Convinced the recent storms wreaking destruction around the world are the result of climate change, billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson is busy raising funds to rebuild islands destroyed by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, tackle global warming – and put people into space. By Lysanne Currie
He has long been an advocate of tackling climate change – pledging $3 billion (AED11 billion) back in 2006 to address global warming – but now Sir Richard Branson has seen its impact up close in the devastation wreaked by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
The Virgin Group founder – ranked in Time magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential People In The World – was forced to sit out Hurricane Irma in the wine cellar of his home in the British Virgin Islands.
‘It was just so quiet,’ he says, referring to the eerie aftermath of the two hurricanes that hurtled through Necker, his private island, in September. ‘But the devastation when you looked out was like a nuclear bomb had hit. I don’t normally cry over lost things but I certainly had tears in my eyes.’
The British Virgin Islands (BVI) as well as Anguilla, Barbuda, St. Maarten, the US Virgin Islands, and Turks and Caicos were the hardest hit, with 44 people losing their lives and up to 99 per cent of structures at least partly damaged.
Now, the billionaire entrepreneur is urgently raising funds to help rebuild the islands that form part of a volcanic archipelago in the Caribbean.
‘The devastation when you looked out was like a nuclear bomb had hit. I don’t normally cry over lost things but I certainly had tears in my eyes.’
Branson was lucky. He knew he could afford to rebuild – not a luxury available to everyone. ‘Around the rest of the Caribbean were basic wooden houses and we could barely comprehend what they must have been going through.
‘When we went to visit them the next day, whole houses had been completely swept away. There’s a big job to be done.’
Rebuilding The Islands
Branson was talking at the launch of his new autobiography, Finding My Virginity, which he turned into a fundraiser for the BVI communities. He was flying straight to the US from the event so that he could meet the World Bank and talk about how to start rebuilding the Caribbean.
Being proactive is in Branson’s DNA. It’s why he, the late Nelson Mandela and the musician Peter Gabriel came up with the idea of – and funded – The Elders, a group of leaders working together to solve difficult global conflicts.
It’s the reason he created the Virgin Earth Challenge in 2007 to award $25 million (AED92 million) to anyone who could find a viable commercial design to eliminate greenhouse gases for at least 10 years. Fellow judges included former US Vice President Al Gore. Among more than 2,600 applications, 11 finalists, announced in November 2011, are still working on their designs.
And it was the driving force behind inviting world leaders, celebrities and business icons to Necker to discuss global warming related problems back in 2008, and setting up the Carbon War Room to find solutions for the energy crisis and global warming a year later.
‘Climate change is real,’ he told CNN after the recent disaster. ‘But scientists have said the storms are going to get more and more and more intense and more and more often. This is the start of things to come.’
The cost of rebuilding the British Virgin Islands will be $3 to $4 billion (AED11-15 billion) . ‘If all that money could be invested in clean energy, in powering the world by the sun and by the wind, where we won’t have to suffer these awful events in the future, how much better than having to patch up people’s houses after they’ve been destroyed?’
Branson and his Virgin Group are working with local organisations to identify the ongoing needs of people, families and communities in the British Virgin Islands impacted by the disaster. His book publishers, Penguin Random House, are donating £5 (AED25) from every ticket sold to Virgin Unite’s BVI Community Support Appeal.
And the adventurer, whose net worth was estimated by Forbes to be $5 billion (AED25 billion), is visibly moved when he talks about the issues around climate change. ‘We’ve got to power this world by clean energy,’ he says. ‘Entrepreneurs are now bringing the price of solar and wind below the price of fuels so we can afford to use it, and how wonderful that just the sun and the wind powers everything rather than polluting, dirty energy.’
It’s a packed-out event at The Troxy, one of East London’s coolest venues, where the crowd have all paid to see the softly spoken, bearded 67-year-old. The event is very Branson – tickets come in the shape of boarding passes, each paying customer receives a hot-off-the press new book – his second autobiography – and proceeds go to help the British Virgin Island’s communities.
Branson: The Entrepreneur’s Entrepreneur
It’s not long before the entrepreneur’s entrepreneur is talking about his other favourite topic – business, and more specifically, being brave enough to start your own.
‘The important thing is that people give it a go. They might fall flat on their face, but they have to realise there’s nothing wrong in trying,’ he says. ‘They just need to pick themselves up like a two-year-old who falls over when they’re learning to walk. It’s the same for an entrepreneur; they need to keep trying until they succeed.’
That entrepreneurial spark was shown early on. ‘I was hopeless at learning,’ recalls the dyslexic tycoon. ‘I remember my poor mother and father despairing when they got my school reports, because I couldn’t understand anything on the blackboard. So, I thought: ‘‘I’ll start a magazine’’ – which is quite strange for a dyslexic. The Vietnam War was going on and I wanted to give young people a voice to campaign against injustices within the world, and the way we were treated in school. The headmaster called me in one day and said: ‘‘You have a choice: either run your magazine and leave the school, or not run your magazine and stay in school’’. So, I said ‘‘Goodbye!’’’
Being Branson, he’s as candid about his failures as his successes – including the often derided Virgin Cola. ‘My biggest business failure was thinking we could actually knock Coca-Cola into the number two position,’ he grins ruefully. ‘It was fun trying and for about a year we were outselling Pepsi in the UK. When British Airways tried to put us out of [the airline] business, the public stuck with us. But not with Coca-Cola – they had a pretty good brand themselves, and they won.’
Fast-forward to today and his other passion is still causing some headaches: ‘Space has been difficult,’ he admits, referring to the challenges and setbacks (some tragic) following his attempt to provide the world’s first commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic. Their vehicle VSS Enterprise, broke up during its test flight in October, 2014, killing the co-pilot Michael Alsbury. Miraculously the pilot in command, Peter Siebold, fell 16km back to Earth and survived.
The crash was a result of ‘catastrophic’ pilot error by Alsbury – and Branson’s project to send the 100 ‘future astronauts’, who have paid $200,000 (AED735,000) each, into space is now firmly back on.
‘The SS Unity will finally be in space and a whole new era of space travel is about to begin,’ he smiles. He plans to be one of the first six – that’s how many can fit into the vehicle – passengers on the first flight. There is a lottery system to decide the rest. One contender is Namira Salim, who has a family construction business in Dubai. Going into space was her childhood dream. ‘It’s about taking a risk,’ she has told reporters. ‘It makes a peaceful contribution to Earth and to the different technologies we can use to make life better for humanity.’
It’s the kind of thing Branson might say.
Finding My Virginity by Richard Branson (£12.50 – AED60, Virgin Books) is available on amazon.com