In the Business of Saving the World

The founder of Virgin, Richard Branson, has made it his business to use, realign, and reconfigure his own wealth for the purpose of tackling some of society’s biggest problems. From campaigns against inequality to a determined effort to preserve our environment, the pioneering entrepreneur is a force for change whose work spans continents and corporations.


By Dan Bowman

Within the world of British entrepreneurs, Sir Richard Branson clearly catches the eye. The mogul is a throwback of sorts to an era of eccentric innovators who, although not removed entirely, find themselves surrounded by stereotypical CEOs. With his trademark flowing locks and hatred of ties, Branson openly admits to being as comfortable kitesurfing as he is in the boardroom. Even though he is recognizable the world over, courtesy of the multi-branched Virgin corporation brand, Branson’s business acumen has him ranked among the globe’s wealthiest individuals.


But for Branson, the privileges he is afforded by his company’s success and longevity – including his own private island, Necker, in the aptly named British Virgin Islands – come with a responsibility to give back to the planet. And the buccaneering billionaire does so in no small way.


“It seems entirely straightforward to me that we should take from the planet and give back,” he says. “For me, it’s a choice to do that, of course, but more than that, it feels a real responsibility.”


One of the more lasting – and unusual – global initiatives that Branson had a hand in setting up was an organization known as The Elders, which was formed in 2007 after the entrepreneur held discussions with rocker and fellow Brit Peter Gabriel, plus former South African Head of State Nelson Mandela. The Elders call themselves “independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights” who look to use their prominence to find solutions to a host of the world’s biggest problems – from climate change to poverty and HIV/AIDS.


Over its 10-year lifespan, this group has included among its members some of the world’s most famous statesmen and activists, such as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former Director General of the World Health Organization Gro Harlem Brundtland, and former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu.


Branson said of the initiative, “There will always be skeptics of any positive initiatives, but these are people giving up their time for nothing. Most individuals in the world would welcome a group of people who are above ego, and that’s what we will be.”


His guiding role in The Elders’ origins is indicative of the businessman’s hunger to surround himself with the great and the good of geopolitics, and to feed from their collective experiences as world leaders.


“I’m learning all the time,” agrees the 66-year-old. “I love to learn. For me, it’s all about broadening your horizons, discovering different new things, and finding people who are better than you to do the things that you’re not good at. Then that frees you up to do the things you are good at. It also helps keep your mind active. And I suspect that’s why Virgin’s gone into so many different areas – it’s my inquisitiveness and my desire to learn.”


Around the same time as The Elders began, the Virgin founder had already capitalized on his brand’s standing by launching Virgin Unite – the corporation’s charitable arm.


“I now spend the majority of my time working with Virgin Unite to make a positive difference in the world. From supporting projects that I’m passionate about, such as being an advocate for gay rights, to drug policy reform, to using my voice and that of the Virgin Group to shine a spotlight on issues that I believe are unacceptable, such as poaching and the death penalty.”


Another issue that Branson is keen to remind us affects every living person on Earth is climate change. In 2006, he made a high-profile pledge to invest $3 billion in the fight to combat global warming, committing the entire profit margin of all of Virgin’s travel firms – from airplanes to trains – over 10 years. This was followed by Branson creating Virgin Fuels, a dedicated wing of the Virgin brand that invested $400 million in developing biofuels.


As someone who lives on a Caribbean island susceptible to the dangers of increasing sea levels and marine pollution, there is, of course, a personal reason behind Branson’s championing of ecological causes. But on a wider scale, the business leader has long made it his mission to pass on the best world possible to future generations.


“I’m passionate about life, and so I’m as interested as I was 30 years ago,” he says of his attempts to support charitable causes across the globe. “I always think that with anything that has been successful – not just things that I have been involved with – there’s an obvious labor of love for those involved. I am passionate about all my projects because if I’m not passionate about it, why would anyone else be positive about it?”