Branson – “If you have an idea that’s going to make a difference, just do it and give it a go”

Sir Richard Branson

At the height of the dispute between Virgin Trains and the Department for Transport over who should run the West Coast Main Line rail franchise, Richard Branson managed to find time to talk to Global about his wide-ranging interests in space tourism, sustainable development, global warming, philanthropy and encouraging entrepreneurship.

It was in 1970 that Richard Branson, aged 20, founded the Virgin mail-order record company, which in time grew into a multinational group that now consists of more than 200 companies. His biggest breakthrough was the establishment of Virgin Atlantic Airways in 1984, which went on to compete successfully with the big-name airlines. With Virgin companies now involved in a wide range of activities around the world, Richard Branson clearly enjoys putting his personal stamp on every new business venture. At the same time, he likes to spend his money on charitable and development-related activities. Having developed a commitment to tackling global warming, he is disappointed that governments seem to have lost the will to work for sustainable development and to fight against cli­mate change. In this interview, he talks about his passions and beliefs, including the spirit of entrepreneurship and the need for constant innovation in business.

Global: The global success of your flagship airline businesses over the past 25 years or so has helped make you both world famous and influential, and yet you seem always driven to take on new adventures, such as your own involvement in high-altitude ballooning and now your advocacy of space tourism. Is it the prospect of reaching ever-greater heights that drives this ambition?

Richard Branson: I love a challenge and enjoy pushing the boundaries! Also these events are a great way to raise awareness for a particular charity or cause. Recently my children and I climbed Mont Blanc; we were launching their charity Big Change, which will help young people reach their potential.

When do you expect Virgin Galactic to be offering its first suborbital trips? What else will that company be striving to achieve in the future?


We hope to begin offering trips in the very near future and we are looking at 2013. Safety has always been our main priority and we will not commence flights until all the test programmes are com­pleted. Going forward, our aim is to make space travel accessible to as many people as possible.

You set up Virgin Fuels to try to develop cheaper and cleaner fuels for both cars and aircraft. The latest reports suggest that it is having some success in developing a blend of ordinary and recycled ethanol from heavy industrial plants for use in commercial aircraft. What is your own take on the company’s most interesting achievements so far, and what its next targets might be?

Virgin Fuels, which I set up in 2006, went on to broaden its renew­able horizons and became Virgin Green Fund. One of the compa­nies that we’ve invested in is Gevo. Gevo have done extremely well in developing their methods for developing sustainable bio-based alternatives to petroleum fuels. There are a few inevitable growing pains when developing these new technologies, but they are focusing on some healthy ethanol sales while working away at these bigger goals.

In the light of the knowledge you have acquired since you first started to be concerned about global warming, what do you now think is the single most urgent challenge that humankind has to face up to in combating its effects?

It’s hard to pinpoint one particular challenge when the impacts of global warming are so diverse and yet so interrelated. However, it seems as if sustainable development and battling climate change has fallen almost completely off the political radar in the current US presidential race. And at Rio+20, governments could have agreed to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies and to protect and monitor oceans, which wouldn’t have cost money but would contribute to profitable fishing industries and healthier oceans. I think the most urgent challenge is getting the public and the political community to understand the gravity of these issues. While their inaction is shameful, people – through community-led initiatives and busi­nesses – are already starting to clean up our planet.

Are you pleased with the results achieved so far since you launched the Virgin Earth Challenge in 2007 as a prize for a design to remove atmospheric greenhouse gases? Which of the various technologies that have been submitted for consideration for the prize have you been most interested in or excited by?

Any prize or competition looking for solutions to complex prob­lems will always have its challenges, but we have made some good progress. The Virgin Earth Challenge team has reviewed over 10,000 applications and 2,600 proposals since its launch. And 11 groups that showed the best potential for meeting the tough criteria for our prize as they move forward have been announced. The lead­ing solutions range from the chemical capture of CO2 direct from air to the sustainable management of grasslands. I understand from Alan Knight and David Addison, who run the Earth Challenge, that all of the leading groups are doing fantastic work. I also under­stand that much more help from many more people is needed in exploring and backing each of these interesting and exciting areas. I would call upon businesses, policy-makers and thought leaders to learn more about the leading organisations in the Earth Challenge and see what you can do. Who knows, there may be more than the Virgin Earth Prize in it for you!

Increasingly, it seems successful entrepreneurs and former politicians are establishing charitable foundations. What led you to decide to set up Virgin Unite? Do you believe that billionaires and multimillionaires have a philanthropic duty to share their wealth?

Virgin Unite was born in 2004. I wanted to start a foundation to simply do what the name suggests – to unite all the Virgin com­munities around the world to use our entrepreneurial energy and resources to make change happen by driving business as a force for good in the world.

Philanthropy is a wise way to start new business-based ap­proaches to issues – such as kick-starting capital to create business models that will help solve social and environmental issues.

You set up the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship (BCOE) in South Africa in 2007. To what do you attribute your obvious special interest in the future of South Africa, and do you have a particular vision for its future development?

I find the people of South Africa warm-natured and their amazing spirit is inspiring. South Africa is one of my favourite countries to visit – from the hustle and bustle of the city atmosphere to the amazing wildlife and landscapes.

Via the BCOE, we aim to help businesses develop and, in turn, cre­ate jobs and stimulate the local economy, delivering economic growth.

In the light of your own experience of setting up the Virgin record company in the 1970s, what advice would you give to young businessmen and women hoping to start their own ventures now? Do you think that conditions are harder now than 40 years ago?

I don’t think it’s harder to achieve success today or start a business than it was when we started Virgin 40 years ago. If you have an idea that’s going to make a big difference to people’s lives, and other people are not doing it, you know, just say “screw it”, do it and get on with it, and give it a go. Even if you fall flat on your face, you’ll learn so much from it and have a lot of fun. And then you can pick yourself up and try again. I think especially with the Internet, there are just so many opportunities out there today.

I would suggest looking for opportunities where you can offer something better, fresher and more valuable. At Virgin, we often move into areas where the customer received a poor deal and where the competition is complacent. Also look at how you can deliver old products in new ways. We are proactive and quick to act, often leaving bigger and more cumbersome organisations in our wake.

Seek help and advice from friends and family, [and] don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn from others.

About the author:

Sir Richard Branson is Founder and Chairman of Virgin Group


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November 12, 2012 7:17 am

I agree and I am setting up a global training project to teach skills to people to bring them out of povety and enable them to have a sustainable income. The teach the man to fish philosophy.

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