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Believe that you can make it

From games software manufacturers to bra designers, some of Scotland's leading young tycoons gave uplifting advice to the entrepreneurs of tomorrow at a conference for Young Enterprise companies in schools. Eleanor Caldwell reports

Think entrepreneurial; develop a product that does work; make sure everyone has clearly defined roles; offer support to all; manage failure; get rid of anyone who is not effective. This is the advice that Chris van der Kuyl, one of Scotland's most successful young businessmen, gave to youthful entrepreneurs at The Big Picture 2001 conference of Young Enterprise Scotland.

In 1985 van der Kuyl did a spell of work experience in industrial marketing with William Low's supermarket in Dundee, where he was a pupil at St Saviour's High. Today he employs 120 staff in his own software company, VIS Entertainment, which has offices from Dundee to the Isle of Wight.

He is also the chairman of Young Enterprise Scotland (YES), a scheme which accounts for 320 companies in 74 per cent of Scottish schools. Pupils run a limited company for a year and have to turn it into a profitable business. Products ranging from stained glass, jewellery and clocks to websites and maths CD-Roms are being successfully marketed and generating tens of thousands of pounds for charity. More importantly, the scheme is developing extraordinary entrepreneurial skills in the next generation of Scottish business people.

On the basis of his own Young Enterprise experience, followed by a degree in computer science, Mr van der Kuyl knew that he did not want to work in a monolithic company. With his education background - his mother is a teacher; his father is head of Edinburgh University's Scottish Interactive Technology Centre - he started in educational software and moved on to entertainment software.

At the 14th annual YES conference in Edinburgh this month, more than 400 young achievers shed their roles as pupils for the day and absorbed advice from van der Kuyl and a host of newly established entrepreneurs.

Kerri Binnie-Middleton, a former pupil of Portobello High in Edinburgh, developed her ideas for stationery while at school. During a trekking trip to Australia she made final designs for a novel Christmas card-holder. "I really believed the product was good," she said. It is now sold in leading stores throughout the UK and is part of her ever widening range of stationery.

Julie Rendall, a former pupil of Aboyne Academy, Aberdeenshire, also put faith in her ambition, which blossomed as a young achiever at school. Not wanting to be a nursery nurse, she established Rose Lodge nursery, which cares daily for 26 children.

Iain Dunbar's company in Hamilton, ID Computer Services, offered financial inspiration to young achievers. Its pound;250,000 turnover since its establishment in 1999 is on target to hit pound;500,000.

Practical business strategies were offered by all the speakers. Mr Dunbar warned of the pitfalls of employing a former boss. Ms Binnie-Mddleton emphasised the need for a business adviser. They all underlined the importance of the Prince's Scottish Youth Business Trust, which had provided them with invaluable structured business advice.

The school entrepreneurs listened avidly and were unanimous that they are more concerned with developing good business practice within their Young Enterprises than making large profits. "That's a bonus," said one boy, "although all our products are selling well, so we are making a lot of money."

In the structure of the Young Enterprise scheme in schools, the YES link teacher is a key figure. Acting purely as facilitators, teachers take a back seat and encourage rather than instruct. It is, as Mr van der Kuyl said, "all about empowering kids. Teachers have to allow the company to stand or fall on its own."

This point was pressed home by football manager and athletics coach Frank Dick, who talked on "Building a winning team". Using a combination of sports film footage and all the drive of a football coach in a dressing room at half-time, he described the young achievers as "mountain people" who should not just rely on the coach but all work together as "player coaches".

One S6 boy's response was: "I know this guy's good. He proves it all the time. I'm going to take note of everything he said when I'm doing our young enterprise work."

The best set of role models is a varied one, and Michelle Mone, founder of MSM International, creator of the Ultimo bra, offered a different perspective.

While attending Whitehill Secondary School in Glasgow, she had no enterprise opportunities and no interest in school. Enterprising ambition, however, had been with her since the age of 10, she says, when she employed 10 children to do paper rounds. At 12 she moved to working in a greengrocer's shop. "Then I was head-hunted by the sweet shop a year later." After giving up work as a fashion model at 15, she progressed into the Labatt brewery, where by the age of 23 she was running its operations in Scotland.

School, she says had offered her nothing. "I don't have any O-levels or whatever they're called."

However, since the establishment of her company in 1996 she has built up close contacts with schools. "I just want to put back as much as I can," she says, "to make young people believe that they can make it too."

And if the conference audience needed any convincing, the pupils received a boost in confidence after a collaborative challenge was sprung on them. Working in teams of 140, they were charged with gathering information from team mates and painting group canvases. At the end of the day, they were visibly astonished and proud of their efforts which, when pieced together, created three paintings more than 10ft square. These were auctioned and sold to British Telecom for pound;15,000 and are to be offered to the Scottish Executive for the Holyrood building.

"That's not a bad result really," said one youngster. "We must be pretty good."

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