and, to my amazement, soon began to swim downstream. My reward for passing the sink-or-swim test was a crisp 10-shilling note — the most money I had ever held in my hands.