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Richard Branson: You're Taking Your Business Too Seriously

Chill out, make your workplace fun, and do something socially responsible with your wealth, says the founder of the Virgin Group.

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It's natural to associate Sir Richard Branson with recording contracts or rocket ships. But his latest book, Screw Business as Usual, is something of a study in contrast for Branson's kite-surfing airline-mogul image. Its opening spotlights a recent loss—his $70 million Necker Island mansion, which became engulfed in flames after a lightning strike from Hurricane Irene. The rest of the text avoids typically Bransonian ideas about exuberant living and innovative businesses, and instead exhorts successful companies and entrepreneurs to give back to their communities. Branson not only comes out hard in favor of social entrepreneurship and smaller carbon footprints, but also supports what he calls a "new breed of philanthrocapitalism." He spoke with Inc.com's Christine Lagorio about building a company that's exhilarating, rewarding, and good for humanity.

You've said that "business is not about wearing suits, or keeping stockholders pleased," and your new book is called Screw Business as Usual. How seriously should we take you?
I think "screwing business as usual" means that it's important that people in business make sure the people working for them have fun. Business leaders take things far too seriously. They forget that people spend most of their lives at work, and it should be fun. That should almost go without saying. But I'm afraid that in a lot of companies, it doesn't go without saying.

What's an example of thinking differently?
We're looking at setting up a business leaders group where we can brainstorm all the ways of turning business on their head. For instance, should there be 10 percent of people completely out of work, when 90 percent of people are working day and night, more hours than they want to work? When we're in a time of crisis, why not share the amount of work around? Why don't you go to companies and say, how many people would like to job-share? How many people would like to go part-time for the next year or two while there's this recession on? That's the kind of approach that I think the country needs in the future.

You say in your book, "Those of us who have been fortunate enough to acquire wealth must play a role in looking at how we use these means to make the world a far better place." What should the role of the wealthy entrepreneur be today?
As far as people giving hard cash is concerned, that makes sense in the moment, in particular if there's a famine or some real crisis. It's very important that people give and give generously—and a few wealthier people can afford to give more than others. All I'm saying is that anybody who has got the time to use their entrepreneurial skills to start up more companies to make more profit could also use some of their time to start up, say, a not-for-profit organization to tackle some of the big problems in this world, or even some of the smaller problems in this world. I've had enormous satisfaction setting up The Elders, and setting up the Centers for Disease Control in Africa. To be able to look at the profit bottom line at the end of the year, and also say, "Have we managed to stop any wars this year?"  "Have we been able to reduce global warming?" "Have we stopped any diseases?" It's just a different approach.

What business models in the realm of social entrepreneurship do you admire?
I think there are lots of good examples. Jeff Skoll, who started Participant Films, is one of my favorites. Instead of just making films to make money, he's made films to try to make a difference in the world. An Inconvenient Truth would not have been made if it weren’t for Jeff Skoll. And if it hadn’t been made, I don’t think Virgin would have pledged profits from the airline business to trying to tackle the problem of global warming and trying to invent clean fuels.
 
What do you consider the most innovative venture of the Virgin Group? What about the most charitable?
The most innovative one must be the spaceship company. We just had a final rocket test yesterday, and that was successful. We're about one year from taking people into space—it's very, very, very close now. I suppose the most satisfying one we've launched is The Elders, which is a foundation. The Elders is headed up by Nelson Mandela and President Carter, along with Kofi Annan and Archbishop Tutu, and they'll go into conflict regions and try to resolve conflicts, and they've had some good successes. I'd have to say that's the most worthwhile venture.

What about the most profitable?
I would say moving into the airline business—which is strange, because most people would say the airline business is bankrupt. But I think we've created the best airlines in the world. We've created three airlines, the best quality airlines: Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia, and Virgin America. They've made a real difference to the flying experience for people, and people come back for more, and the airlines have done well over the years.

What's the one invention you'd like to see in the next five years that you won't be the creator of?
Yeah, well, I'd like somebody to make the body of a 20-year-old for me in the next five years! I don't ask for a lot.

Fair enough. But how about one more?
One invention? We have a $25 million prize that we put out there called the Earth Prize to see if anyone can come up with a device to take carbon out of the Earth's atmosphere. If someone do with that in the next five years, it would potentially save the world from global warming, so it would be wonderful if someone could win that prize.

Branson's new book, Screw Business as Usual, is out this month.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

IMAGE: D@LY3D/Flickr
Last updated: Dec 13, 2011




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