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Solving social problems and making lots of money…Richard Branson leads the way.

If there’s one thing you take away from this article it’s this: Have the courage to be bold and have fun when making money and doing good.


It doesn’t matter if you are a large technology company deploying social purpose to drive a new business line, or a small social business start-up hoping to create the next healthcare innovation. The more courage you have to take risks, fail and innovate, the more you will get noticed and likely succeed.

Seems obvious, right? Entrepreneurship necessitates courage and boundary pushing. So why am I telling you something you already know? Because in the world of social enterprise (where profit and purpose come together) there remains a lack of risk takers. What if it doesn’t work? What if we waste investor capital trying to do something good? Shouldn’t we play it safe to ensure we preserve the precious capital needed for worthy causes like mental health, climate change and affordable housing?

Unfortunately risk aversion is still the predominant mindset for companies (and charities and foundations) when they engage in cause.

But as companies wake up to the opportunity that social purpose can actually drive their business in order to help generate large-scale social impact and profit (what we call “profitable good”), there is a greater need than ever to be brave and break new ground.

Sir Richard showed his bold approach to business and employee well being by announcing an unlimited vacation policy for Virgin staffers

Enter Sir Richard Branson, who best personifies the attitude necessary to elevate entrepreneurism in the social impact realm.

I recently had the chance to sit down with Sir Richard to discuss what he is doing to benefit people, the planet and his business. What struck me most was his unbridled passion and fearlessness to champion the rights and needs of consumers, citizens and the environment through the Virgin brand.

Fast-forward to today and you can see the roots of Sir. Richard’s customer advocacy/social good/break new ground approach embedded in all Virgin brands. Each company is tasked with figuring out how to advocate for consumers, citizens and the planet in everything they do. For example, Virgin America’s hub in Terminal 2 at the San Francisco Airport was built from recycled materials and even features a hydration station with onsite-filtered water to reduce plastic bottle use.

Phillip Haid recently had the chance to sit down with Sir Richard Branson in Toronto.

Phillip Haid recently had the chance to sit down with Sir Richard Branson in Toronto.

The maverick and often cheeky nature Sir Richard brings to his business ventures, has led to failure in a few instances – from the launch of Virgin Cola where he drove a tank into Times Square, to Virgin Brides, a wedding dress business he launched by shaving his beard and wearing a wedding dress – both demonstrate the same spirit Sir Richard displays when tackling social issues through his businesses.

In Canada, Virgin Mobile created RE*Generation to support at-risk and homeless youth. It was launched in 2008, during a visit from Sir Richard to Toronto one night where he was struck by the number of homeless youth he saw on his drive into the city. With further research he deemed youth homeless as a wide spread Canadian problem. Six years later, with a wealth of knowledge under its belt and a deep commitment to use its entrepreneurial skills to make a difference, RE*Generation just announced a bold new focus where it will help hundreds of young people find jobs in the next three years through a partnership with CivicAction and Social Capital Partners.

Globally, Sir Richard and his Virgin Unite Team has taken his bold approach to tackling species preservation, specifically shark fin banning and sanctuaries for whales and manta rays; breaking the taboo about the failed war on drugs and calling on government to treat drugs and addiction as a health issue; and calling for a peaceful end to the conflict in Ukraine by asking for a meeting with Putin and global business leaders.

On the environmental front, Branson has been equally bold. In 2006, he pledged that 100% of Virgin Group’s transportation profits would be invested in alternative energy. He has pursued this through investments in alternative energy technology and building coalitions among business sectors and government such as Carbon War Room and B Team, an organization he helped start with other business leaders (Paul Polman of Unilever, Mohammad Yunus), who collectively believe that businesses must equally prioritize people, our planet and profits and that it is possible to do all three without comprising the others.

The B Team’s most recent initiative launched this week We Mean Business, calls for a transition to a low-carbon economy as the means to securing sustainable economic growth and prosperity for all.

As Sir Richard explained, there is no one solution to our climate crisis so it is imperative to try lots of things and see what works. Virgin’s investment in ethanol for example didn’t pan out well but it did help move investments away from food-supply reliant alternative fuel; so some investments resulted in lessons learned and progress in finding more promising technology to scale.

Most recently, Sir Richard showed his bold approach to business and employee well being by announcing an unlimited vacation policy for Virgin staffers. It follows his philosophy that business is simply a group of people working together, so the quality of the experience and the pride in working for something beyond just profit is paramount.

Businesses can and must solve social and environmental issues. And they must do so in a way that also allows them to make lots of money.

What’s the key takeaway? Following your passion, pushing boundaries and being willing to fail is the recipe for business and social success. Businesses can and must solve social and environmental issues. And they must do so in a way that also allows them to make lots of money. This approach to business is not for the faint of heart. It requires the boldness and courage that Sir Richard has demonstrated time and time again.

So next time you are facing a decision on which road to take and the one less travelled looks daunting, ask yourself …What would Sir Richard do?

Do you know a company that’s effectively pursuing profit and purpose? Send me your ideas [email protected]

This article was originally published in the National Post
Phillip Haid is co-founder and chief executive of PUBLIC, a cause marketing agency and innovation lab designed to create large-scale social impact through the merger of profit and purpose. You can follow Phillip on twitter by clicking here @philhaid


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