The Virgin Knight

Sir Richard Branson's new world order: save the planet, save its people and keep an eye on things from above. Way, way above.

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It's a good thing, too, because, as Branson will gladly tell you, he's got yet one more passion on his plate right now and it's occupying a significant part of his time. Perhaps, he says, as much as 50 percent of it.
Sharing the Spoils
For a business leader who made his reputation in part on wild publicity gimmicks and PR machinations that few entities, much less individuals, could pull off, Branson has been surprisingly quiet about a few particular projects that may raise some eyebrows in the near future.
One of the biggies is The Elders. Although at first glance the name may sound like one of the rock bands that Virgin Records was signing in the '70s, The Elders are, in fact, exactly what their name implies: a group of elders—in this case, some of the most recognized names on the planet—joined for a common purpose.
That purpose, suggests Branson, will almost always have to do with forging peace and relieving human suffering.
Conceived of by Branson and his good friend Peter Gabriel, The Elders are an assembly of 12 international leaders who were handpicked for their demonstrated abilities to negotiate and mediate conflicts, find solutions to issues of poverty and suffering and, most importantly, see "forest for the trees" solutions. Although all 12 names weren't confirmed at the time of this interview, Branson mentions a few—Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, Kofi Annan and Muhammad Yunus—before explaining some of the project's critical ingredients, diplomacy being one of them.
It's diplomacy, says Branson, carefully, "…that makes a lot more sense than automatically assuming that military might is going to be the answer. Forgiveness is, I think, very important and the idea is that [The Elders] will look at issues in the world that individual governments are not looking at, that they can be a group of people that have no vested interest. Many of them are in the transition years of their life, their egos behind them.
"You know, Mandela is 89 years old, and his life has been exemplary. His forgiveness is extraordinary. After spending 27 years incarcerated in prison, he comes out of prison and he throws his arms around his captors. He welcomes them into his government and he forgives them. He sets up Truth and Reconciliation courts where, instead of people being prosecuted for the horrendous crimes they did to the black man, all they have to do is go along to these courts and say to the people who were the victims—if they're lucky enough to be alive, or the victim's families if they're not lucky enough to be alive—I'm sorry.' And there's another equally wonderful man, Archbishop Tutu. Through this incredible forgiveness and reconciliation, South Africa became a shining example to the rest of the world."
Branson spent a week in the United States recently, sounding out his peers on the subject of The Elders; $18 million was quickly raised and the organization now has initial funding.
Along with The Elders, other projects capturing the interest of Branson—and of Virgin Unite, the philanthropic arm of the Virgin Group—include a Centers for Disease Control-like agency, dubbed the "War Room," which will coordinate medical aid and relief efforts between governments, private parties and NGOs in South Africa; a fleet of hundreds of motorbikes, equipped to haul medical supplies to remote African villages; a program in New Orleans to benefit homeless youths; programs in education and economic sustainability for peasant farmers in Morocco [his mother's pet program]; and a recent series of "wake-up" trips scheduled with American business entrepreneurs, where the business executives travel with Branson to South African communities to serve as advisers and mentors at schools on entrepreneurship. Best of all, Branson grins, the trip attendees wind up at Ulusaba at the end of their week, enjoying a little luxury in the private reserve, cigars and fine whiskey in hand.
Asked if there's a dichotomy in spending a few days working to relieve poverty in a poor community through economic development followed by downtime at an exclusive resort, Branson shakes his head emphatically.
"No. I don't think people need to feel guilty about having a good holiday in a spectacular game reserve or a nice holiday in the Atlas Mountains. I don't think people need to suffer. They can have their holidays, they can have their pleasant homes; it's just what they shouldn't have is tons of money sitting in their bank account doing no good. They should utilize a decent percentage of their wealth…well, I believe that people will get more satisfaction in making a difference."
So it's perfectly OK for the same people he's encouraging to contribute time and money to issues like homelessness and the control of malaria and HIV/AIDS to spend $200,000 on, say, a quick trip into space on Virgin Galactic?
Branson just laughs and insists that everything will be waiting for them when they return safely to Earth, the implication being that any and all flights will be round-trip.
Well, hedges Branson, that is, unless you've got a mother-in-law problem. In that case, he offers, grinning, you'll pay the same price, but it'll be a one-way ticket, first-class, mileage-plan points not eligible.
Betsy Model is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.
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