Sir Richard Branson on the power of purpose
18 Nov 2019
Digital content specialist, Investec
Headlining the recent Business is an Adventure event, Sir Richard Branson spoke to South African entrepreneur Marnus Broodryk and Investec Co-Founder Stephen Koseff about the role business needs to play in society and shared ideas on solving South Africa's youth unemployment crisis.
Part 1: Finding entrepreneurial success in turbulent times
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Part 2: Solutions for youth unemployment in South Africa
Sir Richard Branson in conversation with Marnus Broodryk
Listen to the full discussion between Sir Richard Branson and Marnus Broodryk on entrepreneurship and the chat between them and Stephen Koseff and Khensani Mongwe on youth unemployment.
Read the full podcast transcript here
Part 1: Lessons in entrepreneurship from Sir Richard Branson
- RB: Sir Richard Branson
- MB: Marnus Broodryk
00:00: Sir Richard Branson on the role business needs to play in society
Sir Richard Branson: Well I think every company, however small or big it is, needs to draw a circle around itself, and then you need to make sure that within that circle if there are schools that need helping, then you help the schools, if there's a clinic in that circle then you help the clinic. And, as your company gets bigger, you can put a circle around your country and then as it gets bigger still you can put a circle around the world and help.
Narrator: That was Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson who firmly believes that purpose-led businesses can be both sustainable and profitable. We had the opportunity to interview him backstage for a Focus Talk video and podcast at Virgin Atlantic’s Business is an Adventure event, held in partnership with Investec in Johannesburg.
The internationally-recognised live business event series brought together masters and mavericks of business including futurist and author Faith Popcorn; Kim Reid, the founder of Takealot.com; Fani Titi, joint CEO of Investec and lawyer and activist Thando Hopa, amongst others.
In episode one of this two-part Focus Talk, local entrepreneur and founder of sme.africa, Marnus Broodryk interviews Sir Richard Branson on how entrepreneurs can thrive in challenging times and why human relationships in start-ups and established business are critical - even in a digital era.
In part two, Marnus turns the conversation to tackling youth unemployment and the interview is joined by Stephen Koseff, Investec Co-Founder and the Co-Convenor of YES - the Youth Employment Service, and Khensani Mongwe whose life was turned around through a YES internship.
But first, here’s a 10-minute masterclass in entrepreneurship from the world’s most famous serial entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson.
1:44: Overcoming challenges as an entrepreneur
Marnus Broodryk: Richard, great chatting to you.
RB: Thank you.
MB: When last did you have a tie on?
RB: I think when I got knighted. I brought out a record called God Save the Queen by The Sex Pistols 25 years earlier and I was already nervous that instead of putting the sword of my shoulder, she'd lop off my head, so I thought without a tie I might be in trouble.
MB: I feel completely overdressed here so I'm gonna lose mine.
RB: If I had a pair of scissors, I'd cut it off for you.
MB: Richard so, I grew up in a small town, in Harrismith in the Free State, and I didn't know anything about money, about business and then the very first book that I read was Robert Kiyosaki's Rich Dad, Poor Dad. But the second book that I read was Screw it. Let's do it from Richard Branson, and I remember at the time when I read Kiyosaki's book, I just wanted to make money, but when I read your book, I wanted to become an entrepreneur because I think it's the coolest thing ever that you've done and I've got huge respect for you and I know the business owners in South Africa also do.
Whether you started a business 50 years ago, you’re starting a business now, whether you’re starting a business in London or in South Africa, there are always challenges and my question to you is, how do you personally think about challenges in your own mind and how do you personally solve it.
RB: I think when there are challenges that there are enormous opportunities, so, you know, I hated flying in another people's airlines and just said, “Screw it. Let's do it”. Let's try to buy a second-hand 747 and start an airline.
So, I think just generally if you keep your eyes open, you'll see situations where people are not doing things very well and you can step in and improve people's lives. And effectively if you do that, you've become an entrepreneur and you've started a business.
Over the years, there's been quite a few crashes and I think in some ways the Virgin companies have come out the stronger from them. Recently, since Brexit, we've seen a number of airlines going bankrupt, but because people love flying Virgin Atlantic, we've survived and we're able to expand with a short-haul airline
Virgin Connect into routes that were otherwise operated by other people. So sometimes in struggling times, there are opportunities.
4:29: Why optimism matters
MB: So practical things for business owners out there, are you saying that if there's a challenge, think of it as an opportunity, don't ever see the negative. Is that what you say?
RB: I'm a born optimist. I will always look at the sunny side of things. I sometimes fall flat on my face but life's so much more fun to be an optimist and just to try, get out there and try things and you'll learn, even if it doesn't work out, you'll learn a hell of a lot from giving it a go.
I've just had a party last night for the new Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship here in South Africa and met a lot of these young entrepreneurs who are doing extraordinary things.
There's one entrepreneur who's just set up a whole company for deaf people selling coffee and a lot of these people were there and it's going extraordinarily well. And so, it's almost a social, it may be a social business, I don't know, but it is just like a social business it's doing great. And he's absolutely convinced that they will employ 10,000 people with the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship over the next two to three years. And I believe that that will happen.
6:02: Purpose-led businesses
MB: Talking about that, I saw that the mission [of the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship] is to create sustainable purpose-led businesses, and I was wondering when I saw that “purpose-led”, like it's all over, Simon Sinek says Find your Why, everyone's talking about finding purpose. Is it really that important for you? Isn't it just about making money?
RB: I think you can do both basically. I mean, obviously if you're running a purpose-led business and it's losing money, it's not going to survive, so if you're going to be sustainable, it's got to be profitable.
But we've invested a lot of money in funds that are just purpose-driven and at the end of the year, they do a massive analysis on how they've helped the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG's) or what they've achieved from it, and we'll definitely give preference over investing in a company that can kill two birds with one stone. Like deaf people selling coffee and making money. So it is killing two birds with one stone or three birds maybe.
7:17: Why humans will always matter in business
MB: When we look at brands that people absolutely love, obviously Virgin, but if you look at some of the new companies like Uber and Tesla and even Apple, not that new, but people love it because of the tech and personal service has become secondary to that.
I think like for myself, I don't even want to deal with people when I go and book something, I just want to go online and book it. Can you agree that in some industries tech will just take over or do you think, as Richard, they will always be that human element?
RB: I hope and think that there will always be that human element. I mean Virgin is really sort of built on our people and them being proud of working for the company and creating incredible things.
We're just about to launch a cruise ship company called Virgin Voyages. And, in fact in 10 days’ time I actually set sail on the first cruise ship that's just coming out of Genoa where it's been built to check it out.
And we'll have 2000 people working on each of our cruise ships that we build. If we can deliver to them a product that is better than any other cruise ship in the world, which we think we can do, if we look after them, they'll smile, they'll be happy, and our passengers will be happy. And if that works then we're in a position where we can move on to take on another industry afterwards.
8:57: Scaling up personal service
MB: Personal service - it's obviously what you're talking about, and systems and processes are super important in the business. But you’re saying personal service and people and client service, and in my opinion that's like almost contrary to one another, so what would you advise me? How do you build systems but you still have the flexibility of people and making their own decisions? And I think especially if you grow, because when you do it when you're small it's kind of simple, right, but when you grow big, it's very challenging.
RB: Yeah, I mean with Virgin Atlantic when we launched with one plane 35 years ago, I remember looking around on our first flight and seeing all these smiling happy staff and thinking are we going to be able to keep that up for 35 years or 30 years or whatever it was, I don't think I thought 35 years ahead at the time, but 30 years.
And the great thing if you go on Virgin Atlantic today, because they're proud of the company, they are still smiling happy people and if anything, I think that the, the airline's improved, which is rare in a lot of companies.
I think for a company to still have that kind of spirit after 35 years, anyway, says a lot about, about the team of people who run Virgin Atlantic, who give them give them the tools to do the job. And we try to keep surprising the public, but also surprising our staff as well.
10:31: Focus vs diversification
MB: The one thing that I'm super passionate about it is to have focus on one thing, but that's like a complete opposite to Richard Branson, like go into everything. Was that always the case or do you think you focus, you make a success and you move on? What would your advice be to business owners out there?
RB: If I'd stayed in my first business, which is record shops, we would be bust. When I was in my teens and early 20's, people said he's stretching the brand too far, he's going to fall flat on his face, but I'm inquisitive. I love learning about new things.
I love shaking up industries and so over the years we've created maybe $18 billion companies, in something like 12 different sectors and that is just simply because I love challenging the team around me and, and being proud of the new venture that we do.
MB: It's almost unbelievable what you've created, but it's such an inspiration and thank you so much for your time.
RB: Thank you.
MB: It's really amazing.
Part 2: Solutions for youth unemployment in South Africa
- MB: Marnus Broodryk
- SB: Sir Richard Branson
- SK: Stephen Koseff
- KM: Khensani Mongwe
Narrator: We now move into part two of our podcast and this time Marnus asked Sir Branson to share some ideas from a global perspective on how to solve one of South Africa’s most pressing issues: youth unemployment.
They are joined by former Investec CEO Stephen Koseff and Khensani Mongwe, who landed a job through the Youth Employment Service.
12:08: The progress of the Youth Employment Service
MB: So, South Africa is sitting with a youth unemployment rate of north of 40 percent and Stephen, you the co-convener of the Youth Employment Service? That's right. YES, and you've been tasked with, by President Cyril Ramaphosa, to create a million interns in the next couple of years.
Stephen Koseff: No, keep going...
MB: Keep going.
MB: How long is that?
SK: That was his original aim, but you’ve got to be practical and we need the economy to grow so it will take longer, but we’re up and running. We started really effectively in January and we've done 27,500 internships.
To bring all the corporates along and all the small businesses and get the rules of the game right, that you know, we’re still in the teething period, but it's like Jim Collins’ old flywheel - once you get the flywheel turning then it gets its own momentum, so we'll get to a million but you might have to extend the number of years.
MB: Sure, but even that, we can't downplay that number already. It's like so many families and everything being...
SK: Ya, the upliftment is phenomenal when you give people an opportunity and you give them a skill and the hope that they can get up in the morning and look after themselves, and that's the key, that's what we're trying to achieve.
It doesn't always have to be inside a corporate but it's giving that individual a skill, a learning and then the confidence to present themselves in a corporate environment or to go into their own business, and all those aspects of what we're trying to achieve in the Youth Employment Service are there.
Investec as an example – we’re on our second round, so we did 1,250 last year and we are on our second round of a further I think similar sort of number, and we outsource to service providers, but we make sure these service providers add value to the employee, and you really can take it a long way. It's very hard to bring them all inside a corporate environment.
14:14: Creating jobs vs creating entrepreneurs
MB: I want to chat to Khensani in a bit because she's the proof in the pudding of one of your candidates, but having Richard Branson, the face of entrepreneurship around the world, I’ve got to challenge you with something about entrepreneurship and that would be that we create such a big emphasis around creating more jobs, but shouldn't we maybe put that emphasis on creating entrepreneurs and showing people and training people how to create their own income?
SK: But, I think you know that's part of what we try and do in the Youth Employment Service, some of it is creating entrepreneurs, if Tashmia [Dr Tashmia Ismail-Saville] was here she'd give you a whole story about hydroponic farming and other aspects of what the Youth Employment Service actually achieves. We create these neighbourhood hubs within the townships and we're trying to take the place of work right into the heart of the township as opposed to out in the city.
So I think ultimately you have to create an environment that fosters and develops entrepreneurs and the Youth Employment Service does try and achieve part of that and it does give people the opportunity to go into their own business, I'll give you a good example of one of our interns that went to hotel school because that's what we do, we send them to hotel school or artisan school.
The intern actually went to do his work part of the programme, not the training part of the programme, at the Elangeni hotel. He started making cupcakes at night. Eventually he got so busy that he jumped off the bus and went into his own business and he now employees 12 of his own family members so by giving people a skill you can do phenomenal work to dent unemployment.
And because one skill does create multiple jobs and one of South Africa's big problems is there is a massive shortage of skills. In fact, we estimate 800,000 skills short and where we've been having difficulty is home affairs won't give visas, if the people aren't from South Africa, which is very wrong because those skills if they create an average of five jobs, OK maybe that's a bit high, but let's use that number, that's four million people that you're taking off the street. Four million people less that you need to give social grants too.
So we need to change a lot of our rules of the game in South Africa, which is stifling growth, stifling the creation of entrepreneurs and creating unemployment. And the President is on to it, but he needs to get his whole party along.
MB: So Richard, what's your take on that, jobs versus entrepreneurs, which one's should we focus on?
RB: They are both incredibly important. Obviously, I'm biased, being an entrepreneur. Last night we had a party for the whole team that is revamping the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship here in South Africa. It's a great group of people. Virgin Active is very much behind it, and they think they can create 10,000 jobs over the next two or three years. A lot of the young entrepreneurs that they'd taken on board were there at the party.
I've also spent the last two or three days going to schools in the townships of South Africa and they're lacking, obviously - education is not as good as it should be. There are a lot of kids sitting on the floor, there were no chairs and so on.
But, you know if a kid does leave school at 15 or 16, as I did, they can become an entrepreneur. It may be more difficult for them to get other jobs and I suspect quite a lot of them are street savvy enough to become entrepreneurs.
It’s great to hear that this country is encouraging entrepreneurship. In Britain, we set up something called Virgin Start-up Loans where we have nearly 5,000 start-up companies and we arrange small loans for them, the government chip in and then we have mentors who work with them and the success rate of these 5,000 is far, far greater than if you don't help people.
18:48: Khensani’s story
MB: Khensani, as I said you’re the proof in the pudding, you did a YES internship through Investec, and now you've got a full-time job at Sabi Sands Nature Reserve, right?
Khensani Mongwe: Yes.
MB: How has YES changed your life and the life of your family?
KM: I completed my matric in 2007. In 2007/2008 I didn't go to college or do anything. In 2009, I went to Stanford College to do travel and tourism and then I came back home. I stayed for two years without a job and then I decided let me do something similar to tourism, then I did FGASA guiding level 2.
After that I got an opportunity to do a community tour. It was nothing, like for a month they give me a least R100 for the whole day doing a community tour. I did that for several years.
After that, there was a post in Kruger National Park, they needed a freelance guide for two weeks, and then I apply, they call me, I work there for two weeks, and then after I came back doing the community tour, community tour, and then I heard about the internship post in Sabi Sands and then I decided to apply. They called me, and then I got a job.
RB: You could have you could have applied to Ulusaba in Sabi Sands, you just got the wrong address.
KM: Yeah, and then it turned my life [around] a lot because I'm now working at Sabi Sands. Yeah, I've got a job at Sabi Sands but I've stayed many years without a job and then the YES programme changed my life.
MB: And you can now go to Sabi Sands and say you've just got a job offer from Ulusaba and they must better your rate and then I take commission on that and we all benefit from it.
RB: I once had a dinner many, many years ago in France with the boss of the company and his managing director was there and I really thought the managing director was good so I offered him a job and he decided to join us the next day.
And the boss wrote me a letter saying when you are invited out to dinner you do not steal the cutlery. I felt a little guilty but he was, he turned out to be a great managing director.
21:13: Drawing a circle of care around your business
MB: Richard, talking about Ulusaba through the Pride ‘n Purpose team there I believe you've done amazing stuff in the community. What have your learnings been from that?
RB: Well I think every company, however small or big it is, needs to draw a circle around itself and then you need to make sure that within that circle, if there's schools that need helping, then you help the schools; if there's a clinic in that circle then you help the clinic. If people have got HIV and they're not getting anti-retroviral drugs as has happened in the past in South Africa, you make sure they do get anti-retroviral drugs.
As your company gets bigger, you can put a circle around your country and then as it gets bigger still you can put a circle around the world and help.
So Ulusaba have done wonderful things. It's not just Virgin money, it is all our guests when they go out and they see the projects. And they can feel part of the projects and I think they feel their visits to South Africa are the richer for it, but they definitely made the community the richer as a result in lots of different ways.
And the clinic that we set up near there called the Bhubezi Clinic has managed to get the average expectancy of life up by about seven years, so you can make quite a big difference.
22:51: Entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and jobs
SK: Just to come back there, Marnus, on what you said about entrepreneurs or jobs. So there's a very good book written by an Indian guy who worked at Cisco called Doing Both and you have to do both. You need to build entrepreneurs but not everyone's cut out to be an entrepreneur.
RB: Very true.
SK: And they create a lot of jobs and you’ve got to do both in life.
RB: And intrapreneurs are very important, which is a new word that I've only heard recently, and that is you make sure that people within your company if they are entrepreneurs, they don't have to leave to go and be their own entrepreneurs, they can be an entrepreneur within your company, doing entrepreneurial things and they should be rewarded for that.
If you don't have a bunch of entrepreneurs working in a bigger company, you're going to be a struggling big company.
SK: That's the culture we try to build at Investec, is to create an environment of intrapreneurs.
SK: Who have a can-do attitude, who are very service orientated and come up with lots of good ideas, and then they’re well rewarded.
SK: So I think that is very important for growth and development of the company as well.
SK: So you need both, you need all three.
SK: Entrepreneurs, jobs and intrapreneurs.
24:04: Shifting the mindset about what an entrepreneur is
MB: Personally, I feel there's something needed where when we think about entrepreneurship, and I think that's globally, we think about entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson creating Virgin or Bill Gates creating Microsoft, but we should also make entrepreneurship that you can just create your own income and that might be small, you're not going to be the next guy on Forbes, but I think that will make a fundamental shift as well.
RB: I couldn't agree more. I think that most entrepreneurs maybe employ five, six people max, and they're fulfilling a really important part in society. I mean if you add them all up together, they're employing a lot of people. The only way that their business is succeeding, is because people like it and people feel it's serving a purpose. Collectively, they're an incredibly important group of people.
SK: And that's where you get real job creation, is the more the SMME grows from 5 to 10 people, or 10 to 20, is where you really getting labour absorption and job creation for sure.
So those are very important businesses and you can see even in the developed world, take a country like Australia, there are more small businesses than they are members of unions today, and that's what the transformation of society over the last 50 years perhaps, has done, is create those countries that have done well, have created those entrepreneurs.
SK: That work for themselves, they don't rely on anyone, they get up and go every morning in their truck or if they're a plumber or an artisan or anything like that and they work for themselves.
And you get a lot of small business in society that is a functioning developed world society. The other thing is people don't have permanent jobs, so they work in the gig economy and, you'll know this well, and there are apps that have been created where you can auction your skills every day and that's going to become a lot more prevalent in today's world.
26:07: Attracting and retaining younger employees
MB: Talking about that Richard and also what Stephen said in terms of Investec, like they building that intrapreneur that you're talking about, the youngsters, the millennials, they want different things in the workspace, right? They want flexible hours, they want more incentive schemes, they want to be entrepreneurs inside the organisation. What's your advice on retaining and recruiting these youngsters?
RB: At Virgin we're experimenting all the time with new ideas and…
MB: Apart from going onto interviews and stealing people from other companies…
RB: And by and large they're working. So for instance at the Virgin group, if somebody wants to go on two month’s leave we'll pay them, they can go on two months leave. If somebody has a wedding or a funeral or a party they need to go to, they won't have to ask, they can do it. If somebody wants to work at home, they can
do it; if somebody wants to work at home on a Friday or a Monday, they can do it. If somebody wants to go part-time they can do it.
So, we did we're trying to treat people as we would treat our brothers or children basically, or our brothers and sisters, and you know if they need flexibility in their life we'll let them have flexibility. If they had a baby, we'll give a year’s maternity and they can split it with their husband if they want as well.
It sounds like if you add all that together, it's going to cost the company a lot of money, but the actual fact is that on the holiday front for instance, I think we average maybe one day more per year than we did before we did this.
So you know when people go to the pub and they say what company do you work for, they're really proud of the fact they work for Virgin, for hopefully many reasons but that definitely contributes to that.
MB: For sure. Stephen that's interesting because you've just adopted that policy at Investec, unlimited leave and dress as you like…
SK: Dress for the day.
MB: Dress for the day.
SK: And be appropriate for the day, but it's up to you to decide what you believe is appropriate. And if you want to take leave you can take it.
MB: Is that how you see the future of work?
SK: Disciplined people, as Richard says, they know they've got a job to do and they know they've got to deliver, and you measure them on output as opposed to the amount of time at the desk. You get a totally different culture.
People feel that they are much more in control of their day and their lives, and I think that's very important as long as you deliver. And you’re measured on output, not on how much time you spend in the shop, and you get a different type of person, whose more entrepreneurial, intrapreneurial, but that's what a corporate wants, people who can think for themselves and get things done and don't have to be desk-bound.
29:01: A message from the youth to business leaders
MB: Khensani, in closing off, you've got two of the greatest world changers next to you. What do you think should be the message to them in terms of youth unemployment? What should we do better as a country, as big business, when it comes to youth employment? Do you have a message?
KM: I think to them I'll just say helping is important because they’ve got power. If they have this chance to help the youth out there, they must go for it because there are people who need their help so and... thank you very much.
RB: I couldn't agree more and there's a lot to be done. As I said, I've just been to four of these township schools and it won't cost much to make these schools, you know, to bring them up to a level where they can make a real difference in society. And giving kids the chance of a really good education, especially when they're young, is so important and I think that's lacking in some of the townships.
SK: It's very hard to understand why in a country like South Africa, we haven't made much more progress on that front and I still can't work it out and another NGO that I work with is called Innovation Africa.
It's an Israeli-American NGO that puts water into villages. These villages have no water. We'll have done 60 villages with 5,000 people in each village by April and you cannot believe the transformation to that village of bringing water.
And what happens is the woman go at 3am in the morning to fetch water from dirty streams and they then have to convert that water into something that's drinkable or washable.
Now we put these towers, driven by solar, with points around the village and they can walk 500 metres to get water whenever they feel like, and the water is tested to make sure it's drinkable.
And you transform their lives, and now you can extend it to farming, the woman have got more time to go to school. It just transformed their lives, and corporate South Africa have a massive role to play here, to understand that if you want an inclusive society where everyone benefits from growth, then we have to do a lot more on the social front.
Because when I went to business school, they taught us the role of the firm is to maximise profits. That's the wrong thing, the role of the firm is to meet the needs of all stakeholders and by doing that their profits will automatically grow. And your stakeholders are not just your shareholders.
RB: I couldn't agree more. I think if you go to a company and they've got impressive offices, you then need to go to the community around that company and see whether they were looked after, and if they're not, you realise that company's not doing its job properly.
SK: I couldn't agree more.
MB: But I also think it's not like three massive things are going to happen; it's all these small little things, the stuff that you're doing at Ulusaba. The many other initiatives that you've got Stephen.
SK: Multiple initiatives, that's what transforms. Big things are always a big risk, big projects often fail.
MB: Exactly, and we'll have many Khensani's here and that will roll out, and I liked your analogy with the circle around you and I think we must all just draw that circle.
Narrator: Thank you for listening to this Investec Focus Talk podcast. If you enjoyed this conversation, please take the time to rate us and subscribe to our channel wherever you get your podcasts. And stay tuned for more inspirational content from Business is an Adventure including fascinating insights on how diversity can build business advantage, a discussion on how business can navigate a tough economy and the imperative to reimagine education. Find out more at Business is an Adventure.
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Lead digital content producer
Ingrid Booth is a consumer magazine journalist who made the successful transition to corporate PR and back into digital publishing. As part of Investec's Brand Centre digital content team, her role entails coordinating and producing multi-media content from across the Group for Investec's publishing platform, Focus.
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