Holly Branson on purpose in business

In her new book WEconomy, Holly Branson reveals what can be achieved when business, charity and social enterprise learn from each other. She explains why businesses should be looking to balance purpose and profit…

When Holly Branson took a year away from working as a junior doctor at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, and began work as an intern at Virgin, she had no idea that it would change the course of her life. It was while working on some of Virgin’s larger brands that she saw at first-hand how business can become a force for good in the world, and decided to dedicate her career to that goal. In her new book, WEconomy, Holly demonstrates that business can be a force for good by embedding purpose at the heart of what they do, and also by forging partnerships between governments, commerce and the social sector, with the market acting as a lever for social change.

What’s WEconomy about, Holly?

This book is about how we can all work to improve the lives of others. Problems in the world can seem overwhelming – 5.9 million children under the age of five die each year of preventable or curable diseases; more than 700 million people still lack access to clean water; 46 million people live in slavery. Statistics like these can be overwhelming but imagine the power to bring about real change if the best of business, charity and social enterprise came together to tackle these issues. That is the WEconomy and it is powered by the individual. Millions of people are calling on organisations from every sector to embed purpose in to everything they do.

Holly Branson, WEconomy, 2018, Porchester

Businesses must ask themselves what’s the most that they can do rather than the least they can get away with

How did the WEconomy partnership come about?

Around eight years ago, the team at Virgin Unite introduced Marc and Craig Kielburger and their organisation WE Charity to Virgin Atlantic, and a wonderful charity/business partnership was born.

Over two trips to WE projects in India and Kenya, and quite a few WE DAY stages, I’ve got to know the brothers extremely well. While in India, Marc suggested we write a book together. We realised that we had a lot to learn from each other.

What is the book’s main objective?

The WEconomy is a new approach to business that balances purpose and profit. Talking from our three different sectors, we hope we have shown in our book what can be achieved when business, charity and social enterprise learn from each other. Business has an incredible ability to scale and innovate – just imagine what can be achieved when that is combined with purpose, which has traditionally been the remit of charity. On the other hand, charities can gain so much by adopting the rigour of business and developing clever cross-sector partnerships.

What does ‘purpose’ in business mean?

We believe that to be successful in the future, businesses must ask themselves what’s the most that they can do rather than the least they can get away with. Today, customers and employees are increasingly demanding it. We encourage all businesses to use what we term a ‘purpose barometer’ on every decision they make.

If all businesses were to adopt this, we would start to see real, large-scale change. Virgin Money is the perfect example of a company that views everything it does through a purpose lens.

Are there examples in the book of this in practice?

I’m delighted to say that within the Virgin companies there were so many amazing examples to choose from – hence why I love my job so much! Here are a few of the Virgin examples: Virgin Money shook up fundraising with Virgin Money Giving, which gives donors and charities in Britain a better deal.

Nicola Griffiths at Virgin Trains came up with the idea of adding pop-up shops to the platform at Crewe Railway Station in Cheshire, England. Her idea resulted in a retail hub supporting small local businesses.

Virgin Mobile Australia staff were actively involved in a campaign that saw them join forces with R U OK?, a charity that encourages people to have regular conversations as a way of assisting in suicide prevention.

Tell us four things that a small business could do to make positive social change in the workplace.

First, value your people: they are people, not payroll numbers. Treat them with respect and trust. Second, offer work experience: give a young person (perhaps through a local charity or an organisation working with ex-offenders) the chance to learn the ropes or practise their customer-service skills. Third, recycle/ban plastic (as far as you can): if all companies took this step, the impact would be huge. And fourth, involve your community: if you own a small shop or business, host a networking evening for other small businesses in your area.

Did you come up with the idea for limitless holiday at Virgin?

I had read about Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, causing a stir with a radical new approach to culture at her company. I proposed that we follow suit at Virgin Management in London and introduce unlimited leave, which permits all salaried staff to take time off whenever they want for as long as they want. All of our people can request holiday leave (in addition to the statutory 21 days in the UK), without restriction. The assumption is that staff are only going to leave work when they feel comfortable that their absence will not in any way damage the business. We trust our people to make empowered decisions.

We trust our people to make empowered decisions

How can purpose in practice have a positive effect on staff?

In the chapter ‘People Are Your Purpose’, we give many examples of how purpose, embedded properly throughout your business, can lead to your people feeling valued, trusted and happy as a result. Purpose doesn’t have to cost a fortune – involve and inform your people in the bigger picture of your business, listen to them and act on feedback, trust them to work flexibly and still do a job well… the list is endless. After all, as a business, your people are your greatest asset.

How can one individual make a difference?

There are tips and tricks in WEconomy for employees to try. Volunteering your time is a good way to give your career purpose, which can be used as a launch point for discussions with management to bring new ideas or brand strategies to the business. It shows initiative, which is good for your career path, and could help a cause you care about.

Have you ever regretted taking your dad’s advice to take a year out to learn the family business?

Over a decade later, I’m delighted to say, never! One year so quickly became two, then three… and at that point I had to admit to myself I was now a Virgin person through and through and there was no going back.

Every day I get to meet and work with the most incredible people from across the Virgin Group, both in the UK and in our international businesses. Even after 10 years, I am constantly blown away by the generosity of spirit shared by every Virgin person I meet. Every day they teach me something new.

Is there one thing you wish you had known when you were starting out in your career?

Truthfully, no! Life is so much more rewarding when we challenge ourselves to learn every day.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

To follow your passion – and not beat yourself up if what you thought was your passion morphs into something completely different. How dull would any journey be if you only walked in a straight line?

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