Sir Richard Branson, the risk-loving multi-billionaire founder of The Virgin Group, recently spoke with Inc.com's Christine Lagorio about what small businesses can do to "do good," what he views as capitalism's underlying problems, and why he identifies with the Occupy Wall Street protesters (despite being solidly in the 1 percent).
You've said you support Occupy Wall Street. Do you secretly plan to camp out in a tent this winter?
I just think that first of all peaceful demonstrations should be allowed in any country; police should not try breaking up peaceful demonstrations. They have a good reason to demonstrate. A few greedy people in the banking community nearly brought down the world, and that's made people angry. I think not just the banking community, but the whole of the business community needs to make sure that capitalism puts on a genuinely positive face and gets out there and helps change the world to an extent that the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators can feel they've done their jobs and go home. It's up to every single person who works in business to play their part, even in a small way, to rectify the damage that's been done. What they're campaigning for is for businesses to become forces of good. If businesses can become forces of good and can grow hearts and get out there and not just be money-making machines, then, you know, I think that will be all for the better.
How exactly can businesses grow fast, be wildly successful, and still have—as you say—a heart?
The first priority for a business is building that business: making sure it is secure, employing people, and setting out to make a difference in whatever field that business is in. Once a business-owner is on top of those issues, then they can afford to use their entrepreneurial skills to get out there and try to solve some of the problems of the world. Maybe set up one or two not-for-profit businesses alongside their for-profit business. Maybe try to invest money in greening their cities, or coming up with clean fuels, or trying to tackle an issue: for small business, a local issue; for large business, a national issue; for bigger business still, an international issue.
So, it's not just up to bankers and government, you're saying it's up to entrepreneurs to fix the U.S. economy?
There is a fundamental problem with capitalism. And that is that it's the only system that works, but it does bring extreme wealth to a few individuals. Therefore, if you’re lucky enough to be one of those few individuals, you have to make sure you use that responsibility extremely well, and that you use that wealth to create more jobs and to try to sort out some of the intractable problems of the world. As a business leader, I'm no more successful than a doctor or a nurse or a journalist, but I have that wealth, and with wealth—as they say—comes responsibility.
What about young entrepreneurs just starting out? What advice would you give to a 20-year-old with a start-up idea right now?
Well, I think if you're a 20-year-old, what you want to do is think, "What am I frustrated with in life, and how can I make it better?" I went into the airline business when I was in the record business, and I hated the experience of flying on other people's airlines. I thought, "I could do it better, so let’s just get one second-hand 747 and see if I’m right." I think it doesn’t have to be on a grand scale like that, but if you feel like you can do something better, give it a try. And if you do it better, it doesn’t matter if you’re competing with big companies, people will seek your product out. And then find a great group of people around you who also believe in the difference you are trying to make and inspire them to work with you. Just get up and give it a go.
Branson's new book, Screw Business as Usual, is due out Dec. 8.
This interview has been edited and condensed.