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Virgin Holidays passengers and Virgin Unite will pump US$3.5 million (J$300 million) into the new Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship – Caribbean, which opened at the ATL Bogue City Centre in Montego Bay, St James, yesterday.

The multimillion-dollar commitment, which was made by airline mogul Sir Richard Branson, spans more than 10 years.

The centre, the first of its kind in the region, welcomed its initial intake of 14 aspiring young entrepreneurs, who will participate in a series of practical coaching and mentoring foundation and then advanced programmes.

Addressing some of the country’s most influential stakeholders during the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Branson said he was moved by the energy and drive from the entrepreneurs who were accepted at the centre.

“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,” said Branson, urging the business community to partner with his organisation by helping small businesses to grow, create job opportunities and inspire the next generation.

“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,” he said.

Lake heads team

The Branson Centre is supported by a number of successful business operators, including Island Outpost’s Chris Blackwell, with IT guru Patrick Casserly as chairman and Lisa Lake heading the team as chief development director.

The centre is opening at a time when Jamaica’s unemployment rate is the highest in eight years, at 12.9 per cent, and is expected to provide a platform for job creation across the Caribbean.

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 for which they needed the greatest support, said Virgin Holidays in a press release.

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 already 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.

Oelwang said: “It’s truly inspiring to meet these young entrepreneurs, learn about their fantastic new businesses and to be a part of helping to 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.”