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Richard Branson: We need a nation of young entrepreneurs


Last week's staggering youth unemployment figures leave our nation facing an immense challenge: what do we do with our missing million young people? I believe we need to encourage all young people to consider an alternative to the traditional career path, and I think entrepreneurship offers some hope.

I identify with these young people. As a young businessman, I faced my fair share of difficulties when I was starting up. Our music mail-order business was almost brought down by postal strikes in the early 1970s, but we adapted, and that prompted me to start Virgin record stores. My desire to do something different and take a few risks along the way has been at the heart of the Virgin story from the beginning.

In my experience, many young people have in them an entrepreneurial spirit and they display exceptional drive. But each of them will need support on their journey. Large enterprises and government can and must do more to help these young entrepreneurs. This means adapting policy and taking practical steps to ensure the opportunities are there for those brave enough to take them.

It's my strong belief that those with the power to help should be encouraged to do exactly that: to nurture talent, to provide advice and to provide investment where required. Increasingly we are hearing more about how big business needs to play its role in society for the greater good. We all have a role to play and it makes business sense. In fact, consumers demand that business be responsible.

In 2010, we launched Virgin Media Pioneers, an online community for young entrepreneurs, with the aim of helping young people realise their potential. By championing a cause that is both close to my heart and vitally important to the future of the UK's economic recovery, we are providing easy access to peers, practical advice from experts and tangible support for young entrepreneurs.

And now we have set up Control Shift: The Rise of Young Entrepreneurs, a campaign that gives a voice to young, aspiring entrepreneurs and puts them at the centre of the conversation – about the obstacles they face and their ideas on the best ways to overcome them. Their ideas are at the heart of the Control Shift action plan we are this week putting to the Government, to business and to young people.

The young entrepreneurs want a culture shift in the school system that will ensure self-employment and enterprise are promoted as a viable career path and that appropriate training is available.

The message is loud and clear from young entrepreneurs – they have told us that it would be easier for them to get a loan to study enterprise than to get a loan to start an actual business. With university fees costing more than ever, a three-year academic course can't continue to be the only option for ambitious school-leavers.

So can we unlock huge economic benefits by remodelling the Student Loan Company as the Youth Investment Company and offer start-up loans to young people on the same terms as student loans? They also believe that we should consider introducing options for accelerated university degree courses that would make study more efficient and affordable.

I have long advocated that a full-time university education lasting 18 months, with shorter holidays, would result in less debt and more motivated students who are prepared for the jobs of the future. These proposals should be listened to. The future of our young people is not something that can be addressed by government alone; it will also require leaders in the business sector to play their role to drive the change we need.