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Richard Branson has a new prescription for capitalism. (Andrew Burton/Reuters/Andrew Burton/Reuters)
Richard Branson has a new prescription for capitalism. (Andrew Burton/Reuters/Andrew Burton/Reuters)

Branson's call: A new role for capitalism Add to ...

Screw Business as Usual

By Richard Branson

(Portfolio, 372 pages, $31)

*****

It’s called Capitalism 24902. And no, it’s not a modern spinoff of Beverley Hills 90210. But Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group PLC, hopes it might some day become just as popular.

For the British billionaire, it’s an ethos he hopes will spawn a movement to change the face of capitalism and improve the world. His project takes its name from the circumference of the world – 24,902 miles. Attaching that number to our economic system is meant to emphasize that every business person has the responsibility for taking care of the people and planet that make up our global village.

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“It means reinventing how we live in the world to create a far more balanced, healthy, and peaceful place,” Sir Richard writes in Screw Business as Usual.

He wants business people to break from the mindset and practices of the past – abandoning business as usual, and taking some unusual paths that can improve the world while still being consistent with their entrepreneurial, money-making instincts.

His approach is not simply about not polluting – as many business people are trying to do – but of going further and undoing the pollution of the past couple of centuries, restoring harmony with nature. It’s about helping those less fortunate to earn a living so they can live in dignity, with adequate food, shelter and medical care. It’s about avoiding the wars that he predicts will come as people fight over land, food, water, and fuel in an age of depleting resources.

It sounds like the words – the ravings – of a dreamer, perhaps. But Richard Branson is, above all, a dreamer. At 16, dyslexic and without money or publishing experience, he started a magazine, Student, to reach his age group and capture the political-social-economic-musical energy of the 1960s.

Now 61, Sir Richard (who was knighted in 1999 for his business acumen) oversees an empire of more than 200 companies, most built from instinct rather than bureaucratic calculation: He often responds to a tantalizing idea with his pet phrase, “Screw it, let’s just do it.”

A bundle of his time now goes into good works, supporting ventures that fit Capitalism 24902. The vehicle may be any of his companies – he encourages employees to come up with humanitarian ventures that can be undertaken by their companies – but the primary engine is his not-for-profit Virgin Unite foundation, which looks for entrepreneurial solutions to societal issues.

“I run Virgin Unite just as I would any other business, making sure that our investments have the best possible social and environmental return. I also feel strongly that it’s not just about the money – in fact, often money is the least important bit. It’s about people using their skills and figuring out ways to use the assets of their business to drive not only profits but a better world,” he says.

His book brims with examples of Virgin Unite enterprises. The Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship in South Africa, for example, helps young South Africans to turn their economic ideas into reality. Of course, foundations run by successful capitalists are not new, even if today’s wealthy believe they are taking a more businesslike approach. And many of the examples in the book are not-for-profit ventures, which also are not new.

But Sir Richard makes note of some other companies getting into the social-justice fray, such as the Paul Newman food line, which began under the motto of “Shameless exploitation for the common good” and has grown to more than 100 products with all the profits going to charity; and Montreal native Jeffrey Skoll’s Participant Media, whose movies such as An Inconvenient Truth, Fast Food Nation, and Darfur Now tackle important issues for a wide audience.

The book is like an extended, sometimes dizzying, monologue by Sir Richard, with lots of wonderful examples of social energy that he lovingly shares with readers. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the ventures are philanthropic, non-profit, social enterprise or good-spirited capitalism, but maybe that’s beside the point. Nor does he offer a how-to manual for making Capitalism 24902 operational.

For Sir Richard, what matters is stimulating change – bringing people and ideas together, with business people worrying less about profit and more about redressing social and environmental ills.

He quotes Ben Cohen, co-founder of the iconic ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, at a leadership gathering hosted by Virgin Unite: “When business starts using its voice for the benefit of the country as a whole, not just its narrow self-interest, it can really be the force that can make the changes that need to be made.”

Postscript

Charlotte Beers, former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, provides a blueprint for women who are seeking leadership positions in I’d Rather Be in Charge (Vanguard Press, 242 pages, $29.00).

If you serve on the board of a not-for-profit organization, you might find some guidance from the third edition of The Nonprofit Board Answer Book (Jossey Bass, 363 pages, $51.95), put together by BoardSource, which works to provide excellence in such boards.

Illinois-based consultant Matt Anderson has built his business through referrals; he shares his advice in Fearless Referrals (McGraw-Hill, 232 pages, $21.95).

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