In 1966 a British 16-year-old who had dyslexia and was nearly flunking out of school put his education on hold to start a youth-culture magazine called Student,
which he hoped would one day become England's version of Rolling Stone.
To finance it, he skipped the usual teenage jobs like store clerk and instead sold advertising space in the magazine; from there, he launched a mail-order record business and opened a music shop on London's Oxford Street.
The magazine did well enough, but 41 years later, those side projects have become the multimillion-dollar conglomerate the world knows as Virgin, the company whose business ventures encompass music, air travel, publishing, and retailing. And the ambitious teenager is now Virgin's charismatic leader, 57-year-old Sir Richard Branson (he was knighted in 1999).
Branson, the eldest of three children, may have gotten his audacity genetically: His mother, Eve, a former showgirl, was one of the first flight attendants to fly over the Andes, back when unpressurized cabins meant that passengers had to wear oxygen masks; she also snuck into a male-only glider pilot training program by pretending she was a boy. Though Branson's father, Ted, chose a less colorful career in law, both parents encouraged their only son's daring nature; Branson has become as famous for his adventures—crossing two oceans via hot air balloon, and another aboard a powerboat—as for his seemingly limitless entrepreneurial imagination.
His newest, and greatest, idea is a modest humanitarian proposal: to save the world. Branson and his friend Peter Gabriel, the British rock star, have assembled a council of 12 internationally renowned statesmen and women whose goal is to stop wars, promote peace, stamp out diseases, and curb global warming. Called the Elders, the group is privately funded to avoid becoming beholden to any political or special-interest party. It will be chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
"Most wars are completely unnecessary," Branson tells me on the afternoon of our conversation. "Intelligent people must come up with alternative ways to disagree." For a man whose optimistic outlook led him to attempt the improbable four decades ago, the Elders is a fledgling investment that could bring an extraordinary return: the possibility of long-standing world peace. Start reading Oprah's interview with Richard Branson