Growing up Branson

Holly Branson on sofa with a copy of WEconomy
Image by Adam Slama
Holly Branson
Holly Branson's writing
Published on 2 June 2018

Writing my personal chapter in WEconomy was definitely the most difficult part of the process. I went back and edited multiple times, much to the publisher’s dismay. Growing up, I was very much out of the spotlight – aside from waving Dad off on his latest adventures. I’d never had much to do with the media or bared my soul in public in any way.

But when Marc, Craig and I started writing WEconomy, we realised that if we were asking the reader to trust our experiences in business, social enterprise and charity, then we needed to let them know who we are and share our personal stories as well as our professional lives. 

Marc and Craig’s chapters read like a Hollywood movie script - seriously! Mine is a little more studious, but filled with all the love and laughter that comes with our family.

Below is an extract from my personal chapter, Growing Up Branson.

The text of a letter Richard Branson wrote to his children Holly and Sam in case he did not survive his hot air balloon adventures
Image from Weconomy

I attempted to read this for the first time on the day my dad’s autobiography Losing My Virginity was published – but tears prevented me reading beyond the first paragraph. Dad is known for many things, from businessman to philanthropist and he’d written this letter in case he didn’t survive his latest round-the-world attempt in a hot-air balloon. He survived. Characteristically, Dad forgot to give me and my brother Sam the heads-up that he would open his first book with what might have been his last written words to us. So it came as a bit of a shock, especially as we hadn’t seen it before! Richard Branson may well be a world-famous name, but to me he’s just Dad.

It is bizarre writing about yourself, like talking in the third person. You have to ask difficult questions and, to some extent, bare your soul. In the first of many writing sessions for this book, Craig had already hit a nerve. We’d discussed my childhood, medical school, my experiences at Virgin – then Craig turned to me and asked: “Holly, the most important question of all now. What do you want your legacy to the world to be?”

Black and white photo of Richard Branson, wife Joan and daughter Holly as a child

I looked at him, stricken - knowing full well that if I asked him the same thing he’d say something off the top of his head that was succinct and annoyingly brilliant. My mind was spinning with the things I should be saying, like driving Virgin forward in changing business for good, embedding purpose into the heart of the company, making an impact in the world through our foundations. But all I wanted to say was: I want to be a mum and my dream is to raise a healthy, happy, kind, well-grounded family, with my husband, Freddie. Craig couldn’t have known that Freddie and I had spent more than two difficult and distressing years trying to conceive. After two miscarriages and two failed rounds of IVF, we were starting to wonder if we would ever get to be parents.

I decided to be honest, not about my fertility struggles, but about the fact that I wanted my legacy to be having a family that cares about the world. Coming from families as close as Freddie and mine, we wanted to instill the same value systems and love of life, of people and planet, that our parents had instilled in us. Kids who believe they can make a real difference in the world.

Holly Branson and her family admiring the country side
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Mom, Dad, Sam… 

I am called Holly because I was supposed to come into the world at Christmas. Family legend has it that my arrival six weeks early found my dad sleeping off the previous night’s party. My mum, Joan, by then in contractions, had to manhandle him out of bed and into the car. Luckily, they made it to the hospital in time!

My mum, born Joan Templeman, was raised in the center of Glasgow, Scotland, worked in a pawnbroker’s shop, and, later, at a London bric-a-brac store on the Portobello Road. It was there that my dad first fell in love with her and, without putting too fine a point on it, essentially stalked her. He turned up at the shop every day for months, buying stuff he didn’t want or need. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Black and white image of Richard and Joan Branson hugging
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Sam and I had a normal, loving childhood – thanks in the largest part to our wonderful mum. She was the one who took my younger brother and me to the playground and walked us to and from school every day. A stay-at-home mum who was (and still is) always there with a hug, inspiring words of wisdom, and a beautiful, welcoming smile. She is our anchor, the calm voice that acts as a complementary balance to our very energetic father.

Dad was also ever present, camped out on a sofa at one end of the sitting room, first on the houseboat, then in our Holland Park home, orchestrating the growth of Virgin while we tore about under his feet. I called my parents Joan and Richard until I was 11 – as that’s what everyone who worked for Virgin called them.

Virgin and home life were never separate for Sam and me. We were used to people coming and going, constant phone calls, the beeps of fax machines, paper everywhere. We ran riot in the offices of the wonderful Virgin staff. They never seemed to mind—which was not really surprising given that my old nursery ended up being the Virgin Press Office. We had no idea that the people coming and going to meetings were the likes of the Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, the boss of Boeing, or a distraught bank manager (on more than one occasion). It was fun and relaxed and – to us – totally normal.

A young Richard Branson on the phone whilst a very young Sam Branson looks out the window
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Dad was (and still is) open, honest, and unafraid to ask questions or seek advice – even from his children. We saw him listen much more than he talked. In a nutshell, he taught us to be independent, which I know at times, like many a parent, he regretted – especially when there were four of us involved in making decisions, rather than just one! Later in the book we look at putting your people first and building your trust bank – much of which I learned from my mum and dad at our kitchen table…

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