One Richard Branson is enough!

Role models like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg can inspire and guide you, but originality is key.

(Photo: Darryl Dyck/CP)

When trying to make your way in the world as an emerging entrepreneur, don’t think of yourself as the next Bill Gates—or even the next Richard Branson. Be true to yourself and pay attention to your own opinions and values, because one of your greatest advantages is your capacity to see things from a fresh perspective, unhindered by past failures or notions about what is possible. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t look to others for ideas—a number of business people have inspired me over the past few years.

When I want to remind myself about staying true to one’s vision, I look to Mark Zuckerberg, one of the founders of Facebook, who has kept firmly to his principles throughout his company’s rise. I admire the determination, innovation and confidence he showed in setting up and then running the wildly popular social network.

This even extends to his decision to continue wearing a hoodie and T-shirt to work after he was appointed CEO, as he had almost always done. I’ve often said that business people shouldn’t dress like clones—I dislike the necktie so much that I’ve been known to carry a pair of scissors in my top pocket to give unsuspecting entrepreneurs the snip—so I was dismayed to see Zuckerberg criticized earlier this year for wearing his hoodie on Wall Street when floating his company’s initial public offering. I hope that those who were so disapproving of his trademark outfit will see sense one day.

For inspiration in terms of innovation, I look to Steve Jobs, as do many designers, inventors and entrepreneurs. His death last year deeply affected people around the world. A college dropout who battled cancer for many years, his personal and professional successes gave hope to many. Due to his lifetime of effort, Apple’s various devices have given us all new ways of connecting and engaging with the world, including those with disabilities; this was an immense source of pride for Steve.

For help and inspiration in my efforts to persuade business leaders to run their companies in a socially responsible way, I enjoy spending time with Jamie Oliver and Jochen Zeitz, both of whom have built successful companies that make a difference. As chairman of Puma, Jochen is pioneering an environmental profit-and-loss reporting tool that helps companies assess the impact their products are having on our planet and our communities, and lets customers know which products are sustainable. I have known Jamie for many years and have been impressed with his dynamism as he has ramped up his restaurant business and built his worldwide brand through his various TV shows, all the while pouring his efforts into teaching people to eat better, drawing public attention to the poor quality of school lunches, and developing Fifteen, his restaurant and social enterprise that trains unemployed young people to become professional chefs.

I should add that all of us at Virgin Unite are grateful to Jochen and Jamie for their contributions to our initiatives. Seeing fellow entrepreneurs throw themselves wholeheartedly into such good causes gives me hope that people’s attitudes about the social responsibilities of business really are changing.

For new ideas on creating youthful, vibrant, fun companies that provide fantastic products while not taking themselves too seriously, I look to Richard Reed, Adam Balon and John Wright, the co-founders of Innocent Drinks. Innocent Drinks sells inventive, delicious smoothies and vegetable-based meals, while doing business in a socially responsible way. They put a lot of effort into buying ingredients from suppliers who treat their workers well and look after the environment, using sustainable packaging, and donating 10% of their profits to charity each year. It’s wonderful to see this company doing so well—I can see a bit of Virgin in it.

It’s never a bad idea to have a role model or to seek advice from someone you respect—just don’t let it stop you from being yourself. Originality is key. The world doesn’t need another Richard Branson—one is probably enough!

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group of companies