The work we do with The Knowledge to Action Foundation has taken us on many adventures but none so mind blowing and inspirational as the five day trip we have just done with Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Unite team in South Africa. The theme of the trip was embedded in the message behind Sir Richard’s new book ‘Screw Business as Usual’. The book focuses on how companies around the world are starting to think differently about how they do business. It’s not just about making money, it’s about looking at sustainable ways to make a difference; to switch from profit focus to caring for people, communities and the planet.
Over the course of the week we were taken on a whirlwind trip across South Africa where we met young entrepreneurs and were shown examples of how easy it is for both businesses and individuals to embark on a whole new way of doing things, solving major problems and turning our work into something we both love and are proud of. In 2004, Richard established Virgin Unite, his non-profit foundation run by CEO, Jean Oelwang. It mobilizes the talent and resources from across the Virgin Group and beyond to tackle tough social and environmental problems in an entrepreneurial way.
On the trip we were joined by six other entrepreneurs whose businesses were in the 2010 Sunday Times Fast Track 100 fastest growing companies in Britain, including Paul Caplan, the Chairman of Go Outdoors, the UK’s largest supplier of outdoor camping and adventure equipment and Tony Banks the Chairman of Balhousie Care Group, Scotland’s fastest growing care home provider. It was not only an opportunity for us to learn from Richard and the Unite team but also to gain inspiration and network with the other UK entrepreneurs. We were also joined by a team of philanthropic leaders from Australia including Jane Tewson, who has been working at the forefront of social change for 30 years. She has founded five charitable organisations including the UK’s most successful charity, Comic Relief, better known as Red Nose Day.
Our journey started in Johannesburg with an introductory briefing followed by a tour of Constitution Hill, an old prison where victims of the apartheid government where imprisoned. The following day was of epic proportions with a schedule that only Branson could dream up. In the morning we visited two of the entrepreneurs from the Branson centre to see first-hand how their businesses are uplifting the community. We met with a passionate young clothing designer, Lesego Malatsi, who is the founder of Mzansi Designers, a company which designs African-inspired clothing. Whilst visiting his factory we could see the difference he was making, employing 16 full time staff and bringing an African flavour to the International fashion scene at this year’s London fashion week. We then visited Tshepo Nawane, an entrepreneur who runs a recycling company in Soweto, paying customers to bring recyclable waste – in so doing, cleaning up the community.
Before lunch we were whisked off to the opening of the first Virgin Active gym in the Soweto townships. On arrival we were met by Africa dancers, drummers and men on stilts. All the Virgin Active staff were dressed in red leotards and bandannas. The energy was electric and the buzz around Branson contagious as we walked through the state-of-the-art gym while being mobbed by photographers. Branson got into the spirit and mixed some dance tunes in the DJ booth before changing into an aerobics outfit and hitting the dance floor with 30 ladies singing “I’m a maniac… a maniac on the floor!”
After our high-impact workout we were taken to The Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship to meet the inspirational students and teachers. The UK team of Entrepreneurs were teamed up in ‘speed dating’ groups together with 10 of South Africa’s leading entrepreneurs to mentor the young business owners on how to overcome their challenges. This expertly coordinated mega coaching session was clearly impactful on both the students and us entrepreneurs. We were all left feeling a renewed sense of ‘Can Do’ attitude.
Only hours later we found ourselves at the book launch. The event was hosted at Randlords, a dramatic venue with a sprawling view of Johannesburg’s CBD. In attendance were some of Johannesburg’s finest business men and woman all of whom were ready to hear Richard’s message on doing business for social change and were even given the opportunity to view stands that the young entrepreneurs from the Branson Centre had set up in the venue.
It was truly inspiring to see how so many budding and young entrepreneurs have been helped by the UNITE charity, and having the opportunity to talk to them individually and hear their stories was something that won’t be easily forgotten. The next half of our Branson trip will take us to meet yet more amazing people who are working to improve medical and education facilities in rural South African communities.