By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
Sir Richard Branson famously has fun with his immense wealth. But he also feels that great wealth brings great responsibility. He talks to the Magazine about the business of philanthropy.
How does it feel to go to an impoverished part of Africa when you're a multi-millionaire?
"Anyone would feel an enormous sense of guilt going to one of these places - and if you're in a position to do something about it you've got to make an effort," says Sir Richard Branson.
The Virgin boss, who has turned entrepreneurialism into a boy's-own adventure, is increasingly engaged in the serious business of supporting health and education projects in Africa.
And, speaking at his west London home, he spells out the type of extreme hardship caused by HIV and Aids that puts his own financial success into perspective.
"If you go to a hospital in South Africa today, or almost anywhere in Africa, you'll find they're not hospitals, they're places people go to die.
"Almost all of those people will come out of there in a box. There are literally waiting rooms where people with HIV/Aids are waiting for an empty bed, where someone has died the night before, where they then go to die.
Orphaned by Aids in Uganda
"So it goes on - and you know that for 30 cents a day for anti-retroviral drugs they could live."
Such sights create an irresistible sense of obligation, he says, and the responsibility to apply the "necessary evil of capitalism" to best advantage.
"With extreme wealth comes extreme responsibility. And the responsibility for me is to invest in creating new businesses, create jobs, employ people, and to put money aside to tackle issues where we can make a difference."
One way in which he hopes to do this is to set up a health clinic which will serve a 100,000-strong community, aiming to reduce premature deaths from HIV/Aids from 30,000 to less than 1,000.
But in the longer term Sir Richard has been investing in education - including supporting the ground-breaking CIDA university in Johannesburg, South Africa, which provides affordable higher education for poor black youngsters.
This includes the Branson School of Entrepreneurship, which seeks to promote business skills and entrepreneurial flair among students, with the belief that developing successful companies is the way to spread prosperity within South Africa.
The latest effort to extend its reach is the development of a "university in a box", which will take higher education to young people in outlying rural areas who are unable to attend campus-based courses.
There are other projects in the pipeline, says Sir Richard. A few weeks ago he held a meeting in California to plan an African version of the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia.
"We're getting Wikipedia to create an education site for Africa - we want to create free education on the internet. An African living in South Africa might know nothing about Ethiopia or Nigeria."
Another idea in development is to create a rapid-response centre to co-ordinate humanitarian assistance in Africa. This would address immediate problems, such as natural disasters, but would also act as a point of exchange for good practice in health, education and social policy.
As examples, he says this could be practical matters such as sourcing mosquito nets at the best price or strategies for reducing the likelihood of pregnant mothers passing HIV to their babies.
The educational projects in Africa have been met with an enthusiasm that puts to shame the complacency in the UK, he says: "Students will hitch for a thousand miles to get to college."
But in teaching young people about entrepreneurship, there has to be an accompanying message of social responsibility, he says.
Being successful is not about dog-eat-dog selfishness - he believes the tough-guy approach typified by the hit TV show The Apprentice is out-dated.
"A generation ago, the image was that you had to trample everyone else down to succeed - but I don't believe that makes good business sense.
"If you're the kind of person that jumps down the throat of people, you're not going to be successful."
The downside of being the poster boy of entrepreneurialism is that everyone with a good idea - and some very bad ones - wants to pitch their business plans.
"I'm pitched at non-stop. But I would have done the same myself." And this, he says, is the reason for his perma-smile - the result of his longstanding efforts to look politely interested.
At close-quarters, he is as relaxed, tanned and tireless as his public image might suggest. When his mobile goes off, the ring tone sounds almost like classical music, but not quite - which seems in keeping with his image.
And despite his rocket-boy, planes and champagne image, he talks about the early Virgin days when there was so little cash that he hid behind a chair, pretending not to be in, when there were demands for unpaid parking fines.
But if being broke had its problems, now being so famously wealthy raises its own different set of questions.
Below is a selection of your comments.
It's great to see someone with fame and wealth recognise the responsibility that we all have to those people less fortunate than we are. People like Richard Branson and Bill Gates recognise their responsibility and are prepared to use their fame and wealth to help poorer people - but we must remember that everyone has a responsibility to stand-up for and help people, whoever we are and however much money we have.
I think this guy is up to something good. Let's give him a chance to prove his worth. And from there we can draw our conclusion. He has the buck and the heart and Africa needs a dozen kind of these guys. The most important thing Africa needs is good health and education to forge ahead and any guy with those ideas is most welcome. Bravo Sir Branson.
Aaron Irone Phiri, Lusaka Zambia.
Nice to hear such 'down to earth' comments and concerns in contrast to the 'hot air' from politicians and former pop stars. At least Branson practices what he preaches.
Paul Harwood, Maidstone, Kent
I have a lot of time for Sir Richard Branson. He's probably about the only business person worthy of the "Sir" title and is someone to aspire to. My only hope that his latest, and worthy, venture is not another self-promoting gimmick.
I happened to be filming Richard once when a random person came up to him and asked him for a job... most people in his position would just ignore them or make some comment and get on with what they were doing.... Not him, he stopped what he was doing, gave the woman the name and number of his PA.... and told her to drop a cv in and he would personally look at it.
I can remember the Virgin Crisis Tours which must have been one of Richard Branson's earliest endeavours. He had a stable of bands that he promoted. The venue in Liverpool was the 'old' Liverpool Stadium and about once a month about four or five bands eg Supertramp, Ducks Delux, Brinsley Schwartz (Nick Lowe), Gong, Global Village Trucking Company, Hatfield and the North, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (RIP Al) to name but a few would keep the crowd rocking from 4pm to 10pm on a Saturday for 50p.
Phil, Newcastle u Lyme.
The self-starting, entrepreneurial programmes free of government control and foreign-aid dependency which Richard Branson is promoting are clearly a great way to improve Africa and he should be applauded for his commitment to them. For those who claim that he should give more of his personal fortune: billions have been given to Africa already over the last three decades with zero effect. What is much more valuable is the donation of time and expertise to transferring tangible business skills to Africa and these will serve Africa much better in the long run.
Neil Campbell, London
All I can say is well done to Sir Richard and his ilk. Entrepreneurialism with a social conscience and agenda brings about a healthy, wealthy and wise society. Let us all in our own ways, whether small or large follow suit.
Darry Abrahams, Ascot
Whatever Sir Richard's motives the man has put himself in the firing line to be sniped at, a real damned if you do and damned if you don't situation. He is not attempting to be a saviour, as some people will no doubt read it, but merely trying to do what he can to improve the quality of life in these areas and give these people a chance in life.
John Fisher, Ipswich, Suffolk
I would like to say I don't trust Branson. How much of his money has actually spent on these projects?
Why do some people have to be so cynical and jealous in their responses to this? It clouds a few of the arguments on this page. Richard Branson has strived to get where he is and good on him for spending his time and money in this way. He's worked hard, he's worked smart and he has never taken the "poor me" attitude, I think he has a lot to teach people in this country let alone developing ones!
Always good to read these stories about wealthy individuals with a compassionate interest to do good in the world. The Bransons and Gates are often unfairly maligned, but they follow in an honourable tradition of philanthropists -- the new aristocracy -- who have brought practical benefits to developing and developed societies.
John Davis, US/UK
Fantastic - great to hear that Sir Richard has a real social conscience as well as a brilliant entreprenurial mind. He's doing what we would all like to think we'd do if we won the lottery; the difference is, he has the money and he's walking the walk, not just talking the talk.
Some people are impossible to please, why should he give all his money away. He earned it fair and square. What he is doing is very admirable and I can see absolutely no reason why anyone should be complaining about it.
Gavin Mannion, JHB, South Africa
I have worked hard all my life and yet I currently live in a grotty small single rented room. I am forced by the way of the modern world to have things I don't want such as a mobile phone (Virgin) and to pay overpriced rail fares (Virgin) so I can get to work each day and see my family sometimes. I don't have enough money to have a decent quality of life...but Branson et al are happy to grab what little money I have. Their grabbing hands prevent me from being able to progress in life and save money for a house etc. Perhaps it makes them feel a bit better about themselves by throwing their loose change at charities, but if they genuinely cared they would surely give all their money away and come and live at my level.
Morgan Wolf, Winchester
I would like to hear what Mr Branson would say to the above comments (if only his PR lot would let him reply) and no, it won't harm you to voice your true feelings... I for one would be interested.
I think Sir Richard has the balance exactly right. The Apprentice is a TV show for the yuppie mentality that thrived on in the 1980s, I would like to think we have come a long way since then. I am very pleased he has spoken out - it would be fascinating if Sir Alan Sugar would let his views be know as well.
Well done Sir Richard. Your 21st Century management style makes Sir Alan's belligerence and bravado look rather daft...
Chris Shaw, Huddersfield
I couldn't agree more with the comments about The Apprentice. I enjoy watching it as much as the next person, but its desperately unrepresentative of modern successful business practice.
Why did you spoil a perfectly good and interesting article with a picture of Sugar? Have you absolutely no taste at all?
Philip Thomas, Woking
There's nothing socially good about telling the African continent that the answer to their problems is capitialism, rather than educating in how that and imperialism have left them where they are. There's nothing good in that at all. And is Branson going to be giving all income beyond a typical worker's wage away? People are so easily pleased.
Patrick Gannon, Manchester
I have great respect for Richard, however, I do believe that the rich in this world could do a lot more good with their money than buy fast cars. Remember for every "rich person" there is a million very "poor people".
Leslie Pendlebury-Bowe, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent
It is a shame that Sir Richard could not share his guilt with the African dictators who are as wealthy (if not more) than he is. I don't suppose we should condemn western entrepreneurs for not supporting Africa without condemning African dictatorships?
Sir Richard's virtuous philanthropy probably makes him happier than anything else he does.The only way to seek happiness in life is to pursue virtue, as was already known to the ancient Greeks 2,500 years ago. We should all be doing it.
Philanthropy is fine, but you don't have to go abroad to find people living in poverty. There are too many here.
A lot of prominent capitalists and politicians don't warm to Richard Branson for this very reason. He is successful, but knows the limits of capitalism and doesn't blindly go along with the idea that capitalism can be applied to every last bit of human life. Market economies are great, but for 80 years they have failed the third world. You would never see an 80 year recession in the western world.
Steve Glenister, Brighton
I think this sort of attitude towards the responsibility of great wealth is the right one. I hope Mr. Branson is 100% genuine with it. I must admit that I would be more convinced of this 'guilt' if all profits from his businesses were now aimed at good causes. I expect there are sufficient zeros in the Branson bank account to keep the next few generations of the family in luxury.
Steven Bainbridge, Suffolk
I think it is a great idea he is helping but I still don't think the wealthier people do enough with their money! I am certainly not rich myself but the guilt would kill me if I was and I didnt do anything to help Africa.
Natalie Mulholland, Greenock