I was incredibly fortunate to be one of three entrepreneurs invited to join the inaugural
Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Detroit. After an extraordinary four days of business
mentoring, partying at 38,000ft , and exploring the city I returned home feeling blessed,
inspired and wondering where my canapés and film crew were.
My time with Sir Richard Branson, "the most popular entrepreneur in the world", gave me an incredible insight into the way that he runs his business and lives his enviable life. From cheeky, warm smiles to a genuine appreciation of an entrepreneur's plight Richard Branson is undeniably a pleasure to be around. Our time in his presence shone some light on a few traits we'll surely be adopting in the hope that they'll somehow take our businesses one step closer to Virgin-esque world domination and ourselves to a Branson-degree of lovable.
Without getting too psycho-analytical, here are a few qualities and quotes that revealed to me some of the ingredients of Branson's secret sauce.
It was question-time at the end of the official press conference in Detroit with the CEO's of Virgin Atlantic, Delta, Wayne County Airport and the Mayor of Detroit. A young lady stuck her hand up, introduced herself as an entrepreneur and asked her question. Sir Richard didn't just answer her question but also invited her to "tell me more about your business", giving her the opportunity to pitch it to the room of top-tier journalists and business owners. This level of genuine interest in startup businesses, although initially startling, was incredibly insightful into how Branson has earned the respect and admiration of so many people. It wasn't surprising that the lady, content with the response, followed with "I just want to say I think you're an amazing person." Aww.
It's no secret that Richard Branson is a big advocate of business that solves problems. After all, that's how Virgin Atlantic was born: a chartered flight to satisfy the disgruntled customers of a flight, the last of the day, that had been cancelled. He passionately explained: "you might as well stick your neck out and do something to make people's lives better!" The journey of an entrepreneur is a bumpy one at best and if you're going to stick with it and see your business through to success then it better go some way to make the world, in some tiny way, a better place. His emphasis on entrepreneurialism as a means for social impact shed light on something far greater in his motivations: a respectable and influential approach to what we should be creating in the world we live in.
Having had the opportunity to meet those who manage a number of the Virgin businesses it was clear that Sir Richard is incredibly good at concentrating on his strengths and employing the best talent to fulfil the other roles. He told us to become aware of what you're good at - likely coming up with new ideas - and stressed the value of handing over the general management of the business to have the headspace to innovate. Of course a degree of groundwork needs to be done initially but it felt worth bearing in mind that we should be on the lookout for someone with the skills to manage our business day-to-day better than we ever could; ultimately giving us the time to dream of the future without being tied down by the daily challenges.
We were sitting in the audience of 'Aint too Proud to Pitch': an event that brought together an audience of over 500 people, catering from local businesses, and four businesses pitching their ideas to a panel of star-struck worthy judges. One of the businesses who got on stage was called Merit: a Detroit-branded clothing company which contributes 20 percent of its profits toward college scholarships for Detroit students and helps ensure that they don't drop out. In the middle of their pitch they brought on stage a girl who was part of their programme and half-jokingly said that she wanted to visit London. Richard immediately said "You've got two tickets to London". It taught me that when you want something, ask for it. And Richard showed that he can, and will, help wherever he can.
All in all it became clear that Richard Branson is impeccably in-tune with who he is and how he is perceived. In doing this he is able to play to his strengths with the dexterity and talent of an orchestral conductor: not only creating a thing of beauty but also winning the love and applause of the crowds.