Virgin Unite: Jean Oelway

Sir Richard Branson’s right-hand woman on the opportunities of the recession

As CEO of Virgin Group’s charitable foundation, Jean Oelwang works with Sir Richard Branson to ensure his empire uses business as a force for good.

On the eve of the launch of Sir Richard’s latest book Screw Business As Usual, she spoke to Growing Business about venture philanthropy, the opportunities triggered by adversity and how you too can screw business as usual.

In recent years, we’ve started to hear the term venture philanthropy. What does this mean in a practical sense?

Venture philanthropy for us means how you use your philanthropy in a wise way to start new business-based approaches to issues – such as kick-starting capital to create business models that will help solve social and environmental issues.

There’s a lot of interesting hybrid models between philanthropy and business starting to happen right now.

How does having someone like Sir Richard Branson as a leader affect the way Virgin Unite operates?

I think the first thing it does is it makes people think about people. Richard’s embedded that philosophy at his very core.

Certainly, Virgin Unite is an organisation that’s very fast paced and entrepreneurial. Richard makes sure that he’s measuring us on the metrics that he would run a business – to make sure that every pound he invests is getting the kind of leveraging (from an impact perspective) that he wants.

What other inspirational business leaders influence the foundation’s work?

Anita Roddick, John Bird from The Big Issue, and Ben and Jerry – who are on the Unite board – are really the pioneers in this area.

Some of the new leaders coming up include Jeff Skoll from Participant Films. He’s starting to re-invent the film industry and he’s not only done that but he’s also started The Skoll Foundation, to help support social entrepreneurs all over the world.

Then there are people like Jochen Zeitz from Puma, who announced the first honest balance sheet. He’s spent years quantifying what the value of Puma’s natural resource usage is.

All of those people, whether they’re transforming their existing business, starting a new one, or they’re pioneers, are constant inspirations.

Why do you think that ethical issues should be on the business agenda – especially at the moment when people have got so many other things to worry about?

I think it has to be on the business agenda…With the Wall Street protests, with what’s happening at St Pauls in the UK, you’re starting to see demand from the consumer… so it has to be on the agenda if CEOs want their business to thrive.

From a global citizen perspective, each one of us is a global citizen and the only way we’re going to drive the scale of change that we need in the world, is if businesses put driving change at their very core. Every business leader needs to look through that lens, because business is responsible for creating some of these issues.

Do you think it might actually boost the economy if people start to think differently about the way they do business?

Absolutely! Creating new business-based models to deliver and solve social and environmental issues is probably the biggest entrepreneurial opportunity of our lifetime.

We just saw it very clearly with an organisation that we started called The Carbon War Room. They negotiated a new financing deal in Florida – a $650m commercial-driven deal to retrofit the buildings in Miami Day County.

That will not only have a significant impact on job creation but also on reducing carbon output. It was an interesting financing mechanism, which looks at how long-term benefits from an energy-efficient perspective are going to have cost savings, as well as carbon savings. The energy savings long-term were what financed the model in the here and now.

Where we are in a downturn at the moment, I suppose there’s real potential to rebuild in a different way…

There’s a huge opportunity…if you look at things like health and education as businesses. We’ve just hit our seven billionth baby and governments are starting to strain.

There’s going to be a huge need for businesses to work alongside government in new hybrid models, to look at how they deliver those education and health services to different populations.

It’s a fantastic opportunity for everyone and will help stimulate and create jobs into the future. It’s long-term vision and long-term thinking that will hopefully start driving change in the way we operate today.

How can businesses get involved with Virgin Unite?

We set up something we call ‘Hit Squads’, where we get the best people together and look at tackling a specific issue – almost like a two or three day mega-consultancy.

Another way that businesses can get involved is through our network of about 350 entrepreneurs around the world, who have come with us either on connection trips to South Africa or India – or have come to leadership gatherings, where we bring in incredible speakers.

We’re also working with external businesses to look at setting up an online entrepreneurship hub, to make the content that we have at the Branson Centres [of Entrepreneurship] and other places accessible to millions of entrepreneurs around the world.

Are there any examples of businesses that are already successfully engaging with Virgin Unite?

Well, those 350 entrepreneurs have not only tapped into those activities, but they’ve then started to set up their own initiatives, to get their network involved… For the first time business leaders are looking at how they can reinvent their businesses, or create new businesses, that will help solve environmental and social issues.

On the Virgin Group front, look at Virgin Holidays for example. They wanted something in the Caribbean to stimulate job growth and help support a sustainable supply chain for them. We set up a Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, to support young entrepreneurs in the Caribbean.

Another example is Virgin Mobile US, who wanted to look at how they could help stop young people from having to sleep on the streets. We’ve been working with them to weave it into the core of absolutely everything they do as an organisation and they’ve used their voice to lobby the US government. It’s had a significant impact on the issue in the US.

One reason to write the book – Screw Business as Usual – was so that we can have it in every single Virgin employee’s hands. Then they can start thinking about how they can make a difference in the world.

We’re asking for people’s feedback on how they think we should ‘screw business as usual’. Not just with the Virgin businesses, but globally, so we can start a dialogue with everyone’s ideas.

Virgin Unite CEO Jean Oelwang was speaking prior to the launch of Screw Business as Usual, Sir Richard Branson’s latest book

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