Blogs & Comment

The business of a good education: Richard Branson


(Photo: Darryl Dyck/CP)

(Photo: Darryl Dyck/CP)

If you are an entrepreneur launching a business and want to get ahead of your competitors, have you and your team ever considered volunteering to help out at local schools?

It may sound strange for me to advocate such a move, considering that I left school at 16 to set up my first business. But as I have written before, creating a successful company is all about building community, and education is often a great means for doing good while doing business.

This isn’t an area where you can just go charging in, however. It is imperative that the project you propose be deeply linked to your business’s mission and the sense of purpose that carries your employees through the workday.

If you are unsure about what your business’s purpose is, except perhaps to make money, it might be a good time to rethink your approach. Companies that survive and thrive over the long term have more significant interactions with their customers than just conducting transactions; great businesses are places where problems are solved and lives are improved. A sense of mission helps such enterprises to keep sight of the bigger picture.

It could be that developing a project to support local or international educational efforts may help you to map out what you’d like your company to accomplish in the long term. I was thinking about this just the other day, when I was in London watching my daughter Holly co-host Britain’s first We Day, celebrating the achievements of the 12,000 school kids in attendance, who all earned their tickets through their volunteer work.

The event was planned by Free the Children, an organization founded by Craig Kielburger in 1995, when he persuaded 11 school friends to join him in a crusade against child labour. He’d been inspired by the story of Iqbal, a Pakistani child labourer who escaped a carpet factory where he’d been held prisoner and then gained worldwide attention by speaking out for children’s rights. Iqbal was murdered for his efforts.

Craig’s simple rallying call proved effective in bringing our staff on board. “Free the children from poverty. Free the children from exploitation. Free the children from the notion that they are powerless to affect change.”

Our airline Virgin Atlantic entered into a partnership with Free the Children in 2009, helping us with our goals of supporting long-term sustainable change in the destinations we fly to. We’ve used the company’s network to reach out to schools across Britain and encourage children to get involved. Employee fundraising events have funded Free the Children’s efforts in communities in India, Ghana and Kenya, improving fresh water supplies, building schools and encouraging the young to eat well, exercise and study hard.

In this case, much of Virgin’s involvement involves fundraising and raising awareness, which engages our staff in all manner of activities, from joining sponsored swims to collecting passengers’ spare change on flights. We have been able to reward some employees with trips to see the villages in transition, and it has been wonderful to see how making a difference in children’s lives brings our people together.

In South Africa, Virgin Active has been very directly involved. It is working with three schools in Cape Town’s toughest neighborhoods, providing gym equipment, training in how to use it and ongoing support for school sports programs.

This project ties in directly to Active’s larger mission of improving people’s health, and so our club employees have been able to easily add it to their everyday workloads. Club managers have noticed a benefit, in that they’ve been able to give their developing stars interesting tasks outside their usual areas of responsibility. They have also recruited bright talent from the senior ranks of the three schools, and one former student is already training to be a fitness instructor.

Similarly integral projects are funded by Virgin Money, our bank, which helps schools to educate children in the basics of entrepreneurship. There’s Fiver, which is a one-month competition, and Make £5 Grow, which runs throughout the year. Virgin Money employees go to the schools to help to direct the programs, thus creating incredible staff engagement and forging links to the community. The bank lends the schools the money for each pupil, who then try to use it to create a business. At the end of the month, the kids pay back the money, while their schools keep the profits.

These are just a few examples of creative ways to engage with schools. Every approach should be different, tailored to each particular business’s goals and team’s talents. The bottom line is that relationships are what matter. When people learn that they can trust your company by working with your employees long before they ever need to buy anything, your business is on the road to success.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group of companies