As CEO of Virgin Group’s charitable foundation, Jean Oelwang works with Sir Richard Branson to ensure his empire uses business as a force for good.
On the eve of the launch of Sir Richard’s latest book Screw Business As Usual, she spoke to Growing Business about venture philanthropy, the opportunities triggered by adversity and how you too can screw business as usual.
In recent years, we’ve started to hear the term venture philanthropy. What does this mean in a practical sense?
Venture philanthropy for us means how you use your philanthropy in a wise way to start new business-based approaches to issues – such as kick-starting capital to create business models that will help solve social and environmental issues.
There’s a lot of interesting hybrid models between philanthropy and business starting to happen right now.
How does having someone like Sir Richard Branson as a leader affect the way Virgin Unite operates?
I think the first thing it does is it makes people think about people. Richard’s embedded that philosophy at his very core.
Certainly, Virgin Unite is an organisation that’s very fast paced and entrepreneurial. Richard makes sure that he’s measuring us on the metrics that he would run a business – to make sure that every pound he invests is getting the kind of leveraging (from an impact perspective) that he wants.
What other inspirational business leaders influence the foundation’s work?
Anita Roddick, John Bird from The Big Issue, and Ben and Jerry – who are on the Unite board – are really the pioneers in this area.
Some of the new leaders coming up include Jeff Skoll from Participant Films. He’s starting to re-invent the film industry and he’s not only done that but he’s also started The Skoll Foundation, to help support social entrepreneurs all over the world.
Then there are people like Jochen Zeitz from Puma, who announced the first honest balance sheet. He’s spent years quantifying what the value of Puma’s natural resource usage is.
All of those people, whether they’re transforming their existing business, starting a new one, or they’re pioneers, are constant inspirations.
Why do you think that ethical issues should be on the business agenda – especially at the moment when people have got so many other things to worry about?
I think it has to be on the business agenda…With the Wall Street protests, with what’s happening at St Pauls in the UK, you’re starting to see demand from the consumer… so it has to be on the agenda if CEOs want their business to thrive.