Perspectives: A Review of 2011
Author's note: This article reviews Richard Branson's activities in 2011 by primarily drawing upon information published on his blog, richard-branson/blog.
(Swans - December 19, 2011) A bad start to the year for Richard, as on New Year's Day he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in a skiing accident. However, by January 25, Richard was able to make light of his injury by dressing as a pirate to give a speech at the Living Peace Series, an event organized by the recently launched, and Gandhian-inspired, Center for Living Peace. The next person to be invited to speak for this series was His Holiness the Dalai Lama. (In keeping with this spiritual theme, it is fitting that one of the Centre for Living Peace's five founding board members, Richard Reoch, is a devotee of Chogyam Trungpa.)
Just a few days later, Richard blogged that he had been invited by Brazil's ex-president (and former Rockefeller Foundation trustee) Fernando Henrique Cardoso to join the Global Commission on Drug Policies. Richard's connection to Cardoso (the Commission's chair) came through the latter's membership of The Elders, a group of elite leaders -- formed in 2007 with the aid of Richard -- whose work is headed by the former international advocacy director of George Soros's Open Society Institute (Princess Mabel of Orange-Nassau). On the Global Commission, Richard worked under the Commission's honorary chair, the former US secretary of state George Shultz, a well-known individual who presently serves on the advisory board of a less well-known group known as Spirit of America, which promotes a new "participatory militarism," "in which humanitarian development projects service the cultural reinvention of the military to justify and extend US imperialism."
As a board member of The Suzanne Mubarak Women's International Peace Movement, on February 3, 2011, Richard announced that "too many business leaders are keeping quiet" about oppressive leaders, most especially Suzanne's husband. He added that: "Politicians and business leaders should give President Mubarak a clear statement of intent that he must step down immediately enabling Egypt to move to a true democracy."
On March 4 the Billabong British Virgin Islands Kite Jam took place on Richard's personal island, Necker Island. To further bolster his trendy image as a go-getter, kite-surfing social entrepreneur, Richard employed Nicola Elliott as his personal assistant, an individual who had previously worked for four years as the PA for the "Naked Chef" (Jamie Oliver).
March 8 was International Women's Day and so to celebrate this event Virgin Unite ambassador Natalie Imbruglia took over Richard Branson's blog for the day to talk "about the amazing women she has met in Ethiopia and Nigeria and how they have inspired her in her role as a spokesperson for women suffering with the devastating birthing injury fistula." Natalie currently works as a model for L'Oreal, the cosmetics corporation that bought The Body Shop in 2006.
Richard reports how he recently took part in the TV show "Starlight For The Children," a television series that highlights the work of the Starlight Children's Foundation. Broadcast on March 16, the show highlighted the help Richard provided for Gurmukh, a 17-year-old young man who "suffers from a form of bone cancer called Osteosarcoma." In order to make his dream of becoming a pilot come true, Richard invited Gurmukh to New Mexico to visit Spaceport America -- "with Virgin Galactic's Spaceship as the star attraction!" Here, with Richard by his side, Gurmukh was able to watch "the historic test flight of the first ever commercial space liner."
Already being well romanticised as one of Britain's most successful entrepreneurs, on March 29 Richard observed that the Virgin Group was lending its support to a group known as the New Entrepreneurs Foundation, a Foundation that undermines a true entrepreneurial spirit by offering a leg-up to a handful of lucky entrepreneurs. One of the four listed members of the foundation's leadership group is Sir Nigel Rudd, who is the chairman of the British Airports Authority, chairman of the newly formed Business Growth Fund, board member of the leading military contractor BAE Systems, and board member of one of the world's largest paper manufacturers, Sappi Limited.
April 5 marked the launch of Virgin Oceanic, a submarine that "will travel to the deepest trenches in our oceans and will allow its pilot not only to reach these depths but to explore for 10 kilometres on each of the dives." Virgin Oceanic Science and Project Coordinator Loretta Whitesides is married to Virgin Galactic's CEO, George Whitesides, and together they plan to have the first ever space honeymoon on Galactic's SpaceShipTwo.
On April 18, the "biggest annual money raising event on the planet" took place in the UK, the Virgin London Marathon. Richard writes: "We had a good laugh and were delighted to break the world's biggest cheer record, with the help of the Saracens Sensations cheerleaders and the Rock Choir."
Although not mentioned on Richard's blog, between May 10 and 13 he organized a meeting called "New Frontiers in Philanthropy," whereby twenty philanthropists and entrepreneurs were invited to his home to discuss new approaches for scaling change in the social sector. One of the guests invited was Zainab Salbi, who a year earlier had, along with Richard, been awarded a David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award from the Synergos Institute; while another attendee at Richard's home on Necker Island was Puma International CEO, Jochen Zeitz. Zeitz is best known for his corporate efforts to embrace the oxymoron that is sustainable development, work that had led him to develop a keen interest in Kenya where he serves as a board member of ecotourism company Wilderness Holdings. Other board members of Wilderness Holdings include unlikely environmentalists Malcolm McCulloch (who is the chairman of Capital Africa Steel Ltd), Robert Polet (the CEO of Gucci Group), and Marcus ter Haar (who is head of sales for the Diamond Trading Company Botswana, a 50:50 joint venture between De Beers and the Botswana Government).
In South Africa, the May 20 "entrepreneur" edition of The Big Issue was guest edited by Virgin Unite. (Here one might note for the record that The Big Issue was originally founded in the UK to help the homeless with financial backing provided by The Body Shop Foundation.)
On May 24 Richard announced that "I've taken on a challenge to swim the Irish Sea to help raise £1 million for Cancer Research UK." The following day Richard blogged that he had been "honoured to have dinner with the Queen and President Obama at a state banquet last night at Buckingham Palace." As it happens, Richard's entire day was filmed by award-winning filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (of Supersize Me fame) for a new show called "A Day in the Life" for an online TV network.
Richard wrote on July 12 that he "would like to encourage more companies to proactively recruit ex-offenders." "Our experience of this within Virgin," he added, "has been wholly positive -- particularly when working with organizations such as Working Chance, who offer restorative recruitment for women offenders." Helping ex-offenders is of course a great idea, but I am more than a little concerned that Working Chance should include Jonathan Aitken among its three high-profile patrons, as he is the chairman of the policy study group on Prison Reform at the conservative think tank the Centre for Social Justice.
July 22 was Richard's 61st birthday, and so to celebrate his special day he visited Mexico and spent it swimming "with 300 whale sharks to draw attention to the slaughter of these beautiful creatures due to shark fin soup." This trip was organized by WildAid, an organization whose "mission is to end the illegal wildlife trade within our lifetimes" and which counts Richard as one of its thirty-three celebrity ambassadors (others include the likes of Harrison Ford and Jane Goodall). Notable members of WildAid's international board include Kristine McDivitt Tompkin, Stephan Schmidheiny, and Dr. Sylvia Earle.
One month on and Richard's Island bore the brunt of "a tropical storm with winds up to 90mph" and a "big lightning storm" that hit his house and burned it to the ground. He commented: "My son Sam and nephew Jack rushed to the house and helped get everyone out," adding, "many thanks to Kate Winslet for helping to carry my 90 year old mum out of the main house to safety -- she was wondering when a Director was going to shout CUT!"
On September 19, Richard observed how he had "spent a wonderfully productive weekend with Ted Turner on his spectacularly unspoilt ranch in Montana." He said that Turner, who "is now a champion for the environment and good causes," is also an Ocean Elder "and we spent much of the weekend preparing for the first Ocean Elders meeting." Although only officially formed in August, "the idea for OceanElders was born on the Mission Blue Voyage to the Galapagos Islands in April 2010, where more than 100 scientists, business leaders, philanthropists and celebrities came together to help Dr. Sylvia Earle, 2009 TED Prize Winner." For those who don't know, Dr. Earle serves on the board of numerous environmental organizations (including WildAid), and between 1999 and 2006 she served as a board member of the oil and gas resource company Kerr-McGee Corporation. Here it is interesting to point out that the lead director of Kerr-McGee during Earle's time at Kerr-McGee was William Bradford, the former chairman of Halliburton. (Halliburton's former CEO, Dick Cheney, left the company in 2000, the same year that Bradford left.)
On September 22 Richard was in Shanghai, China, where he blogged that "Virgin Unite and I joined basketball star Yao Ming, my friends at WildAid, and Chinese business leader Zhang Yue to call for a ban on shark fin soup in China (including Hong Kong) -- a measure which could save tens of millions of sharks every year."
Richard arrived in the Maldives on October 5 "for a debate on global warming" at the Six Sense SLOWLIFE Symposium. After spending a few days chatting in the sun, on October 10 Richard reminisced about his time in the Maldives, noting how he spoke "about why protecting our natural resources is one of the biggest entrepreneurial opportunities of our lifetimes." He made it clear that the Virgin Group and Virgin Unite are taking this issue "extremely seriously," so much so that under his guidance they had founded the Carbon War Room in 2009 to create "a new global approach for building a market based solution for carbon reduction." Notable people associated with Carbon War Room include George Polk, who last year worked with George Soros building a $1 billion "investment portfolio of businesses related to climate"; Rockefeller Foundation trustee Strive Masiyiwa; and solar power entrepreneur Jigar Shah, who is the CEO of Carbon War Room CEO and a board member of Greenpeace USA.
On October 13 Richard attended the Global Zero conference, which "convened international leaders such as George Schultz, James Baker, and a number of 5 star generals from Russia, Japan, France and Pakistan at the Ronald Regan Presidential Library in Simi, California to discuss the feasibility of getting rid of all nuclear weapons." Shortly thereafter (on October 20) Richard was sitting next to Mikhail Gorbachev for dinner in Canada, after which he observed that Gorbachev's "biggest concern" that night "was his daughter's smoking habit." The following day, Richard flew to Australia to speak at the 21st Century Financial Education Summit, and to attend the launch of a new charity initiative, Our World Inside Out, which was founded by Virgin Unite trustee Jane Tewson. Richard then paid a flying visit to Chile on October 24, noting that he would be "back here in January for a few days for the start of a trip to Antarctica with Al Gore"; and the following day, Richard popped to Brazil for a four-day meeting of The Elders. (Note: in 2007 Richard had joined with Al Gore to create Virgin Earth Challenge.)
On November 2 Richard again teamed up with WildAid but this time to bring media attention to the need to protect Indian Tigers.
Richard launches his latest book Screw Business As Usual on November 15 -- a propaganda tract whose title sounds very similar to the late Anita Roddick's like-minded book Business as Unusual. He blogged: "We're hoping that the book will start a movement. Everybody in the world can make a difference, whether they work for not-for-profit organisations, businesses, they can all get out and make a massive difference." A few days later he observed that after four years in the making, it was agreed that Northern Rock would be sold to the Virgin boss (at a massive loss to the British public taxpayer) and combined with Virgin Money.
On November 25 Richard is confused: "Why are the innocent civilians in Syria who are being slaughtered every day any less important than the innocent civilians who were being slaughtered every day in Libya by Gaddhafi? Why is the international community abdicating its responsibility?" Perhaps Richard should turn his brain on; which is not an unreasonable request given that he is counted as a distinguished fellow of the Australian-based Centre for the Mind -- a group founded in 1997 by Lachlan Murdoch, amongst others, and whose brain-work is funded by News Ltd, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.
The Carbon War Room launched a new initiative on December 5 called Renewable Jet Fuels, which "aims to drive the development of low-carbon jet fuels forward by following the progress of 40 companies that are planning to produce commercial-scale renewable fuel for aviation." Along with the help of "big green" environmental advisor's from the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Richard is optimistic that "the airline industry can go from being a polluting industry to one of the cleanest industries in the world within 10 years."
A few days later Richard revealed to his fans the secret of how he keeps his hair so shiny. In a recording on his blog Richard says: "I have never used anything in my hair, but I am lucky that I spend a lot of time in the sun and I think that keeps it from being slightly more fair than grey."
In order to help oversee the expansion of capital in Africa, on December 8 Richard gave a keynote speech at an inaugural one-day conference in Kenya known as Convergence Africa -- an "event that brings together the entrepreneurs, investors, policy-makers and businesspeople who will drive Africa's growth." The conference was organized by Legatum, a private international investment group, and the philanthropic investment firm Omidyar Network which was created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and which is "dedicated to harnessing the power of markets to create opportunity for people to improve their lives." On his reflections on the conference, Richard blogged that from everything he had heard he "felt the prime minister of Kenya... is an exceptional person and has the possibilities of becoming the new Nelson Mandela of Africa." It is ironic then that while Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga sparked international controversy last year for his outright opposition to homosexuality, Richard penned a blog a few days earlier that drew attention to the fact that Nigeria was passing a "cruel anti-gay law."
The following day Richard boasted, with regard to Necker Island: "I do believe we may have more species on our 72 acre island than any other island in the world." He added: "There's no place to start except with our very own tortoise, ET. He is a Red-Footed Tortoise and was a real feature of the main house during breakfast times."
And so ends my review of 2011, as seen from Richard Branson's perspective. Be sure to follow his blog yourself to find out what festive delights he gets up to in the coming weeks.
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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work. (back)