If anyone can make the world a better place (and have a little fun while doing it), it’s Richard Branson. HILuxury gets the exclusive.
A man’s man. Intelligent. Courageous persuasive. Confident. Conqueror of rules. Think of these adjectives and the men to whom they apply, and Sir Richard Branson tops the list. When we presented him with our first question for HILuxury‘s “men’s issue,” it elicited a laugh. “My answer sounds like one you’d give on stage in a model competition: I want to resolve all the conflicts in the world.” Lest one thinks he’s joking, he continues, “And although I’m the opposite of a model, I promise I will diligently do everything in my lifetime, with a wonderful team of Elders, to come up with imaginative ways to resolve conflicts.”
The question put forth was regarding a list of 65 challenges Branson decided to tackle from the general public during his 65th year. Which challenge touched the philanthropist most deeply? Think attempting to resolve the world’s conflicts is absurd? Not when it’s the founder of Virgin Group, a multinational conglomerate that umbrellas over 400 companies in areas ranging from travel and lifestyle to healthcare and telecommunications. Oh, and space tourism.
If anyone can have an impact on world conflicts, Branson will try. The entrepreneur has a reputation for not shying away from seemingly insurmountable problems. In fact, Branson made the leap from working in the entertainment world (Virgin Records is known for producing albums from bands including the Sex Pistols to solo artists like Janet Jackson) into travel back in 1984, when a flight he was scheduled on cancelled. Rather than merely grumble, Branson phoned Boeing and asked if they had any secondhand 747s for sale. The Boeing exec paused and suggested Branson might want to rethink his moniker, “With a name like Virgin, nobody will know if it’s going to go the whole way.”
That day, Virgin Atlantic Airlines was born. This type of business philosophy, jumping in with both feet, is something to which Branson still adheres. In fact, during a tour about entrepreneurship this year, he advised perceiving business as an adventure.
“Business’ isn’t about dollars and cents,” Branson says, “It’s about creating something really special that will make a positive difference in other people’s lives.” He lives by those words, attacking some of the world’s concerns, including climate change, oceans and the global war on drugs.
Making strides in these areas since 2007 have been The Elders. The brainchild of Branson and musician/humanitarian activist Peter Gabriel, this global collective of thought leaders headed up by Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan strive to resolve some of the world’s biggest issues—strengthening the United Nations, building peace and human rights in areas such as Sudan, Syria, Israel, Egypt and Iran, empowering girls and women, and finding resolutions to climate change. Echoing his former proclamation, Branson says, “The Elders hope that in our lifetimes, conflicts can be a thing in the past.”
Climate change is another challenge about which Branson is passionate. “Both the B Team and Carbon War Room are trying to get governments to set up ground rules so we can aim for carbon neutrality in the world—no more by 2050.” Headed by Branson and Jochen Zeitz (director of Kering, a France-based fashion brand), the B Team is a global coalition of business leaders pushing for strong emissions reductions goals via carbon-saving projects. Branson has said going to these lengths “will drive innovation, grow jobs, build prosperity and secure a better world for what will soon be nine billion people.” It will also steer the world toward avoiding the worst effects of climate change.
For its part, the Carbon War Room, also founded by Branson, focuses on market barriers and finds business solutions for advancing the low-carbon economy.
Front and center on Branson’s radar are the world’s oceans. Enter the Ocean Elders, a group promoting ocean conservation and sustainability. Hawai`i-native Nainoa Thompson is among its members. “Hawai`i has some wonderful elders that the people on the islands look up to,” Branson says. “People of the world can learn from these elders.”
Branson and Thompson convened in March when the double-hulled sailing canoe Hokule`a made a two-day stop at Branson’s estate on Moskito Island. In a film shot during that time, the two lauded each other’s work for protecting the world’s oceans. “The ocean has been pillaged and destroyed by mankind for many, many years now,” Branson states on the video. “The Hokule`a‘s voyage is drawing attention to this and alerting the world to get out there and do something about it.” In turn, Thompson reflected on Branson, “His work in both protecting the earth and the oceans is extraordinary, [as are his efforts] to bring equality to humanity.”
As for humanitarian efforts, Branson’s are extensive. He’s targeting many issues, including the overcrowding of prisons, specifically caused by incarcerations for drug use. “Drug issues should be treated as a health problem, not a criminal problem,” he says of a determination made by the Global Commission on Policy (GCDP). “If my children, brothers or sisters have a drug problem, I wouldn’t expect them to be criminalized, I’d expect them to be helped.”
Among five policy recommendations put forth by the GCDP in 2014 was “ending the criminalization of people who use or possess drugs, promoting alternatives to incarceration for low-level participants in illicit drug markets, including cultivators.” Quite simply, says Branson, approach policy from this direction and the overcrowding dilemma can be resolved and, “Equally, we’d have a better society.”
This April, when the United Nations General Assembly Special Session convened to discuss the future of global drug policy, the first such summit in the past 18 years, Branson was swift to demand an inclusive and transparent process.
His major push—the GCDP’s goal of a humane global drug control system.
Another Branson project that’s far-reaching in scope is OneWeb. Its mission: to bridge the digital divide by providing Internet access to parts of the world that could benefit from its life-saving communication capabilities. To accomplish this, a constellation of 700 satellites will create a global gateway with interlocking coverage. “When you’re unconnected, it’s very difficult to get a leg up in life,” Branson explains. “When you’re connected, you have a chance.”
Satellites aren’t Branson’s only focus when it comes to space. “Astronauts-in-waiting” have been keeping tabs on his Virgin Galactic project since its 2004 inception. In October 2014, the VSS Enterprise crashed at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the incident occurred due to pilot error. After much soul-searching, the program moved forward and this past February a new spaceship, the VSS Unity, was unveiled.
Though many milestones must occur before the VSS Unity begins shuttling tourists into space, the number of pre-paid reservations is already higher than the total number of humans who’ve already traveled to space. What will those travelers experience? Four minutes of weightlessness before reentering the atmosphere and gliding back to the Earth’s surface.
Despite all these far-flung projects, Branson still maintains a focus on Virgin’s offices. “Individuals spend at least 50 percent of their lives at work,” he says. “It’s really important that it’s enjoyable and they look forward to coming in on Monday mornings.”
As much as Branson encourages fun in the workplace, he also expects other entrepreneurs to step up to the plate with solutions to world concerns. “Entrepreneurially minded people have great ideas as to how to make the world a better place, oftentimes better ways to get on top of problems than governments do,” he says. “I think it’s the responsibility of entrepreneurs to adopt the world’s problems. More would be solved.”
Looking at Branson’s agenda, there’s definitely time devoted to the thing he’s most proud of: family. In addition to his wife, Joan, and children, Holly and Sam, there are three one-year-old toddlers who know Branson as their Grand Dude.
Not to be left out of the schedule is Branson’s favorite pastime, kitesurfing.
He was already eyeing opportunities for doing so in Hawai`i last November when he arrived on O`ahu for the launch of Virgin America Airline’s flights between San Francisco and Honolulu. “I’ll certainly be back again with kite under arm.” This time around, though, he had a special message to deliver. “The only time I ever came to the islands before was by mistake, when a balloon I was trying to go around the world on crash-landed off O`ahu,” he recalls. “I especially wanted to thank the helicopter people who rescued our lives.”
As it stands, Branson’s 66th birthday is coming up in July. With that in mind, if he could travel back in a Virgin time machine, what message would he deliver to his younger self? “Not to change a thing. To live life to its fullest and have a blast. That you’re a lucky bastard for the life you’re going to lead. It’s going to be good fun.”