Virgin billionaire Sir Richard Branson talks philanthropy

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright May 15, 2016
Billionaire Virgin entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson came to last week's Coupa Inspire to talk philanthropy, parenthood, leadership and changing the world

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Rob Bernshteyn (left) with Sir Richard Branson and son Sam

Billionaire Virgin entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson took to the stage at last week's Coupa Inspire conference to talk about philanthropy, parenthood, leadership and changing the world.

With a personal fortune recently estimated at £4.5 billion ($6.5bn), Branson puts most of his energies today into philanthropic initiatives and his Virgin Galactic space tourism venture. His first success came in the 1970s with the Virgin Records music label. Then Branson went on to challenge British Airways' monopoly of transatlantic routes out of London by setting up Virgin Atlantic Airways in 1982.

The Virgin brand now extends into telecoms, trains and personal finance, but Branson often holds just a minority stake — witness last month's acquisition of the Virgin America airline by Alaska Air, which Branson opposed but could do nothing to prevent.

Solving problems

Branson and his filmmaker son Sam relaxed on a sofa on stage as Coupa CEO Rob Bernshteyn posed questions. Branson exuded optimism and a strong belief in the positive contribution business can make to the world:

The world despite its problems — whether it's Syria or whether it's ISIS — every decade it's getting better and better and better. Something like 600 million people coming out of poverty every decade.

In the past we've left it up to government and the social sector to try to achieve a lot of this. Business has done it indirectly but not directly. I think now, more and more business people are adopting problems and saying, OK, we've got our businesses, our business is very important, it's making a big difference to the world doing what it's doing, it's making other companies more efficient, etcetera. But let's use our entrepreneurial skills to adopt at least one problem in the world — it could be a local problem, it could be a national problem, or it could be an international problem.

I think if we can get every business in the world to do that, most of the problems in this world will be solved. I think the next — by the time Sam's my age — I really do believe that the world should be a really, really great place to live ...

We live in an exciting time, but every single company's got to play their part in getting there, and then I think we will get there.

He explained why he believes social responsibility should be a business imperative:

There are some business people who argue that, just by being in business, we are making a radical difference to other people's lives — and that is true. That's the major difference that you most likely can make. But I travel the world a lot and I just see problems everywhere I go — conflict issues, problems for the oceans, [social] policy problems, climate change problems, and so on.

To sit back and not do something about these things, if you're in a position where you might be able to do something about those things, I think would be quite difficult for me. When I come to the end of my life I would look back on it and think, OK, I've created some great businesses, I've made some money, but surely I could have done more than that? I think the greater satisfaction people get is when they make a difference to other people's lives ...

So I think it's the right thing to do and also it's good for our own psyche.

Digital connections

He also spoke of the importance of enabling access to digital connections for more of the world's people, which Virgin Galactic is supporting through its OneWeb joint venture with chipmaker Qualcomm to launch 800 low-orbit communications satellites:

The main aim of that is to connect the unconnected, because there's about 4 billion people in the world not connected. If you're not connected, it's very difficult for you to get out of the poverty trap. If you are connected you can start businesses — everything flows from that these days.

Sam Branson added his take on the Internet's ability to break down barriers between people:

People are becoming more and more aware of our common humanity. It doesn't matter where you come from, what your ideals are, what your religion is, where you're born into, I think all human beings are the same outlook. They want to be healthy, they want security for their family, ideally they want to have fun and be happy.

I think there's such strong human commonalities around the world and I'm very excited about things like the Internet really connecting us into one big, global community again and enabling us to converse on common themes. I think my generation is the generation that has this tool at their fingertips and I'm very excited about us seeing the world with less borders.

Business leadership

Bernshteyn had begun the discussion by asking Sir Richard for his views on leadership in business. He replied that looking for the best in people and being a good motivator were critical.

I'm dyslexic. If I hadn't been a good delegator, if I hadn't surrounded myself with brilliant people, I'd never be sitting here today. I think the stereotype of somebody who runs a company who's trodden all over people to get to the top, I think that should be and is a thing of the past. I think people today realize that you've got to have this fantastic team of people who completely believe in what you're doing.

Sam added his perspective, having grown up watching his father create so many different ventures under the Virgin brand:

Brands have personalities, and I think if you have a really good sense of what personality your brand is, it doesn't matter what group of people you walk into, you're the same person. I think Virgin as a brand has embodied Dad's personality and therefore it can go into all these different industries and have the same identity.

Not all of those ventures have been successful, but Branson has been careful to protect the brand, as he made clear when speaking in a separate appearance at HR Tech World Congress in Paris last October. In conversation with a group of young entrepreneurs, he spoke then of the importance of reinventing your business to stay ahead of new competitors — but he also explained that he had been careful to keep each new venture separate so that it did not put other parts of the brand at risk.

If we had focused on music shops, we wouldn't be in business today. Be ready to evolve as the world evolves and keep trying to come up with the technology that's going to put your own business out of business. You've got to keep running ...

The key thing [when launching Virgin Atlantic] was to say, if I've got it wrong, Boeing have said I can hand the plane back at the end of the year. So the downside was protected. If, God forbid, the space project doesn't work, it's not going to bring the rest of the group down.

One of the key rules of business — just make sure every block, every move you make, it's not going to create an earthquake.

My take

This was a fascinating insight into one of the world's great entrepreneurs, in which his humanity showed through, not only as a philanthropist but also as a family man. We Brits are often ambivalent about our business heroes — Branson certainly has his detractors as well as fans — so I was ready to be disappointed. But I found myself impressed by his authentic enthusiasm both for living and for helping everyone achieve their potential.

At diginomica, we recently took our own step forward in the realm of corporate philanthrophy, so I'm glad to be able to publish Branson's passionate endorsement of such acts. Sam Branson's sentiment that being connected fosters diversity and tolerance is also one that we subscribe to. Digital connectivity is not only a source of disruptive change but is also shaping our world for the better.

Image credit - Courtesy of Coupa

Disclosure - At the time of writing, Coupa is a diginomica partner and paid my travel costs to attend its conference in San Francisco this week. I flew Virgin Atlantic, with whom I have had a frequent flyer account for almost two decades.

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