Virgin Group founder Richard Branson is in New York today to promote his new film Don’t Look Down, which chronicles his harrowing 1987 marketing-stunt-cum-personal-adventure crisscrossing the globe in a giant hot air balloon. The trip was, ostensibly, meant to publicize his then-young airline, Virgin Air. Publicity exercise or not, this was no easy task, and during the voyage Branson truly believed he was about to die.
The English tycoon took some time to meet up with Fast Company and speak about the moment he stared death in the face, leading his company through tragedy and, of course, the recent election of Donald Trump (whose policies Branson has railed against in recent months) to the highest office in America.
Fast Company:So this journey you took—obviously the climax of it is, you think you’re going to die. Coming that near to death and really believing that that was going to happen to you, how did that affect you as a person and also as an entrepreneur and a business person? What did that teach you?
Richard Branson: Well, if you’re an entrepreneur, which I was at the time, you’re struggling to survive and you’re trying to work out ways of protecting the downside, so that if things don’t go well, it’s not going to bring everything crashing down. And I’ve been quite used to those sorts of battles.
If you’re an adventurer, the downside is slightly more serious because you’re putting your life on the line, but in fighting to survive, it has some of the same—I mean, when you’re really facing, especially in the Pacific where it was a long, drawn out time, you just have to fight to survive, hold yourself together, do everything you can to not let go, not let your body go, not let your mind go, not to give in. And you know, I think it was a combination of the determination to survive, plus some very good luck. What was absolutely extraordinary was the way the balloon started moving faster and faster and faster through the sky. I almost started believing in becoming religious because it was unprecedented for a balloon to be going 240 miles an hour, and without it going 240 miles an hour we wouldn’t have survived [Editor’s note: because if they hadn’t been moving so fast, they would have run out of fuel before reaching land], so I do thank God occasionally, even though I’m a believer in evolution, and occasionally say, “If you’re up there, thank you very much” [laughs]. And we spend a lot of time now, you know, sort of trying to give back because we were extraordinarily lucky.
FC:In business, if you’re an adventurous person, and even now in America, half the country is feeling a lot of despair because of the outcome of this week—how do you not give up your mind, give up your body? How do you keep yourself alive in whatever sense of the word, physically, mentally, through those kinds of really extreme circumstances?
RB:Well, I think, as you say, there’s at least half of America who are despairing at the moment, and I think all of us need to work together to fight xenophobia and racism and some of the horrible things that have come out both in Britain and America in the last few months. I think if we stay united doing that, and those people who maybe have a bit more influence than others, you use that influence, use their wealth, use their strength, to try to guide things in a better way, then something positive can come out of this sad event.
So let’s take some examples. Trump says he doesn’t believe in global warming. 99.9% of scientists do believe in it. The world is facing a potential catastrophe if he starts opening up the coal mines again and creating jobs there instead of creating jobs in clean energy—then it’s up to us business people to protest, but also to get on out there and create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the clean energy sector and make sure we do get to a carbon neutral world by 2050. And make a lot of noise about it. I mean, shame the administration with facts and scientific facts to get them to change course.
If they they threaten to abolish universal health care in America, business needs to step in and try to make sure that people who can’t afford health care are looked after. And business needs to show America how we can set up universal health care systems in other countries that don’t have it, as a shining light to America.
And if immigrants are going to be deported from America, business needs to stand up and shout and say, “we need them.” I mean you’ve got full employment in the States. You can’t send these people home because the economy will rupture and our businesses will suffer. Talk to the Republicans in the language they know and if they start putting up trade barriers, business needs to shout and say, “this is going to backfire on the American public.” They’re going to be upset when they have to pay much higher prices for their goods, and inflation is going to go up, and it’s going to cost people more money.
So we just, issue by issue by issue, we’ve got to fight back.
FC:One thing [the incoming adminstration] have suggested is that they want to continue the course of encouraging more relationships with the private sector when it comes to space, especially low-orbit travel, things like that. How do you feel that this administration is going to be for innovators and for innovative business?
RB:That’s the one area that I’m not too worried about because it’s old-fashioned republicanism to look after, to encourage entrepreneurialism and business. I think it’s more some of the social things—that you’ve got a vice president who doesn’t believe in evolution [Editor’s note: Pence has referred to evolution as a “theory.”] You’ve got a vice president who I think believes that if somebody is gay they can be given electric shock treatment to make them not gay…straight. (Editor’s note: Pence has never publicly advocated for electric shock gay conversion treatments). It’s the sort of beliefs that in Saudi Arabia you might find, but to find in a civilized western country is a bit terrifying.
But when it comes to, you know, business and innovation, I’m sure that’s about the one area where we can feel comfortable that they will encourage, if anything too much.
I think the people like myself and others in the 1%, we should most likely be paying more taxes, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to do anything about that. And you wonder how all these people who voted for Trump are going to benefit if the working-class man has to pay more than their fair share on the tax front. Ultimately, I think it might backfire on Trump, but we’ll see.
FC:I feel like lately I’ve been like up in a balloon looking down at the earth, watching humanity–
RB:Destroy itself [laughs].
FC:Just act out humanity’s drama, you know? You talked a bit about people coming together and working together at the beginning of this conversation. How does that happen when we’ve got these dueling forces of nationalism and these very counter attitudes of the Valley or of business that are very in opposition with each other?
RB:It’s completely bizarre how it’s got here. It’s obvious there is a swath of America that is not happy and feels like they need change and they’re not quite sure, I think, what kind of change. I don’t think a lot of them would necessarily agree with a lot of Trump’s more extreme policies, but they just want to change. You know, anybody who wasn’t a politician they most likely would have voted for. It’s a pity the choice they had was somebody that espouses so many pretty horrible things. My only hope is that he doesn’t mean them, that he said them to get elected and that some sense will prevail, and therefore we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for three or four months. He’s got to appoint the right people around him. I’m a bit worried about some of the names that are being suggested, they are definitely not the right people.
FC:You’ve taken your own blows over the years from the media, as has Trump, but as two people who are on somewhat equal footing in the world and in stature or whatever, how do you feel about the way he has spoken about the media recently? Even last night, he talked about how [he believes] the media has basically been manipulating people into protesting against him.
RB:If you compare the media to a sword, he’s lived by the sword and he should not criticize it when it criticizes him, when it turns against him. His presidency is thanks to the media completely. They spent an inordinate amount of time building him up and giving him more than his fair share than he deserved. I think we saw the real Trump with that tweet last night. And I’m sure that was him that wrote it, and then we saw that his PR people this morning tried to sort of put out a tweet which showed a president-type of Trump. [Editor’s note: we don’t know who wrote which tweets on Trump’s account] The sad thing is that last night’s tweet was more likely the real Trump and we just have to hope that he can find some good advisors and become the man that could become a great surprise to us all and become a great president, so we’ll all say, “my God, were we really that scared about him? What were we worried about?” Would be lovely if that could happen. We’ll see.
FC:You said earlier this week something about how the American psyche has been damaged in some way. I think whether you are pro or against Trump, you probably feel that way. It’s been a very traumatic year. There are so many issues–from nationalism to radical Islam to police brutality–there’s so much going on here on the ground, people are really worried about jobs and everything. How do you inspire people to look to the sky, to look beyond all of this and still be inspired to, you know, build a spacecraft that you and I can go up in? How do you do that under these circumstances?
RB:Look, it’s not easy because the leader of a company, everything sort of comes from the people at the top, the whole mood of the company.
And now we’ve got the leader of the nation there and we want them to be inspirational, and we just have to pray [laughs] they become inspirational. But I suspect President Obama, who is very popular with his wonderful wife, I think he was thinking of going off and doing his charitable foundation and so on. I think a lot of people will urge him to be the voice of reason that the country needs, although he’s stepped down. America needs a strong opposition leader and somebody of his caliber to carry on talking sense.
And I suspect there are going to be quite a few Republicans also, a lot of Republicans who do believe the scientific fact that the world is heating up, not many but enough most likely to swing the balance on some of these issues. If [Trump] goes ahead and rips up COP 21, the Paris Treaty, I hope there will be enough Republicans to revolt against that. Sorry–I’m going off on a bit of a tangent.
But I think, as President Obama said, the sun will come up tomorrow, and you know, we just need to be positive as we can. We can be angry for a while but then we need to get out and protest if some of these worst fears become true. I remember protesting against the Vietnam war, the protest was so great that that largely brought that war to an end, it was a ghastly war. We should have protested more against the Iraq war. But if any of these worst fears come into being, we need to see, globally, the biggest demonstrations ever, and I’ll be definitely happy to come and join in on them and rally as many people as we can because some of these worst ideas that Trump and his people around him are espousing need to be stopped.
FC:On the topic of leadership, you have also had to—even in the past few years—had to lead through very difficult circumstances. You lost a pilot in this [test] mission to take us take us into space. How do you lead through an event like that, for example, how do you lead a company when something that traumatic happens?
RB:You have to confront it. You have to be there. You have to talk to all your people. You have to listen to your people. If they want to go forward, you then have to inspire them again, motivate them, and with that particular accident I think the team came out the stronger after it and rallied around together, our astronauts rallied around together.
The new space ship is now going under its test, still risky at this stage. And that’s what brave test pilots are for and then, hopefully, at the end of the day we’ll be successful and have created something really worth while, really special. And we can do it in the memory of the person who lost their life doing it, who was a brave test pilot. And test pilots are very, very brave people. When you look at the statistics of—the trouble is, with testing things like spaceships or even new airplanes, there are some things you can only test in the air, and you don’t know that something’s going to go wrong until it goes wrong. So like the G650, which is the most successful new commercial private plane, it crashed and killed all pilots on its flight. So I’m afraid that’s what test pilots are there do, make sure that it’s them that die and not members of the public later on.