A couple of weeks ago I had the great pleasure of participating in the final of the Junior Achievement (formerly Young Enterprise) company programme.
This is a competition in which young people, typically between 16 and 18, set up and run their own businesses and are then judged on a variety of criteria which assess both their performance as a business and their achievements as a team.
PDMS have been sponsoring the 'company of the year' award on the Isle of Man for four years now and I have been involved in the judging each year, long enough to observe some common themes. Each year the majority of companies have, as part of their motivation, either a charitable or a green theme of some kind. This theme, particularly the environmental aspect is also reflected in the European competition which the Isle of Man winners participate in each year.
It is easy to dismiss these idealistic impulses as naïve, and for business mentors and judges to question the business logic behind some of these schemes, and in purely commercial terms the companies usually have a lot to learn. However, what I have increasingly come to realise is that the impulse to do something differently, to use business as a platform for addressing the social and environmental challenges we all face, is fundamentally entrepreneurial.
Successful entrepreneurs are often people who don't particularly fit the standard model of success in educational or corporate terms. They can be anything but methodical and well organised… but whatever the underlying motivation, be it money, engineering excellence, social or environmental goals, or a burning desire for better household appliances, they always have a vision of how things could be done better.
Professional advisors and managers on the other hand are usually pretty well organised, educated to a high level in their specialist discipline, be it law, accountancy, project management, banking or whatever, and have a pretty good idea about how things should be done and what has worked before.
This sometimes makes for a slightly uncomfortable relationship, particularly in the early stages of a business when there may be a great dependence on professional advisors to raise capital or simply to bring a degree of realism to qualify someone's big idea. The entrepreneur's view is summed up very well in the words of Deborah Meaden from the Dragons Den speaking on the Women in Business programme on Radio Four recently, "remember advisors are just advisors it's up to the business owner to make the decisions and take responsibility".
In reality all successful businesses need a bit of both, the ambition and innovation of the entrepreneur and the sound management and professional advice to make things work in the real world. I would go so far as to say that it is the combination of these two elements which lies at the heart of a successful modern economy - creativity and new ideas on the one hand and efficient, cost effective and technically competent execution on the other. I think the JA experience provides a perfect demonstration of these principles, in an educational context, for all concerned.
One thing I am sure of is that everyone who gets involved in the JA company programme will be pleasantly surprised by what they get out of it. For the young people it is an intense and challenging insight into the world of work; where there are very few black and white answers, where you have to take responsibility for your own decisions and where the performance of the team is far more important than your own individual brilliance. For the adult volunteers, be they mentors, link teachers, competition judges or simply JA supporters; it is hugely rewarding to see the energy, enthusiasm and commitment the teams bring to their endeavours.
Finally I would like to wish this year's winners, Cahoots from Castle Rushen High School the best of luck when they come to represent the Isle of Man in Oslo this summer.