Interview – Richard Branson

Through Virgin Unite and other initiatives, the combined forces of the Virgin empire are being brought to bear on social and environmental questions. Does the Virgin Group’s commercial success have anything to tell it about how to tackle these effectively? Founder of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson, believes it does, as he explains to Caroline Hartnell. The key messages include: work with the right people, and listen to those on the frontline.

What is the most important lesson you have learned in taking the Virgin Group to scale, and what might it mean for addressing the systems-level changes that the world needs?

The most important lesson I have learned is to get the right people in key positions. I believe if you have the right people you can achieve anything! Across the Virgin Group, everyone can use their entrepreneurial spirit to make an impact that supports the communities and environments that we operate in.

There are a few lessons from scaling our businesses which I think can be used to help us tackle the world’s large-scale problems. First, always listen to the people on the frontlines. They often know what needs to be done but don’t have access to the information, time and people needed to drive large-scale change.

Second, ‘business as usual’ has to be turned upside down. Every company needs to look at how they can make their business a true ‘force for good’. This means treating social issues in the same way as any business issue. Otherwise we will never get the scale of change we need in the world.

Lastly, we need to infuse an entrepreneurial spirit into solving global issues. Too often people stick with the same approach rather than opening their minds to new ideas and unlikely partnerships. Everyone thought we were crazy when we started work with The Elders [a group of respected global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel], but they are taking a new approach to tackling some of the toughest issues.

The timid result of COP15 shows that addressing climate change will require a shift in political priorities as much as in markets and business. How do you see the role of philanthropists in helping to create this kind of shift?

I believe the world needs a new way of working. We need to reinvent our economic system in a way that brings prosperity for all. And philanthropists have a key role to play in this revolution. They can partner with entrepreneurs and governments to try to solve the biggest market failures that are preventing cost-effective efficiency measures from succeeding. This can take many forms, including helping to drive new government policies, investing in new projects to build scale, and helping to drive efficiencies in a specific industry. It is the larger low-carbon technologies (many of which already exist) that will have the biggest impact. Speeding and scaling these ideas will be vital.

Can you tell me about the Carbon War Room? What has it been set up to do?

The Carbon War Room has been set up to speed and scale up some of the key solutions for a low-carbon world. It was created by Virgin Unite and a group of entrepreneurs committed to identifying critical battles in specific industries that will have a gigaton impact on carbon reduction. We have a great management team led by Jigar Shah, Founder of Sun Edison, and José María Figueres, ex-president of Costa Rica.

One example of its work is Green Capital – Global Challenge Operation, which aims to help cities eliminate energy waste by improving their access to financing to speed up the retrofitting of buildings. We believe that this effort could lead to a reduction of five gigatons of CO2 emissions annually by 2020.

Another is our Shipping Operation, which aims to reduce shipping emissions by revealing the fuel efficiency of every ship. This information is already being used by shipping customers to choose more efficient ships. The ultimate goal is to cut ship emissions by 20 per cent on working vessels and 35 per cent for ships built from 2012. The Carbon War Room is also pushing for a mandatory provision for exhaust gas cleaning technology, which could cut over 80 per cent of particulate matter and black carbon from ship emissions.

What do you see as the single most important barrier to success?

We believe failure to work together is potentially the biggest barrier to success. Without all of us, including entrepreneurs, governments and NGOs, working in partnership, it will be impossible to get to the speed and scale we need to truly drive a low-carbon economy. So far, we’ve had great success in our partnering efforts. As an independent non-profit, the Carbon War Room is in a fortunate position to ensure that the right circumstances are put in place for these relationships to thrive. We are not tied to government or one corporate sponsor, and our only agenda is the well being of the planet.

Has your thinking on how to create a large-scale impact changed since you created Virgin Unite?

When we started Virgin Unite, I realized that if Virgin really wanted to make a difference in the world, then we had to harness talent, skills and entrepreneurial energy from across the Group, and to embed social and environmental impact at our core. In short, our businesses had to become a force for good. We’ve seen our businesses tackle frontline issues such as teen homelessness in the US with real energy and drive, with Virgin Mobile USA using all its assets to raise awareness and funds, and just as importantly to lobby the US government for systemic changes.

We often see that change is not happening fast enough and that despite the great efforts of hundreds of frontline organizations, thousands of people continue to die. In South Africa, we are working with the government to build a Disease Control Hub to help share best practice and data across the country, as well as to mobilize resources. That experience, and the incubation of The Elders and the Carbon War Room, made us realize that one of our key strengths lies in bringing together some of the world’s most brilliant minds through our networks of entrepreneurs, frontline leaders, businesses and foundations to help create entrepreneurial approaches to pressing global issues.

Virgin Unite’s stated goal is to ‘revolutionize the way businesses and the social sector work together’. How do you see this happening?

We have a strong belief that if we want to create the scale of change we need in the world, businesses must play a role. The key is getting a business to truly turn itself upside down and look at how it can put driving change at its core rather than as a box-checking exercise. This philosophy has to be embraced by everyone from the call centre staff to the CEO. Businesses also need to change their relationship with the social sector. We must have humility when we work with our partners and understand that we are getting as much as we are giving.

The Virgin Group operates across many business sectors and employs talented people around the world. I’ve mentioned the work Virgin Mobile is doing in the US. All of our businesses in South Africa have come together to build the Branson School for young entrepreneurs. In the UK, Virgin Money Giving aims to ensure more funds go to charities. Virgin Media has just launched its Pioneers programme to support budding young entrepreneurs. These are just a few examples of the many initiatives that are happening across the Group.

Sometimes, the Group works together as a coordinated force to maximize impact. In response to the Haiti earthquake, for example, we were able to mobilize help from Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Holidays and Virgin Mobile US.

What actors in society do you see as best positioned to create the kind of social and environmental change that is needed?

Everyone – not just companies, governments or NGOs – has a responsibility to work for change. For far too long we’ve all worked in silos, which has limited our ultimate impact. We feel that entrepreneurs can play a significant role in helping people to think big and take the risks that are needed to transform our world into a more equitable place where we value our natural assets.

What advice would you give to investors/philanthropists who want to create large-scale impact?

There is strength in numbers. We believe you can make the most impact by uniting the right people. Look for projects to invest in that have the ability to scale. Don’t be afraid to try new ways of doing things. Think about investing in solutions with a business approach so that your social investment is maximized. Explore new ideas around the protection of natural resources. Most importantly, always listen to the people on the frontline who are affected by the issues – they are the ones that know the answers.

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