Q: You are spending a lot of time on your philanthropic ventures and volunteer work. Does this take time away from your job of steering the Virgin Group? Or does it help you to come up with new approaches to business problems?
A: When people ask me if a business can balance making a difference in people’s lives with making a profit for the company, the point that I always try to make is that the two are not exclusive.
Business leaders should not focus solely on earning money. They must remember that a healthy profit means that a community supports and appreciates the products and services a business offers, and also how that business is managed.
My work on initiatives fostered by our nonprofit foundation, Virgin Unite, such as The Elders and The Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship, have given me a different outlook. I have a broader perspective than I did in the 1970s, when my focus was mostly on our local community and our customers, but as Virgin grew and our efforts expanded, I began working on philanthropy projects alongside inspirational figures such as Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
And then the types of projects expanded, taking on everything from urging world leaders to end the drug wars, to providing mentoring opportunities to young entrepreneurs, so that now I also tend to think in terms of the global community.
Our work with Virgin Unite has given our companies a fantastic boost. Customers want to know that the company they’re dealing with has a moral compass and takes a socially responsible approach to doing business. An example of one of our initiatives that has gained people’s attention is our decision to invest profits from the Virgin transport businesses in researching clean fuels.
Using fuel derived from a renewable energy source to fly our planes would benefit everyone, and we can be sure that the technological breakthrough needed to make this happen will take place eventually, so we are striving to be the first to reach that goal.
My philanthropic ventures have also been good for our team: People want to work for a company they are proud of, one whose values they believe in. I like to think that our staff is as proud as I am about the good that our companies do. And a happy and motivated workforce is a productive one.
Many people assume that the only way a business can contribute to its local community is by donating to charity, but they’re mistaken.
A company that has a strong set of principles woven into its DNA will find many opportunities for making a difference. In South Africa, where unemployment and poverty are pressing issues, Virgin Active, our health-club business, saw that there was a need to support other local businesses.
So our branch in Soweto brought in partners: a hairdresser, DJs for the exercise classes, a car-washing business for the car park. Our successful venture thus provided the support and spark to help other businesses ramp up their operations.
If you are looking to change how you do business, the first step is to integrate great values into your business plan. Any company can do this, no matter what its size, location, or how long it has been in business.
Small businesses can make a difference locally, bigger companies can make a difference nationally, and even bigger companies can make a difference internationally. And look at every stage of your business, from manufacturing to disposal, and consider the impact on your community. Are you really making people’s lives better?
If you’re thinking about launching a business, consider the new opportunities offered by some of the environmental challenges that your community faces – what would happen if you were to find a solution? If your company offered a scalable solution to a problem like a local water shortage or waste disposal issues, you might help your community and others.
If you lead an established and successful company, why not address the bigger picture? One of the projects that Virgin Unite supports, The Carbon War Room, works with companies and industry organisations in many different sectors to decrease that sector’s carbon footprint.
We don’t condemn or single out businesses for their carbon outputs; our focus is on finding ways to eliminate market barriers to large-scale adoption of low-carbon solutions, like renewable fuels, so that sectors such as shipping and aviation can make more money while producing less pollution.
Philanthropic work undertaken not just by the CEO, but by any employee, is an asset to the group as a whole, bringing in new perspectives and relationships that the group wouldn’t otherwise have. So encourage your employees to contribute, off the job and on, and in time people in your community will learn that business can bring positive change. In the meantime I will also be urging my team at Virgin to “Screw business as usual.” It’s what we do best.