What role do schools play in creating entrepreneurs?

Nobody could fail to have been impressed by Sky and Kia Ballantyne, the sisters aged 12 and 14, who developed a harness to help parents teach their children to cycle and ventured into the Dragons Den with it...

They didn’t secure any cash, but they did win the dragons’ respect and admiration. Their presentation was polished and professional and dragon Touker Suleyman deemed their product Crikey Bikey good enough to be reviewed on his cycling website.

Amazingly, they are by no means the only entrepreneurial child prodigies to hatch a promising business idea.

Lizzie Marie Likness, 14, runs Lizzie Marie Cuisine, running healthy cooking classes in her local community and sharing healthy recipes online.

Mo's Bows was started in 2011 by 9-year-old Memphis, Tennessee schoolboy Moziah Bridges, who began using some scrap fabric to design and sell bow ties. Today, aged 13, he runs a $150,000 business.

Arguably Britain’s youngest entrepreneur, Henry Patterson was aged just 10 when he started running his own sweets and children's products business, Not Before Tea.

He designs all the new products, which are now stocked in over 55 stockists throughout the UK, and last year he wrote a book featuring characters who work in an imaginary sweet shop.

Henry has spoken at numerous trade conferences and visited many schools to tell his story, and last year, appeared on The One Show with Richard Branson.

Read: Why it's time to say goodbye to the MBA

The only impact school has had on my business are the ideas and inspiration I get from my friends

Where does such precocious entrepreneurial flair come from? Is it nature or nurture? And if it’s the latter, what role does education play?

Henry, now 11, told me that his interest in business began at the age of five when he noticed that the garden centre was selling horse manure yet at home they paid people to take it away.

He says: “I questioned my mother about this and asked if I could sell it. Why this was of interest to a five year old, I have no idea, but it was. I then went on to selling go-go toys at car boot sales and on eBay.

“I loved displaying items and selling them and always had an amount in mind that I wanted to earn, so that I could buy a new toy.  If I wanted something, I realised I could get it with a bit of hard work. I love building a business; it is just like Lego.”

But surely, at an age when school occupies such a large amount of a youngster’s time and attention, that must have impacted in some way?

“The only impact school has had on my business are the ideas and inspiration I get from my friends,” he says. 

“My school is very supportive on giving me time off to speak at conferences and pitch to retailers. Just as long as I catch up when I get back.”

Read: Can schools cultivate entrepreneurs?

Should schools be doing more to discover and nurture these fledgling entrepreneurs?

Newly retired teacher Ross Hunter has taught children all over the world including the UK, Europe, Russia and then China.

But he sees schools as only part shareholders in teenagers' development.

He says: “Their own character, parental support, insecurities and inner drive count for more. Lots of great successes come from relative failure at school, with Messrs Branson, Clarkson, Sugar often quoted. This is true, but the success rate of school 'failures' is tiny, and this is not a good model to replicate.”

He insists that the Anglo school and university system is better than most at teaching the skills that entrepreneurs will need to call on. “We try to teach transferrable skills - problem solving not rote learning – and when you see other systems, for example, Soviet or Chinese, you realise how special and great this is,” he says.

One of the hardest lessons that entrepreneurs of any age must learn is how to deal with failure, and that’s not something that can be easily taught.

Buki Ajimobi, 20, founded hairdressing brand The Nambuco Experience at the age of 12. She started by styling hair for her friends and family, and as demand grew, launched her first website and began to branch out.

In 2014 disaster struck when her company was hacked into online. Buki lost access to her website and most of the business. Having just joined Young Enterprise through the Start Up programme, this helped her regain the confidence to try again.

Stoically, she says the experience taught her that while setbacks can be damaging, you only really fail when you stop trying.

She says: “Everyone has the ability to be successful. But to be really successful you have to want it as much as you want to breathe. Hard work does pay off, but you mustn’t be afraid to fall at the first hurdle. After all, you can fail 10,000 times but you only need to succeed once.”

Perhaps child entrepreneurs have an inherently simplistic approach to the process of starting a business that their older peers have long since forgotten?

They certainly appear to have an innate fearlessness. 

According to Henry Patterson the key to success when you are young is not being afraid to give things a go.

He says: “I was so nervous when I was first asked to speak at a conference and then realised that I totally love it. I would never have known if I hadn’t tried.”

It seems that some youngsters have a natural entrepreneurial aptitude that in a supportive environment can be nurtured and developed into something very special.

Reflecting on his own lessons learned, Henry says: “Listen, and write everything down in meetings. I always carry a notebook; I learned that from Richard Branson. And always be yourself. I’m 11 and I don't need to wear a suit or try to be older. Oh, and avoid sitting on spinning chairs in meetings; I learned this the hard way!”

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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