Interview: Richard Branson

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Brand builder: Branson is an ambassador for Business is GREAT, a UK government initiative to encourage foreign firms to do business in the UK.

Brand builder: Branson is an ambassador for Business is GREAT, a UK government initiative to encourage foreign firms to do business in the UK.

Sir Richard Branson is not a man you would expect to lack confidence. In fact, some argue the success of his 50-plus businesses that have amassed him a fortune of at least $4bn over almost half-a-century has a lot to do with his personal marketing ability.

He’s famously dressed up as a mobile phone to launch Virgin Mobile, shaved his beard and put on a wedding gown for Virgin Brides, swum naked and driven a tank into Times Square.

But get Branson one-on-one and suddenly his eyes dip towards the floor, barely lifting during the interview. The on-screen, on-stage persona is stripped away to reveal a rather sheepish man who is clearly less comfortable in an intimate setting.

It’s certainly not how he has faced business. The serial entrepreneur has dived — apparently not always with a lot of thought — into scores of companies in almost every industry, including a record label, an airline, health clinics, a bank, condoms, a railway network and most recently, a space travel company.

These days he’s relaxed the strings on most of his ventures, preferring to focus his energies on social issues, putting his money where his mouth is on problems as varied as conservation, HIV/AIDS, abortion and corporate social responsibility.

His advocacy also includes helping others follow in his footsteps by achieving their own startup dreams. Virgin’s not-for-profit arm, Virgin Unite, supports entrepreneurs through its Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship in South Africa and Jamaica, and the Virgin StartUp scheme in the UK.

Branson also is an ambassador for Business is GREAT, a British government initiative that encourages foreign firms, including from the Middle East, to do business in the UK, as well as its off-shoot Entrepreneurs are GREAT, which supports new ideas.

“I lobbied the British government very hard to see whether they would introduce loans for startups rather than just loans for students and we were delighted that about three years ago they agreed to do that,” Branson says. “We now have an organisation in England that administers a lot of those startup loans, which is what helps these organisations that have got great business ideas stand on their feet; it [also] helps mentor them and I think Britain is maybe the only country in the world that’s really going all out now with this loans scheme.

“I really do think we could find the Virgins of 30 years from now started out from one of those schemes.”

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