ATLANTA — Sir Richard Branson is just as well known for his wild antics as he is for being a brilliant entrepreneur. He has dressed as a bride to publicize his wedding stores, Virgin Bride. Plus, he’s attempted to fly around the world in a hot-air balloon and starred in his own reality TV show, The Rebel Billionaire. His reputation is more stuntman than elder statesman.
That changed last September. After a philanthropy-filled summer that saw major donations by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Branson capped the season with an announcement of his own. At Bill Clinton's Global Initiative in New York, Branson pledged all proceeds from Virgin Group’s transportation divisions be donated to develop alternative fuel sources and alleviate global warming. His pledge amounts to about $3 billion over ten years.
It's an intriguing move for someone whose companies are largely propelled by fossil fuels. Branson's theory: Giving up profits might be painful in the short term, but in the long-run it can revolutionize business and save the world. "There is a blurring taking place between the for-profit and non-profit," says Aron Cramer, CEO of Business for Social Responsibility. "Social enterprise uses market forces to achieve business value and social value in blended way."
Branson didn't even believe in global warming until five years ago. Then he read Bjorn Lomborg’s, The Skeptical Environmentalist. In typical Branson style, once he was convinced, it was full steam ahead. He created Virgin Unite, the independent charitable arm of his company, in 2004. Branson’s new non-profit focuses, in part, on finding an alternative fuel source. There's also a Branson School of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg, which is a partnership with CIDA, a free South African university. Another arm matches social entrepreneurs with the neediest communities.
His activities spurred a visit from former Vice President Al Gore. It was during that visit to Branson’s London home that Gore told him that he's in a position to do something big. That's a concept Branson understands. "Hopefully, by business leaders getting out there and making these gestures we'll inspire others to do the same thing," he says.
This summer he convened an informal meeting of world leaders on his own island, located in the British Virgin Islands. He's very matter-of-fact when he says that Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and "the two guys from Google," Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were there. Says Branson: "I've been getting together with interesting leaders from around the world to debate some of the bigger issues like global warming, AIDS and conflict resolution issues to see if there's a way some of the elders in the world can help address the problems. We had some interesting debates about it."
He knows he can't do it alone. In addition to donating profits to alleviate global warming, Branson’s also seeding other charities. His most recent: Sara Blakely Foundation. Blakely, the founder of the pantyhose company Spanx, became one of his protégés when she was a contestant on The Rebel Billionaire. The show was a flop, and Blakely didn’t win the show's prize, a job with Branson. But she clearly got his attention. In October, Branson gave her his $750,000 paycheck from the television show to start her foundation, which will focus on funding education and entrepreneurship for women globally.
Just before The Blakely Foundation’s launch at Atlanta’s Ritz Carlton, Forbes.com spoke with Branson. While he was characteristically dressed in jeans and an untucked shirt, Sir Richard Branson was atypically serious. He exuded less goofiness and more gravitas as he discussed the changing world of philanthropy, celebrity studded charity and whether corporate social responsibility was more than just marketing.
Forbes.com: First off, what was it about The Blakely Foundation that made you fork over your $750,000 paycheck from Fox?
Branson: From day one I realized what a spunky girl she was. I knew she had a fear of heights, so I took her 10,000 feet up in a hot-air balloon, made her climb a 150-foot rope ladder to the top of it and then made her have a cup of tea with me. She didn't overcome her fear of heights, but she had the courage to do it. She stood out. She's also full of good ideas, she really cares about people, and she’s putting that energy into doing a lot of good things.
There are so many problems in the world and one way to overcome them is to empower women. Men are interested in wars and armies and digging for oil. The women have children and that makes them very important teachers.
Forbes.com: Is the prospect of turning over so much profit to finding an alternative energy source at all scary? Is this part of your generation's mark on society?
Branson: The generation brought up in the 60s definitely has more of a social conscience than previous generations. And if you're one of those fortunate people to become extremely wealthy you have a responsibility to utilize that wealth constructively. What you shouldn't do is leave that money languishing in a bank. What you shouldn't do is compete to have the biggest yacht or private plane. I think people will get far more satisfaction from making a real difference. Besides, once you've had your breakfast, lunch and dinner; you can only live in one kitchen and drive one car at a time.
Forbes.com: Why is there a critical mass of business leaders and celebrities involved in social enterprise right now?
Branson: There are a lot of problems in the world now which in previous generations were not as apparent. You can travel faster and more easily. During my travels I've spent a lot of time in African hospitals. I've seen waiting rooms full of people waiting for other people to die in their hospital beds so they can be the next people to get in those beds and die. Because of air travel you get out and see these situations. If you're in a position to do something about it you can't just turn your back on it. I suspect that our generation has traveled more and seen more of these issues first hand. It's easier to turn your back on things if you can't see them.
One of the reasons I made the gesture at the Clinton gathering is to get people to think — particularly people in dirty businesses like travel and coal and oil.
Forbes.com: Celebrities, politicians and business people seem like strange bedfellows. Are they?
Branson: Entrepreneurs and business people are going to make the difference more than politicians. On global warming we desperately need politicians to work with the business community. Arnold Schwarzenegger is giving a good lead in California bringing in bills to speed up alternative energy.
We're going to practically attack our own industry with the announcement I made at CGI. Hopefully the paradoxical idea of someone in the transportation business making a statement like we made will inspire others.
As for politicians, Bush needs to be a leader on this. He still has time to embrace global warming. If he did that, all the damage that has been done in other aspects of his time in office could be overcome by him acknowledging that the world has a problem. Given where he and his vice president have made their money is all the more reason he should do something bold. He must be searching for a legacy.
Forbes.com: Is this push by business leaders about altruism or marketing?
Branson: There's no one reason for people doing things. I've always said that I want to build the most respected brand in the world, and if we can send people into space in an environmentally friendly space craft that will help enhance our brand [and] if we can invent an alternative fuel that tackles global warming, that is more effective than ethanol and can one day can be used in airplanes that'll enhance our brand and tackle global warming — it'll enable me to sleep better at night.
© 2012 Forbes.com