Five things I wish I knew in school

Holly Branson at her graduation
Branson family
Holly Branson
Holly Branson's writing
Published on 14 September 2023

I graduated from St Edwards (or ‘Teddies’ as we knew it) in 2000, as the first-ever female Head of School in Teddies history. I had such wonderful memories from this time, and the role came with some great (if not extremely odd) perks too. Head of Schools were allowed to grow a beard and own a goat that could graze the school’s lawns. Not surprisingly, my dad tried to convince me to bring a goat along on my first day in the role, but I wasn’t a rebel like him, especially back then!  I almost wish I had done it now, as there aren’t many times when life gives you goats

There are a few other things I wish I could tell my teenage self. So, when I was invited back to give a speech to entire school and their families, I wanted to share some of the things I've learned on my journey to adulthood.

Holly Branson and Richard Branson on Necker Island
Branson family

1. Cherish your friends (and choose them first)

Friends play such a precious role in our lives, and you’ll rarely get a chance to spend so much time with your friends than in school and university. I’ve been reading a lot about how adults begin to undervalue our friendships, and what a mistake it is to do so. As Isabel Fattal wrote in this piece:

The act of choosing friendships is what gives them value.

Cherish your friends and choose your friends, even as you grow older and start balancing many new relationships. I made my best friends at school, and I met my husband there too! These are the people who will understand you, invest in you, lift you up, laugh with you, and stand by you through all the twists and turns of life. As Marisa Franco, psychologist and the author of a book called Platonic, said on the How to Talk to People podcast: “A friend is someone you invest in. It is a commitment. It is: I’m showing up in your times of need. It is I’m doing things that sometimes might inconvenience me, because I’m thinking about how much they’ll mean to you. It is I’m going to celebrate your successes. It’s: I’m going to follow through with what I say that I will do to the extent possible. It’s, basically: I’m considering you, and I’m considering your needs. In a lot of our culture, we’re stuck on ‘good company’, and we haven’t gotten to ‘good friendship.’”⁠ I couldn’t agree more. 

Holly Branson as a teenager with her netball team
Branson family

2. Champion diversity 

Whether it be diversity of race, religion, age, gender, sexual preference, ability, or other – diversity expands our ways of thinking and our understanding of the world. You learn to see the world in new ways, gain new perspectives, incubate new ideas, and even out the many playing fields of life. Because beyond the many benefits of diversity, it’s simply the right thing to do. Everybody deserves a seat at the table, and so you also need to advocate for diversity. Be an ally to anyone who has been pushed aside by society and speak up for anyone whose voice has been stifled. When I was at school, I worked as a teaching assistant in a specialist school for autism, and it was a transformative experience. It instilled in me a sense of purpose and reminded me that there is so much value in embracing diverse ways of thinking, and different experiences. We need to champion diversity in all its wonderful forms, all of the time. 

Holly Branson and June Sarpong Meet the Author interview

3. Let go of fear 

Fear is such a bizarre and paralyzing emotion, which is totally needed in situations that are life-threatening, but totally pointless in pretty much every other situation! Easier said than done, I know, but try to make a conscious effort to get rid of fear, especially fear of embarrassment, or fear of what others might think. Never let that stop you from following your passions. Always remember, if you are being true to yourself and believe in what you are doing, it really doesn’t matter what others think.  You must strive to overcome those butterflies of fear and overcome our human capacity for self-doubt, otherwise you’ll miss out on so much that is wonderful about life.

I would have never gotten up on stage when I was Head of School all those years ago, if I had let my fear of public speaking get in the way. But every speech I’ve given in the decades since has become easier, and I was only slightly nervous when I re-visited that same stage 23 years later. So, when someone asks you to do something that makes you nervous, say yes. Life is much more exciting this way!

Holly Branson giving a speech at her old school - Teddies in Oxford
Holly Branson

4. Embrace failure

Success is wonderful, but don’t underestimate how much you can grow from failing. It’s a message Dad tried to teach us when we were young and he would say: “If you fall flat on your face, at least you're moving forward.”   

Life being life, things won’t always go the way you would like them too. How you cope with things all depends on how you frame the situation. Instead of thinking, “that’s it. I’m not carrying on. I’m giving up,” try to learn from the experience. What can you do differently next time? What were the positives? Did you make new friends, visit new places, or become more informed about an issue or an idea? Write that failure down, but in positive words not negative ones. Take the lessons on board. If you think it will help share your learnings with friends or colleagues - that will start making you feel better about yourself. After that, move on and try it all over again!

Holly Branson chatting to Simon Sinek

5. Impact the world with your work 

My life since school has been a whirlwind journey, but I’ve realised how important it is to create impact in everything you do. From qualifying as a doctor at UCL to progressing through Virgin and now serving as the Chief Purpose and Vision Officer.  

It’s a role I love - ensuring that each and every one of our businesses are focusing on our people, the communities we serve and crucially committed to doing all they can to protect our beautiful planet.  I also spend time making sure each of our people can nurture their own personal purpose. It’s a role I love and truly believe in.   

Work should not be just about making a living.  Of course, that’s important, but it should also be about making a difference. You will spend thousands upon thousands of hours working, you may in fact have many different careers in the next 50 years.  Imagine if every single one of those hours not only left you feeling fulfilled but helped to improve our world for the better. 

Make sure you really think about the company you’re going to work for… Does it align with your personal passions? Are they striving to make the world a better place? If you are going out there to start a company, start it with the desire to treat your people right, solve an issue the world Is facing, and do so by actively trying to not harm our beautiful planet.  Working for, or starting purpose-led companies, will be the motivating force that makes you get out of bed every day. It definitely does that for me!