Oprah talks to Richard Branson.
Photo: Bennet Raglin/WireImage.com
One of the most extraordinary men—tycoon, visionary, knight, and founder of Virgin Airlines—opens up about the world as he sees it today, his own risk-inspiring parents, the company he started (at 16!), his new dream to fly you and everyone else to the moon, and—a genius idea if there ever was one—the remarkable foundation he's just launched to help give peace a chance.
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
Oprah: What's the source of your drive to contribute to the world? It feels like an extraordinary force.

Richard: [Laughs] If anybody knows about that force, you do! I love creating things, and as an entrepreneur, I've taken on quite a lot of major corporations and done well. Capitalism is the only system that works, but it has its flaws; for one, it brings great wealth to only a few people. That wealth obviously brings extreme responsibility.

Oprah: That's not so obvious. You could decide to play all day: fly balloons, race around the world, stretch out on an island and drink tequila.

Richard: True. In part, giving back has to do with the way I was brought up and the fact that I've traveled widely and seen terrible situations in the world. To sleep well at night, those of us who are in a position to help must address these situations. I'd get far greater satisfaction out of, say, walking into a hospital I'd built in South Africa than I would by sitting on a beach. I'm fortunate enough to be in a position to make a difference, and I don't want to waste that. I suspect I was also lucky to have parents who drove me from a young age.

Oprah: Did your parents inspire your creativity and courage?

Richard: They certainly encouraged it. They're also good examples of it. My mother has done everything from belly dancing to climbing mountaintops, and in her late 80s, she hasn't slowed down. She spends a lot of time with the Berbers in Morocco, teaching them English. We're still a very close family, and that closeness has given me lots of strength. My parents travel with me wherever I go. They were with me at the first Elders conference in South Africa.

Oprah: Where did the idea for the Elders come from?

Richard: In Africa, villagers look up to elders; they are the moral voice of their community. My friend Peter Gabriel and I felt that the world needed a group of wise leaders to look up to—men and women who are beyond ego, who can look past their borders and take on global issues. That's why we created the Elders—a group of 12 respected people who can intervene in the world's conflicts. Before the Iraq war, I was involved in attempting to avert the conflict. I felt that the only way it could be stopped would be for an elder of great stature to persuade Saddam Hussein to step down and go live elsewhere, in Libya or Saudi Arabia—the same way Idi Amin [the late Ugandan dictator and president] was persuaded to step down. I had hoped we could avoid maiming and killing thousands of people and all the misery to follow. Nelson Mandela seemed to be the obvious elder to do that, since he'd already spoken out against the war. I talked to him, and he agreed to see Saddam if Kofi Annan [former secretary-general of the United Nations] would go with him and if South African president Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki gave his blessing. A week later, both agreed, but that same week, the bombing began. So the conversation between Hussein and Mandela never took place.

Oprah: Did you ever wonder what might have happened if the conversation had been initiated just one week sooner?

Richard: I don't live my life thinking about "if only." I just try to think positively about the future. We'll never know for certain what would have happened if we'd gone to Iraq. The important thing is that we've got to do everything we can to prevent other wars. Peter and I created the Elders because we want leaders to arbitrate in conflict situations like the one between the Algeria-supported Polisaro Front and Morocco over the Western Sahara, or the crisis in Darfur. We all know about the big world conflicts: Israel and Palestine, Zimbabwe, and so on. But there are smaller conflicts that aren't even on the world's radar screen; most of the world has no idea that Ethiopia invaded Somalia a year ago. It makes sense for the Elders to sit down with both sides and see whether leaders can come to an understanding. Ten days from now, we're going to the Sudan.

Oprah: Which of the Elders are going?

Richard: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, and [former First Lady of South Africa] Graça Machel. [Former United Nations envoy] Lakhdar Brahimi will join them. The group will meet with both the government and the opposition in the capital city of Khartoum. They'll then travel to Darfur and visit local community leaders. They hope to strengthen the framework for assuring permanent peace in Sudan.

Oprah: Will you be there?

Richard: Yes—but I'm going so that I can observe and learn. As individuals, each of the Elders has the potential to stop wars; collectively, these 12 men and women are powerful. When someone like Nelson Mandela or Kofi Annan is on the phone, people will take that call.

Oprah: What is your ultimate hope and expectation for the Elders?

Richard: I'd love for the Elders to still be around in a thousand years' time. I want to see the group build credibility in the world. I'd also like them to address other major issues, like global warming, dwindling fish stocks, and the horror of unnecessary disease. For instance, AIDS should never have gotten out of control in Africa; it's unforgivable that the world community allowed it to get out of hand.

Oprah: If the Elders had existed 20 years ago, what difference do you think they might have made in the spread of AIDS in Africa?

Richard: They would have alerted the world to the issue, and if a particular president was denying that AIDS was related to HIV and that it was becoming a crisis, they would have had a quiet word with him or her. By moving quickly in situations like that, the Elders would be able to caution the world, and then get the resources to deal with a problem in its infancy.

Oprah: What happened the first time you gathered the Elders in one room? Were you nervous or intimidated?

Richard: Well, I'd already been spending a lot of time with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He's one of the best human beings alive.

Oprah: There's no better spirit or vibe to be around.

Richard: And he has an absolutely wicked sense of humor!

Oprah: Yes! I think the fact that he's funny would surprise people.

Richard: I'm sure he's told you the one about getting to the kingdom of heaven to find two signs at the entrance: One reads FOR HENPECKED MEN ONLY, and the second reads OTHERS. There's a massive queue of men lined up under the HENPECKED sign, and only one man beneath the OTHERS sign. God says to that one man, "You're lucky. How did you make it into this line?" "Well," the man says, "my wife told me to stand here!" And Tutu tells this joke while his wife is sitting right there next to him. Anyway, Peter and I had been working on this idea for five years before we convened the group, so we were exhilarated. Then Nelson Mandela arrived and made a very moving speech. [View this and the other Elders' speeches at theelders.org.] It was the birth of something special. And it's wonderful to have you on the sidelines.

Oprah: I'm doing my part! I can tell the world about it. You always look so radiant and joyous in your photos. Is that your natural temperament?

Richard: I have tremendous stability in my life. My wife and I have been together for 32 years, and we're very happy. I've got two wonderful children, my parents, and great friends around me. And then there are the more than 50,000 wonderful people who work for the Virgin companies. I have no excuse not to be happy.

Oprah: I love that. What was it like to start Virgin?

Richard: I was young and inexperienced. At first I wasn't even allowed to register the business name because the word virgin was thought to be rude. I had to sit down and, in my best 15-year-old penmanship, write a letter to the registry office that began, "Surely the word virgin is anything but rude; it's the opposite of rude." They eventually relented.

Oprah: That was so enterprising of you. I began my company with four people, and now I have about 750. The staff felt like a little family until we had 40 or 50 people. How do you maintain a sense of connection with 50,000 employees? Can you?

Richard: It's impossible to feel the same connection as when there are only four or five starting off, but the people who work for me are working for what I believe in. The leaders who run our companies do so on the basis of those who came first and who said, "A company is its people." I hope my companies are run on the basis of praising their workers and looking for the best in them, not criticizing them. In the same way that you water a plant and it sprouts leaves, people flourish when you praise them. We have people who would kill for Virgin because they're so proud of it—they believe in what we're creating.

Oprah: As a boss, are you a good delegator?

Richard: I've had to learn the art of delegation—we've got more than 200 companies! I have to take the time to find people who are more knowledgeable than I am, and then I have to accept that everything won't go exactly the way it would if I were leading. Sometimes things go a lot better.

Oprah: What are you most hopeful about right now?

Richard: People are basically decent. Sadly, they sometimes don't appoint very good leaders, and those leaders create some horrendous messes. Yet I'm hopeful that after Iraq, those in charge will think twice about taking us down that route again. I hope that the 600,000 civilians we've lost—men, women, and children—will not have died in vain.

Oprah: How do you feel about the survival of the planet?

Richard: This issue is of paramount importance—global warming could snuff out humankind. It's an invisible war that could ultimately destroy life itself, and we need politicians and businesspeople to get together and treat it as a third world war. If we can't get our governments to wake up and do something about it, then I'm not hopeful.

Oprah: What do you know for sure?

Richard: I know that I've got to live life to its fullest because I'm going to die one day. I don't want to waste a minute.

Oprah: Is that why you're so adventurous?

Richard: I was a risk-taker as a young man, and I don't regret it. I'm not adventurous in quite the same way now, but I still love the challenge of testing myself to the limits, flying around the world, or seeing if I can be the first to fly a balloon across the Atlantic, or trying to take people into space at an affordable price in an environmentally friendly way. I'll be going into space with three generations of my family!

Oprah: When are you doing that?

Richard: In 18 months. My mother will be 90 then, and my dad will be 93. My children will be in their early 20s. My wife is the only one who isn't going; she's much too sensible.

Oprah: That is the coolest thing!

Richard: In 12 months, we will have finished building the spaceship. We'll have extensive tests for another few months, and then we'll build this incredible spaceport in the New Mexico desert.

Oprah: Wow! How long will you be in space?

Richard: The initial flight will be quite brief—about three hours. Later we'll develop longer flights. We've got plans to build a hotel that will circle the moon. People will be able to take short rides from the hotel using the moon's gravity. We're dreaming, and the first part of that dream will become real shortly.

Oprah: How do you get these ideas? As you're brushing your teeth or showering, do you suddenly think, "I know: I'll create a spaceship, put my whole family on it, and have a hotel that orbits the moon"?

Richard: When people tell me something is impossible, I try to prove them wrong.

Oprah: Do you ever chill?

Richard: I do. I'm fortunate to have Necker Island [Branson owns this 74-acre isle in the British Virgin Islands], and I bring friends and family there. I kite surf, which is very relaxing. I play a lot of tennis and do some sailing. It's important to keep the body fit, and rather than doing that in a gym, I like being active.

Oprah: Last question. The Elders have the potential to do powerful work in the world. But what is your hope for ordinary citizens at home?

Richard: Peter Gabriel's desire is to use the Internet to connect leaders and citizens everywhere. In particular, we'd like to use retired people as a resource. There are so many incredible people who have knowledge that is often wasted in their later years; why shouldn't a doctor continue using his or her expertise? We want to create local groups of respected elders who can play a part in their communities. I think every person can make a difference. You don't have to be one of the Elders. You don't have to be well known. You just have to be determined to care about people. That's all it takes.

Former presidents and ambassadors. Nobel Peace Prize winners. Humanitarian heroes. Richard Branson's global dream team of conflict mediators is a force to be reckoned with—and grateful for.
Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu was the first black general secretary of the South African Council of Churches and, as Archbishop of Cape Town, the first black leader of South Africa's Anglican Church. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, in recognition of his efforts in the fight against apartheid. In 1995 he was appointed chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela's unwavering stand against apartheid led him to a life sentence in prison in 1964. Thirty years later—27 of them spent behind bars—it led him to the presidency of South Africa. Mandela now concentrates on fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Graça Machel
Graça Machel is an international advocate for women's and children's rights, a former minister of education and culture in Mozambique, and a former First Lady of both Mozambique and South Africa. In 1994 she was appointed by the UN secretary-general to assess the effects of war on children; her groundbreaking report led to the appointment of a special representative on the impact of armed conflict on children. She is married to Nelson Mandela.

Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan was secretary-general of the UN from 1997 to 2006. In that post, he led reforms to make the UN more effective and pursued a human rights agenda. He advocated the UN's Millennium Development Goals, helped create the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, certified Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, and contributed to a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. In 2001 he and the UN were jointly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

Ela Bhatt
Ela Bhatt is a champion of women workers in India. A former member of India's Parliament, she helped establish Women's World Banking, an organization that provides financial services to women, and is the founder of the Self-Employed Women's Association, a union with roughly a million members.

Lakhdar Brahimi
Lakhdar Brahimi, a former ambassador for his native Algeria, was instrumental in ending conflicts in Lebanon and Yemen, as well as apartheid in South Africa. He presided over the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan in 2001 and facilitated the establishment of an interim government in Iraq in 2004.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, MD
Gro Harlem Brundtland, MD, was the youngest person and first woman to hold the office of prime minister of Norway. She has served as director-general of the World Health Organization and chair of the World Commission of Environment and Development, and is currently a special envoy of the United Nations secretary-general for climate change.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso
Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected to two terms as president of Brazil (from 1995 to 2003), having been deeply involved in his country's struggle for democracy. A sociologist by training, he is an influential expert on international development, dependency, democratization, and state reform.

Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, mediated the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel, completed negotiation of the SALT II treaty with the former Soviet Union, and established full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his efforts in the advancement of democracy and human rights.

Li Zhaoxing
Li Zhaoxing has served as Chinese foreign minister, ambassador to the United States, and, from 1992 to 1995, ambassador to the United Nations. As a member of the UN Security Council, he was involved in the redemocratization of Haiti.

Mary Robinson
Mary Robinson became Ireland's first female president in 1990. A longtime human rights advocate, she was the first head of state to visit Rwanda following the genocide there. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002, she strengthened UN monitoring in conflict zones such as Kosovo. She is the founder and president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative.

Muhammad Yunus
Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, is the most prominent champion of "microcredit"—loans for the poor, granted without collateral. This revolutionary concept, which won Yunus the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, has helped millions of impoverished people in his native Bangladesh.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her fight to bring democracy to her native Burma; the ruling military party has kept her under house arrest for most of her political career. She is an honorary member of the Elders; a chair—vacant until her release—is reserved for her at their meetings.

Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel, though best known for his music career, has worked extensively with Amnesty International. He is a cofounder of Witness, a group that provides video cameras and editing equipment to human rights groups, and of the Elders.


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