Approaching philanthropy with entrepreneurial thinking: the story of founding Virgin Unite 20 years ago

Richard Branson and Jean Oelwang at Ulusaba in 2016
John Armstrong Photography
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 18 March 2024

2024 is an important milestone for our foundation, Virgin Unite, as it celebrates 20 years of bringing people together and tackling some of the most unacceptable issues that face people and the planet. This is the story of how Virgin Unite came to be all those years ago.

Virgin Unite - 20 year anniversary logo
Virgin Unite

Early on in my career, I learnt that success comes faster if you bring brilliant minds together. It’s what helped us launch Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic, and it’s been indispensable in our philanthropic efforts too. I saw the impact up close when I had the good fortune to coordinate a meeting between Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, who had never met and whose people worried it would be too political. Staying a few blocks away from each other in South Africa, it was the only opportunity for these two great spirits to meet. We managed to make it happen, and it was a profound moment.

Richard and Holly Branson stand with Nelson Mandela.  They are smiling with their arms around each other's shoulders

In 2003, I worked on another opportunity to bring two leaders together to address the looming conflict in Iraq – an unjust war many of us were avidly against. I joined the protests, but I desperately wanted to do something more tangible to try and prevent the imminent violence. I was thinking about who could possibly persuade Saddam Hussein to step down and prevent America from declaring war, and Nelson Mandela came to mind. Mandela responded positively, agreeing to fly to Iraq on the condition that Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, joined him. I contacted Kofi, who also rapidly agreed. We worked quickly to arrange the trip, but just before they were due to fly, Allied bombs were dropped on Baghdad.

Richard Branson on the tarmac after his aid flight to Iraq with Virgin Atlantic

I was devastated, frustrated, and more determined than ever to make a difference. We started developing more serious plans to launch a foundation. In 1968, we started the Student Advisory Centre (which ran for decades). Later, we also started the Virgin Healthcare Foundation alongside Mates Condoms to help tackle HIV/AIDs. Although we were already donating a lot of money and resources to these two efforts and over 200 charities across the group, it was a scattergun approach. I wanted to hone our focus and play to our strengths, which sparked the thought: “What if we brought together the greatest minds to solve some of the world's toughest challenges?” Most of my business pursuits have started with a ‘what if’ moment, and Virgin Unite would be no different.

Mates Condoms
Mates Condoms

I happened to be talking to someone on the phone about this idea in the car when I was on a trip to visit Virgin Mobile Australia back in 2003. The joint CEO, Jean Oelwang, overheard me and she went home that evening and created a business plan. The CEO of the Virgin Group at the time, Gordon McCallum, encouraged her to send it to me. Jean had a long history of helping to start up successful mobile phone companies and had intertwined this with experience in the not for profit, the perfect mix for the person I was looking for to bring the foundation to life. I rang Jean and said: “I love it. Let’s do it. How soon can you move to London?” Later, Jean told me that she danced around the room and started packing her bags as soon as I hung up the phone.

We spent the first six months listening to the Virgin family, frontline leaders, governments and experts in the sector. The teams across Virgin developed the wonderful name (Virgin Unite), which perfectly framed the organisation’s approach of challenging unacceptable issues by bringing together the greatest minds in an entrepreneurial approach.

Virgin Unite

This was 20 years ago and all this time later, the foundation continues to go from strength to strength, with Jean still partnering closely with me and Sheetal Vyas as the new Managing Director. It makes me so proud to look back on everything that Virgin Unite has achieved in that time - from criminal justice reform, to ocean conservation, helping catalyse the clean energy transition, advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, creating opportunities for people to lift themselves out of poverty, supporting entrepreneurs, and incubating leadership collectives such as The EldersThe B Team, and (most recently) the Planetary Guardians. This is the impact you can create through radical collaboration.

Planetary Guardians launch event
Christopher Farber

Jean Oelwang understands the power of joyful cooperation better than most, and has shared her experiences in an excellent book called Partnering: How to forge deep connections that make great things happen. It’s well worth a read.

Thank you to everyone in the Virgin Unite network who turns up to work every single day to tackle such difficult issues. The work is remarkable. Keep your eyes peeled across 2024 for articles on all of the wonderful and impactful work that Virgin Unite and its partners have supported over the last 20 years, as well as what we have planned for the next 20 and beyond!