Sir Richard Branson is the UK’s most recognisable and eighth richest entrepreneur. His long blonde hair and distinctive goatee have become instantly identifiable with his brand, Virgin, which consists of more than 100 companies worldwide.
The serial entrepreneur started his first business at the age of 16, when he created Student Magazine to give a voice to youth who were opposed to the Vietnam War. Branson has since found success most notably with Virgin Records, Virgin Airlines, and Virgin Mobile, giving him a personal net worth of £4.3 billion.
As Branson, 66, is getting older, he is also getting more ambitious, with plans to take commercial passengers into space with Virgin Galactic, and a more grounded vision to reduce the negative impacts of climate change and growing worldwide inequality.
Branson agreed to answer some of our questions over email. The following transcript provides his responses in full.
Will Heilpern: You are a big advocate of philanthropy and you use your wealth to do work which helps many of the world’s poorest people. But do you see the rising inequality in our society as a problem? If so, can we rely on the generosity of the super-rich, or should other actions be taken to help close that gap? If the latter, what would your solution be?
Richard Branson: From my very first day as an entrepreneur, I’ve felt the only mission worth pursuing in business is to make people’s lives better. An important priority for me is a business must get their own house in order. Be or become an agent of positive change in your own enterprise and adopt responsible practices to eliminate the risks that often lie at the root of inequality and poverty.
That’s why I started Student Magazine at the height of the Vietnam War, to give a voice to my generation who were against the war. It’s also why we’ve been disrupting the airline business for more than 30 years, and why we continue to bring change to many other industries, from mobile communications to hotels and, soon, space travel.
We must also continue to push ourselves forward to improve lives for people across the planet and I believe business can be a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit.
We need to find real world solutions which benefit everyone. I’ve been very passionate about renewable energy for many years, particularly solar energy and its capacity to bring abundant clean, sustainable energy to millions around the globe.
One example of this is M-Kopa, a company I have recently invested in. M-Kopa is a pay-as-you-go solar energy provider to off-grid homes across East Africa. The company is looking to improve people’s access to clean energy and hopes to have their solar systems in more than one million households by the end of 2017.
But this is about much more than an investment in a good business idea or a means of reducing carbon emissions. In many African countries, where nearly 600 million people still lack electricity, clean energy access often means the difference between prosperity and poverty, between women’s empowerment and continued inequality, between education and illiteracy. It means having the choices and opportunities that many of us in the West have come to take for granted.
Heilpern: When your children face a tough decision between various opportunities and they come to you for advice, what do you tell them? What principles govern your guidance?
Branson: Those who know me, know I’m passionate about lists and top of my list of priorities is my family. My wife Joan and I do not consider our legacy to our children to be wealth or fame, but the opportunity to pursue happiness by following their own path.
Just as we made our own decisions about what we wanted to do, we want our children and grandchildren to have the same experiences.
Heilpern: What are people most surprised about when they get to know you for the first time?
Branson: I’d probably say the fact I have always been naturally shy. When I was a young boy, I would often refuse to talk to adults and cling to the back of my mother’s skirt. As an introverted kid, my mother worried my shyness would become debilitating as I got older — to help try and tackle my shyness my mother always challenged me.
My shyness has never disappeared completely; believe me I still get nervous from time to time. However I am also the first to say yes and tackle my fears head on. This approach to challenges has allowed me to chart an exciting path in life and in business, so I will be eternally grateful to my mother for that!
Heilpern: What is a really important issue right now that is not being talked about as much as it should be?
Branson: I would say Climate Change and Human Rights. I know there are important conversations happening all the time and more action is taking place across the world to tackle horrendous issues like stopping the death penalty or curbing attacks on LGBT rights. But there will always be more to do in tackling climate change and making sure everyone has the same access to human rights.
That watershed moment in Paris at COP 21 in December last year will be remembered for generations as a time when the people of the world came together and set us on a pathway to climate neutrality. The announcement gives us a great opportunity to build a new economy and business is poised to be a partner helping make that happen.
Already a number of Virgin businesses are implementing new and exciting ways to reduce carbon across our businesses. At Virgin Atlantic we have invested more than $4bn in buying new and more efficient planes as well as bringing in behavioural experts to teach our pilots how to fly to save more fuel.
Heilpern: The launch of the Virgin Red loyalty app looks like a clear move to make your diverse businesses more united. Explain more about where the app could take the Virgin brand over the next five years. Do you see a future where there are fewer, but more powerful and wide ranging brands fulfilling our needs? Do you find the likes of Google and Facebook threatening?
Branson: No I wouldn’t say that. Competition is important as it encourages innovation, change and positive disruption — all of which improve the market and ultimately benefit customers. Nearly every one of our Virgin business have started in an industry which was ripe for disruption.
That’s exactly what we’ve done with Virgin Red, our users are the type of people who look for the latest innovation and we know everything online now is about engagement — not just capturing one customer, for one moment. It’s about finding your audience, building loyalty and creating uniqueness — which is why we’ve added elements of games to the Virgin Red app, you’re not just going to save money on Virgin products and you’re going to have fun doing it!
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