Tuesday August 26 2014

It is a lifetime of learning by doing

By Richard Branson

Q : I am an architect and a young entrepreneur. It’s fairly obvious that most of the world’s great entrepreneurs had issues with their early education. Why is this the case?
- Akosu Paul

A: This is a very good question, and one that I am often asked by students around the world as they weigh continuing their studies against starting up their own ventures and diving into the world of business. In addition, many also want to know how I was able to start my own career while I was a young student struggling with my schoolwork, and how I eventually got people to take me seriously as an entrepreneur.
Looking back, I believe that the qualities that make for a great entrepreneur - such as boundless energy, a curious nature and, sometimes, an obstinate streak - are not often attributes demonstrated by top students in the classroom. So it should not be very surprising that many of the world’s great entrepreneurs and business leaders had difficulties with formal education.
Often, their frustration in the classroom was a result of impatience: The greats were eager to get out and build their businesses, which pushed them to drop out of high school or forgo college in order to follow their dreams. For instance, Walt Disney famously dropped out of school at age 16 to found his animation company, while the great American tycoons of the late 19th century - Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Thomas Edison - had little or no formal education before they set out to seek their fortunes. Some entrepreneurs, including Carnegie and Henry Ford, the 20th century industrialist, came from impoverished backgrounds and did not have the support at home to start - let alone complete - their formal educations. Rather, they set up businesses to make ends meet and eventually flourished.
More recently, the retail entrepreneurs Philip Green and John Caudwell made their fortunes in the U.K. after leaving high school and building businesses at young ages. And in the tech industry, Steve Jobs of Apple, Michael Dell, the founder of Dell Inc., and Oracle’s Larry Ellison all dropped out of college to create their companies, and they all reaped the rewards of getting an early start.
One thing that entrepreneurs have in common is a talent for seeing things differently. This allows them to identify important gaps in markets or the need for new sectors to serve specific customer demands. But this ability often leads budding entrepreneurs to rebel against the conformity that is common in traditional education.
I was no exception, and I have written in previous columns that I was not great at school. I constantly pushed against rules and authority, and I liked to challenge the way that things were “always” done. My curiosity often got me into trouble with teachers.
But it was not just my attitude that was different - I had dyslexia. When I was a young student, this learning disability was poorly researched and was often mistaken for laziness or a poor ability to learn. At school I was thought to be slow, and indeed I struggled to keep up. I initially channeled my youthful energy into sport, then after an injury, I got into early business ventures, which failed to take off.
But my learning disability has never been a setback - it actually gave me a great advantage in business, since I have been able to bring a different perspective to problems and challenges, which often enables me to see solutions more clearly. For example, I have always hated jargon, and I am confused by long and wordy drafts of plans. So in Virgin’s early days, I would ask simple questions that others did not. Over the years, asking the simple questions and striving to answer them have become some of Virgin’s most important characteristics.
When I was a young student, my restlessness and curiosity prompted me to set up Student magazine when I was just 15. Running the magazine actually served as an entrepreneurial education - I learned to effectively build a team, sell advertising, create content and market a product. I was my own boss and never needed to ask permission to try new things, and if I got things wrong, I did not have to fear the wrath of a superior. After all, a willingness to try new things and fail is important to becoming an entrepreneur, yet making mistakes flies against the expectations of traditional schooling.
So in many ways, my education has been my career. For almost 50 years, Virgin’s varied collection of businesses and nonprofits means that I have studied and come to understand many sectors - aviation, banking, media, hospitality and the fitness industry, to name a few. More recently, my career has also given me interesting new perspectives on many significant issues such as climate change, conflict resolution and global health care.
In the end, solutions to big problems such as these won’t come from doing school reports, but by getting out there, asking questions, seeing things differently and finding the answers ourselves.
Mr Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group. Email: RichardBranson@nytimes.com.