By Mike Southon, FT Columnist

An unexpected but welcome bonus after my recent impromptu interview of Sir Richard Branson was an invitation to run the question and answer session at the opening of the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

The event was organised by Virgin Unite, the not-for profit foundation that works with companies inside and outside the Virgin Group helping them tackle social and environmental issues. They have set up the Centres to create local employment and actively seek out companies to act as supporters for the entrepreneurs.

The Branson Centre in Johannesburg has already incubated over 100 companies, including Lesego Malatsi’s company Mzansi Designers, whose clothing designs will be shown at London Fashion Week.

The Caribbean launch was at the Centre’s well-appointed offices on a trading estate. It was hosted by Lisa Lake, the Centre’s Chief Development Director and Amada Wills, managing director of Virgin Holidays, who are the prime sponsors. As well as providing funding, Virgin Holidays will be encouraging their customers to provide their support, not just financially but also practically as business mentors.

Also on the panel were two members of the Centre’s initial intake of fifteen entrepreneurs. Bianca Bartley designs handcrafted jewellery under her ‘Peace-is of Bianca’ brand, while Joshua Bailey runs The Swim Place, the only sports centre in Western Jamaica that offers all-round training in sports and other recreational activities.

These young entrepreneurs were understandably awed to be on the panel, which also included the Centre’s chairman, local e-services entrepreneur Patrick Casserley, Jean Oelwang, the CEO of Virgin Unite and of course Sir Richard Branson himself.

I was even more nervous, since despite having undertaken significant research I was wondering how best to engage this distinguished panel with the invited audience of VIPs. This featured local politicians, potential business partners, successful local entrepreneurs and one of my personal heroes, Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records.

It is good practice for public speakers to show they are, as the expression goes, ‘in the room’, not just reading from prepared material but making topical comments about the particular environment or circumstances.

In this case, I remarked that it was the first event I had moderated in completely casual clothes, wearing sandals without socks. I added an anecdote about one entrepreneur who told me his goal was to be so successful that he would never have to wear socks ever again.

At this point, Sir Richard took off his shoes with a flourish, removed his socks and threw them into the audience. The ice was immediately broken, the questions flowed easily and the entrepreneurs all shone, including the delightfully self-effacing Andrew Ross, who is building a profitable company, Seascape Caribbean, to restore coral reefs.

I now possess a pair of Sir Richard’s socks, which I plan to use at entrepreneur events as a metaphor for his irreverent and self-deprecating charm, which attracts customers to his commercial ventures as well as supporters and mentors to the Branson Centres in the Caribbean and South Africa.

This charm might encourage you to book a Virgin Holiday to South Africa or Jamaica to support his local entrepreneurs with their particular challenges. These include time management, networking, finance, investment, marketing, eCommerce law, sales generation and human resources.

Lady Branson explained to me she had bought socks marked with the day of the week to try and create some order into the life of one of the world’s busiest entrepreneurs.

The Branson Centre Caribbean launch event was on a Thursday, but the socks are marked ‘Sunday’. Perhaps every day is a Sunday for motivated, successful and happy entrepreneurs like Sir Richard Branson.

The Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship can be found at www.bransoncentre.org

Virgin Unite can be found at www.virginunite.com

Originally published in The Financial Times: www.ft.com Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon- Co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur & Business Speaker- www.mikesouthon.com

Mike is one of the world’s top business speakers, a Fellow of The Professional Speakers Association. Mike is a Visiting Fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at London South Bank University. He has made frequent appearances on television and radio, has a monthly sales column in Real Business magazine and is a regular commentator in the Financial Times.


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