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Jean Oelwang: What it’s like working with Sir Richard Branson

Sir Richard Branson’s right-hand woman gives Startups an exclusive insight into the legendary entrepreneur

Jean Oelwang is CEO of The Virgin Group’s charitable foundation Virgin Unite, on which she works closely with Sir Richard Branson. Here she gives a unique insight into the billionaire businessman and explains why, after 45 years in business, the Virgin founder believes taking responsibility is key to business success.

I have just spent three full days with Richard in an Elders meeting. The Elders (an organisation of leading public figures and peace activists, including Nelson Mandela) was his and Peter Gabriel’s idea.

They wanted to look at how they could use their influence and convening power to help create new global leadership initiatives. Richard is very hands-on and has been closely involved all the way along.

… Driving change

Virgin Unite (which founded The Elders) started about eight years ago. I think what Richard didn’t want to do is start a typical corporate foundation.

We created Virgin Unite as a catalyst to make the most of every single asset we have across the businesses – and with Richard himself – to drive social and environmental change. The change we’ve achieved is far greater than anything we could do if we’d just written a cheque.

… Taking responsibility

Fundamentally, Richard feels a very strong responsibility to make the world a better place. I think that’s at his core. He is probably spending 60-70% of his time on this type of activity right now.

For Richard, he’s at a point in his life where he sees that he can start using the entrepreneurial skills and the assets which are traded through his businesses to really drive scaled change in the world.

I think he feels a responsibility to do that because if we don’t get entrepreneurs and businesses working in partnership with the government and social sector, we’ll never drive that change to scale.

… Empowering employees

Richard wants to empower the Virgin Group businesses to make sure that they have a positive impact on society.

However, he also gets very involved in inspiring those CEOs – and inspiring every single employee across the Virgin Group – to make sure that they are thinking about how they can drive change every day.

Virgin Mobile US, for example, wanted to look at how they could end homelessness, so we’ve been working with them to weave it into the core of absolutely everything they do as an organisation. It has had a significant impact on the issue in the US and they’ve also used their voice to lobby the US government.

Similarly, Virgin Money launched Virgin Money Giving in the UK. That has been a big success in getting more charitable donors in the charitable sector.

… Being entrepreneurial

I think Richard’s entrepreneurial spirit is reflected in absolutely everything we do at Virgin Unite – in big ways and small ways.

In a big way, for example, The Elders and The Carbon War Room (a union of entrepreneurs to drive market-led solutions to climate change) were his big ideas.

However, he also gets very involved in the day-to-day, working with our businesses and looking at what can they do in their operating environments right now to be as efficient and socially responsible as possible.

… On the front line

Richard spends huge, significant amounts of his time helping to work with and learn from the people on the front line, as well as entrepreneurs that have inspired him.

He really is using that brain that he has to think in a different direction – an entrepreneurial direction – to think about how we can now apply that to social and environmental issues. It’s pretty much everything he does right now.

… People people

Having someone like Richard involved in Virgin Unite makes people realise we can do things like The Elders and drive significant change at that scale – but it also makes people think about other people in a big way.

He’s embedded that philosophy at his very core and that sense of what he does so well, which is go out and listen to people and make sure that he takes on board their ideas and where the issues lie – particularly people that are impacted by the issues on the front line.

He then takes those ideas and helps makes them happen.

… Measuring success

Richard runs Virgin Unite like a business and makes sure that he’s measuring us on the metrics, like we would run a business.

That’s very important to him – to make sure that every pound he invests in Virgin Unite is having the kind of influence, from an impact perspective, that we want to see.

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