Speaking at the opening, Sir Richard Branson, Founder of the Virgin Group, said: “I’ve been so moved by the energy and drive from the entrepreneurs I have seen today. While the Centre will be a resource, the true spirit will come from the Caribbean people who are taking bold steps to improve their communities and regenerate the economy. We are looking for more partners to join us so we can help businesses grow, create job opportunities and inspire the next generation. The Caribbean is a special place, and one I am happy to call home. I’m thrilled we are all coming together to support the region. ”
The Branson Centre is also supported by a number of independent supporters, like Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records: "Jamaicans are enormously creative. What we've needed here is a forum like the new Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, where young, ambitious people can receive guidance and support to channel their ideas and creativity into a viable business enterprise."
Jamaica’s entrepreneurs face obstacles such as a lack of technical help, complex tax bureaucracy, and a need for more capital. The first intake of Branson Centre SMEs cited accounting services, networking opportunities and marketing advice as the areas they needed the greatest support for. Through an ‘incubator’ programme, the 14 businesses (and hundreds more over the lifetime of the Centre) will access mentorship and gain exposure to connections that could provide financing opportunities to help drive growth, alongside practical coaching to give them a platform for success.
During the opening, Sir Richard and local leaders met the entrepreneurs selected for the Centre’s first intake, including:
• Andrew Ross, founder of Seascape Caribbean, who is dedicated to restoring the coral reefs of the Caribbean coastline to their former glory. His venture leaps from sand to sea, cultivating live-coral snorkelling gardens and low-impact breakwaters to support coastal protection and the regeneration of clean sand beaches. The region contains about 8% (by surface area) of the world's coral reefs.
• Leanne Talbot of Island Cycle, aims to transform recycling through an innovative model. This new system will help turn waste in the Caribbean into usable products—reducing the region’s carbon footprint at the same time.
• Karel McIntosh, founder of Outlish.com, which produces a weekly, online, lifestyle magazine for 20 to 40 year old Trinidadians and Tobagonians, showcasing positive role models so that young people are inspired to achieve.
Led by Caribbean entrepreneurs, Chairman Patrick Casserly and Development Director Lisa Lake, the Centre has already mobilized the region’s business community, with Chris Blackwell and Diageo’s Arthur Guinness Foundation among others committing time, resources or financial support. More partners are encouraged to support the growing businesses and expand the Centre’s impact across the region.
Virgin Holidays’ Managing Director Amanda Wills said: “Our $3.5 million, 10 year commitment to this Centre reflects how seriously we take our responsibility to protect the people and places our customers enjoy in this region. I’ve always been struck by the energy of the Caribbean, and this fantastic Centre will harness that energy and make a tangible contribution to its future as a sustainable tourism destination.”
Virgin Unite CEO Jean Oelwang encouraged other Caribbean businesses to get involved. She said: “It’s truly inspiring to meet these young entrepreneurs, learn about their fantastic new businesses and to be a part of helping bring them to scale. The creation of jobs is paramount in enabling any community to have economic freedom. These young people are the employers of the future, and Virgin Unite is proud to be taking the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship global.”
Over the next few years the Branson Centre will be working with partners to expand across the Caribbean. Virgin Unite also aims to roll out a number of Branson Centres across the globe, working with a mix of NGOs, Governments and corporate bodies.