Image: Richard Branson, School of Entrepreneurship
Barry Taylor / Virgin Unite
Sir Richard Branson poses with students at the Virgin Unite-funded Branson School of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg, South Africa.
NBC News
updated 3/19/2008 5:44:04 PM ET 2008-03-19T21:44:04

Each month, Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This month, we profile British entrepreneur and adventurer Sir Richard Branson and his involvement with Virgin Unite, the charitable arm of his Virgin companies.

Question: What makes Virgin Unite unique among other not-for-profits?

Branson: It’s not necessarily unique, but what we try to do is use our entrepreneurial skills to look at social problems in the world and see whether we can set about attacking the problems, perhaps slightly differently than they’ve been tackled in the past. So for instance, in Africa we’ve seen lots of different organizations doing lots of good works, but there’s no coordination. So we’re using our entrepreneurial skills to set up a War Room which can coordinate all these efforts and look for best practices and try to alert people to new diseases and alert people to the best ways of tackling the problems that are out there at the moment. … We’ve also used our entrepreneurial skills to set up an organization called The Elders, headed up by Nelson Mandela. He’s appointed 12 global Elders who can look at conflicts and see whether there’s a better way of addressing them and use their moral authority to either try to prevent conflicts or stop conflicts. … And rather than just maybe handing out big checks we’re setting up things like the Branson School of Entrepreneurship in Jo-berg (Johannesburg) to try to teach young people from the townships how to become entrepreneurs and how they can build their own companies. And we’re investing we’re investing in Africa quite a lot of the profits from our other companies to try and create jobs … that can help get the continent back on its feet.

Q: What is your role with the organization?

A: Well Jean Oelwang runs the organization magnificently and I dive in there for tea (laughs). … I make speeches around the world and 100 percent of any money I make from my speeches goes to Virgin Unite. I fundraise and obviously work quite hard on Virgin companies to make more money so we can put more money into Virgin Unite. I take entrepreneurs to Africa to show them first hand of what’s going on there and then with new organizations that we’ve set up, like The Elders or the War Room, I’ll treat it like setting up a company, finding the best people to run them and then leaving them to get on and do the job.

Q: Is there a particular experience you’ve had while working with the organization that has been memorable above the rest or had a significant impact on you?

A: Well there was a waiter named Donald who worked for a game lodge we have in Africa and, unbeknown to myself, he had AIDS and he ended up I’m afraid dying of AIDS. He was 24 or 25 years old and he was a poet and he left some words which were very moving. He talked about AIDS not being a disease but a war. .. As a result I decided that nobody who ever worked at a Virgin company should die of AIDS…. So we set something up called the Naught-Percent Challenge and that was the naught percent of people that worked for Virgin companies would contract HIV, naught percent would ever get AIDS and naught percent of mothers who had HIV would pass on their HIV to their children. And then we set out to educate the 55,000 people that work for Virgin to make sure that we don’t have any more Donalds at Virgin, and we haven’t, to my knowledge, lost anybody since Donald died and we don’t plan to. We plan to use that as an example to other companies to try to do the same.

Q: Why should people support Virgin Unite?

A: Virgin Unite is involved in a whole lot of different areas. For instance, we have a program called Fistula, where we’re trying to (assist) the million young girls in Africa who often were forced to become pregnant at a horribly young age -- 9,10,11,12,13 years old – and then had a child and had their insides ripped to pieces and became incontinent. They’re often rejected by their family, living on the streets and they stink to high heavens. For $200 we can give them a small operation which means they can be back in society again and live a normal life. Natalie Imbruglia, who’s one of our Virgin Unite ambassadors, she’s trying to make sure anyone with fistula is sorted out. We also have teams of people on motor bikes going out into the depths of Africa and trying to make sure that they cover the last mile and get medicine out to places where they don’t normally get medicine and medical help. But also back home in places like America, … there’s a big homeless problem amongst young people, so we’re trying to work hard to try to get people off the streets. One of our ambassadors is Jewel, the singer, who was once homeless on the streets of America for a year. She does a lot of work in that area.

Q: What did winning the U.N. Correspondents Association’s Citizen of the Year award mean to you and how does that connect with your work with Virgin Unite?

A: There’s always a figurehead in any organization and I’m the figurehead for Virgin Unite and for the Virgin companies. We’ve got fantastic people out there working really hard and trying to make a difference in the world, whether it’s the environment or in Africa and I suppose this award symbolizes all the work that they’ve been doing. I think they can all feel extremely proud of what they’ve managed to achieve in the last year, particularly I think with setting up The Elders as a global organization to try to prevent conflict.

Q: What does the future hold for Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Unite? What do you hope to accomplish?

A: Well look, we’d love to see a where people do not die of unnecessary causes and we’ll work hard towards trying to make peoples lives a little bit more bearable.

Interviewed by Giacinta Pace, NBC News

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