Fostering partnerships in Washington

There are few more important and rewarding ways to spend time than building links with others and supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs. A couple of days after the US election I was invited to Washington by President Barack Obama and Secretary John Kerry to talk to a group of young Latin American and Caribbean entrepreneurs. They were all on the YLAI programme created by the President and the State Department to build ties, develop skills and foster future leaders in the region. 

Richard Branson Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative

Put together by the Meridian Centre for the US Government, it is a classic inclusive and outward looking programme that I hope will carry on even after the change of administration. The event was at the State Department and when I arrived on an overcast November day, the atmosphere at reception was subdued. Temporary signs for the transition teams were stuck on the corridor walls with sticky tape and I saw few smiles on my way to the event.

All that was to change as I entered the room filled with 250 vibrant and smiling entrepreneurs. The enthusiasm and energy was clear. We started with a discussion with the former author-turned-politician Rick Stengel (who wrote the wonderful book Mandela’s Way) about how I started Virgin and built so many varied companies bound by a common brand and purpose.

Richard Branson Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative

Then it was the turn of the audience to fire questions at me on the issues they felt were important to creating successful and worthwhile businesses in the region. Many wanted to find out how to expand their companies overseas and access further funding. Interestingly, many were interested in how they could learn more about the skills needed to build a business and how those companies could address significant issues in their own countries. It was refreshing to hear from so many who saw their own start-up businesses as ways to solve problems.

Richard Branson Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative

We set up the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Jamaica five years ago to address just that need and it was gratifying to see four of its alumni at the event: Craslyn Benjamin, Javette Nixon, Latoya West Blackwood and Patria-Kay Aarons. Each of them has taken the training and skills provided by the centre to kick-start their businesses, ranging from agriculture and market research to making sweets.

As we talked further about what was missing in the Caribbean to build a truly entrepreneurial culture, it became clear that all of these entrepreneurs were looking for a few common things – access to finance, a strong group of mentors, guidance on how to hire and train their teams and lastly help in taking their ideas outside the Caribbean. With our centre in Jamaica, our start-up scheme just beginning in the BVI and my home on Necker, we are well placed to look at how we can help to develop further initiatives in the region.

Richard Branson Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative Branson Centre

Before I left Washington, we went over to the Treaty Room, where I took part in a Q&A with a group of foreign ambassadors to the US, looked over by portraits of the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger. The talk covered the need for America to maintain its place in the world and to continue to lead on climate change, human rights and ending the war on drugs. It was a typically varied day, with a common thread of collaboration, knowledge sharing and partnership building – all things that can help every entrepreneur, every business and every country.

Richard Branson Department of State US Flag

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