Entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson is known throughout the world for starting Virgin, which began with Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic and now includes numerous lifestyle brands, the award-winning Virgin America, and the world's first commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic. Today, Sir Richard spends much of his time on philanthropic ventures, including his foundation, Virgin Unite, which works with entrepreneurs, governments, and non-profits to turn business into a force for good. He spoke with NYER about his vision for entrepreneurship over the next decade.
Rod Kurtz: How do you feel the business world has changed over the past 10 years?
Richard Branson: Social media has been very effective in bringing all of us closer to each other—to our competitors, employees, and customers. That means we are able to make adjustments based on feedback right away. It also has allowed us to expand the relationship beyond business transactions and into shared values, most notably around the environment and ethnical business practices. It's through social media that we have made great gains in important issues such as shark fin banning and opening up the debate on the war on drugs.
RK: You're obviously an entrepreneur with long-term vision. How do you think the business world will change over the next 10 years?
RB: Climate change is a big opportunity that everyone should get involved in now—both as a citizen taking responsibility and as businesses to help other businesses, cities, and countries create a cleaner environment and cleaner approaches to life and work. Climate change is happening, and the results will be even more urgent 10 years from now.
If you look at countries that have had to take charge and develop expertise in it because of flooding or their dependence on fossil fuel exports—such as the Netherlands or Denmark—you'll see that they have already become leaders in this important area. We've helped launch a new hotel water campaign to reduce the use of plastic bottles by encouraging hotels to filter and bottle their own water and give a percentage of those profits to local clean water initiatives. There are many innovative ways that businesses can make a profit but also make an important difference.
RK: You're pitched business ideas constantly, and Virgin has obviously made a lot of investments and acquisitions over the years. What do you look for?
RB: Businesses with passion and purpose. Businesses that are started to make money or to sell are built on fragile ground and are at risk of a weak culture. You've got to have a purpose that your staff can rally around and get excited about.
I'm proud of all the Virgin businesses because in every sector—be it airlines or mobile phones or financial services—we have figured out how to make a difference in people's lives. It's very rewarding to hear so many people tell me how much better their flights are thanks to Virgin America's Wi-Fi or the friendliness of the staff. And through Virgin Unite, we've been investing in supporting young entrepreneurs who are striving to build great businesses that equally prioritize people, planet, and profits. We now have two Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship, one in South Africa and a new one in the Caribbean.
RK: What are the three most important things an entrepreneur, founder, or CEO can do each day?
RB: Listen and respond to your staff and customers. It's easier to do now more than ever with Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn. That's four things right there!
Rod Kurtz is a journalist and advocate for entrepreneurs. He works with a variety of media organizations, including CNNMoney, The New York Times, MSNBC, and others. A longtime resident of New York, he considers the Big Apple the greatest entrepreneurial city on Earth.