Globetrender founder Jenny Southan visits entrepreneur, philanthropist, kitesurfer and space tourist – Richard Branson – at his home on Necker Island where he speaks about billionaire collabs, the power of fun and saving Earth.

What’s special about Necker Island?

“This island was a bit of a love story. I fell madly in love with a lovely lady called Joan when I was twenty eight and I chased her to New York and then managed to persuade her to come away for the weekend. I pretended I wanted to buy an island and stayed here for the weekend. They laid on tickets so we could afford to come down. They also laid on a helicopter, and we saw this island from above and fell in love with it. It’s now 48 years later, and she’s the grandmother and mother of all our children. So we’ve been very lucky. It’s worked out – it’s been a magical, magical place.Necker Island“The island’s also a place that we’ve managed to create some wonderful organisations. All sorts of people come here. About two or three months of the year we brainstorm some of the biggest issues in the world. One of the most exciting projects to have come out of the island was something called Audacious Ideas, which was conceived on a Hobie Cat with my kids and Jean Oelwang who runs our [Virgin Unite] foundation between here and Moskito.

“We thought why don’t we bring the wealthiest people together in the world? And then why don’t we spend a year working on the six most audacious things that you’ve been seeing in the world. And help them invest in things that are really going to make a difference in the world. This has actually been going now for about 12 years. Every three- or four-day get-together raises about US$1 billion dollars for six projects. So that kind of money – US$200 million per project – can really sort out blindness in a number of countries, or all sorts of different problems.

The Elders Temple, Necker Island © Jenny Southan

The Elders Temple, Necker Island

The Elders were largely born here, which [Nelson] Mandela used to run, and then Kofi Annan took over and now it is run by Mary Robinson [the first female president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights]. Another organisation that came out of the island was the B Team so these business leaders and ex-leaders of their countries could come together. They were all together at the Paris Climate talks and they try to intervene in conflicts.” Richard Branson photo in the Elders Temple, Necker Island

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What can the wider luxury travel industry learn from you in terms of ‘force for good tourism’?

“We have something which we use at Virgin and have done for many years. So when, when a new employee comes we’ll basically say draw a circle around yourself. Don’t worry about other people. Just make sure that you get the person within that circle fit, healthy and joyful – being fit and healthy is absolutely critical, both mentally and physically.

Beach gym, Necker Island © Jenny Southan

Beach gym, Necker Island

“Only once you’ve managed to do that can you then go on to widen that circle around your friends, your family, your street. Then if you’re a small business, you can widen that circle around your city, your country and then if your business becomes global, the world. As a global group of companies we try to encourage all our properties to draw circles around themselves with the idea that those circles will overlap with our neighbour’s circles.

“At Necker Island we formed a foundation called Unite BVI. So whether it’s including schools, whether it’s working together to deal with hurricanes, or whether it’s giving loans to entrepreneurs. We gave a loan [to a local man called] Gumption who got a glass bottomed boat – he lined us up and said could he show some of our guests around and so it’s been good for everybody. He paid his loan back within a year of having it and, and then that money then, goes to another person. Gumption will mentor that next person, and then when that person pays the money back, so it goes on.

“In the UK we have 3,000 small companies with Virgin Startup Loans. If you go to Ulusaba, a [Virgin Limited Edition] game reserve in Africa, we set up something called ‘Pride and Purpose’. One of the first things we did was when the AIDS nightmare broke out, they weren’t getting antiretroviral drugs. So we set up a big clinic called the Bhubezi clinic. So it’s not just us using our money, we’re also saying to our guests ‘Mahali Mzuri is putting in money to do this, would you like to, you know, contribute as well’? And that’s been very, very effective.

“Many, many years ago my wife  she said to me, ‘Richard, you’ve got all this loose change in your top right-hand drawer of your chest of drawers. It’s just sitting there. Why don’t you take change off people as they get off the planes?’ So we started suggesting to people flying Virgin Atlantic that we take their loose change as they got off the planes. And the great thing about little things like that is that other people like to compete. So British Airways then co-operated. And within a very few years, pretty well every airline was doing it. The airport started doing it, and, you know, enormous amounts of money got raised from it. So competition in charitable giving can also be good.

“With these circles, you then have the overlapping circles. We’re lucky enough to have Larry Page from Google next to us so his circle overlaps our circle. We’re friends, we work together. There’s a guy now on Moskito [a nearby island also owned by Branson with estates owned by various wealthy individuals] and he’s now been very generous. So we can work together on tackling different problems.”

Richard Branson and Jenny Southan

Richard Branson meets Globetrender founder and CEO Jenny Southan

So ethical capitalism is possible then?

“I definitely think that it’s the right thing to do. I think that people who come into properties that are looking after their local community… There’s nothing worse than going out into the local community and you’ve got this little oasis of luxury but everywhere around you is in abject poverty.”

Tell us about some of the sustainability initiatives you are spearheading in the region?

“We’ve set up a company to try and ‘green’ the Caribbean as a whole. We have been putting up windmills in Jamaica and solar panels in different countries. There is a company called BMR Energy that we own. What we’re trying to do with Necker is to set an example by showing it can be done [Necker has three wind turbines and a solar farm]. So we’re, we’re not 100 per cent carbon neutral, but today I suspect we were 100 per cent carbon neutral when we got wind and the sun and we have the batteries to back it up.

“We’re still going to increase our capacities to try and get to 100 per cent performance but the difficulty with going 100 per cent completely is you have to go to about 130 per cent in order to get to 100 per cent, so with that extra it’s actually better to invest that money in a neighbouring island, if that makes sense? With the island next door, we’re actually talking to the government about putting solar panels and wind turbines up on Virgin Gorda so that we can then run a cable to Moskito and other islands.

“I’ve also managed to get the killing of sharks abolished in the BVI.”

Solar farm, Necker Island © Jenny Southan

Solar farm, Necker Island

What are your views on ‘greenwashing’?

“Greenwashing is a real issue and there are definitely some companies that do greenwashing. Equally, there are many companies that good good things and still get knocked. One thing I’ve learned in life is that if you’re trying to do something really positive, you’re much more likely to get knocked than if you are just, you know, just doing something to make money.

“I’ve never got criticism for launching new business to make money. The times you get criticised are when you set up a foundation to try to help the world. By and large, if somebody is trying to do something green, give them the benefit of the doubt – don’t automatically jump down everyone’s throats. They may not be perfect, but we give them the credit for trying.”

How have you learnt the art of work-life balance? Do you have any mentors or has it just been a life process?

“I think we all are our parents. There is an HBO series called Branson, which is basically about my mum, my sisters, my wife, my daughter. We’ve got powerful females in our family. My mum was… we always had to run to keep up with her. She always had an idea… Her brain was a bit like mine – running at full speed. My dad was just a lot of fun…

“I think for a leader it’s really important that you… If you’re not having fun and you take yourself too seriously, it’s very difficult for the people who you’re working for to have fun. I say to the people who run our companies, ‘Look, you know, if you’re going to throw a party, make sure that you’re the first person in the swimming pool fully clothed so that everybody else can know that they’ve got the freedom to let their hair down and have a good time’. And it’s a lot more fun for you as an individual as well, if you don’t take yourself too seriously.

“Have I ever jumped into a pool here full dressed? Have I ever not jumped into a pool here full dressed! Every table on Necker is made for dancing on. I get into big trouble with my children because my grandkids think they have full permission to dance on tables because if Papa can do it they can do it.

“So yeah, there are serious things that get thrown your way on occasions. I just had one today. But you just gotta, you know, confront these things. And I think as long as you know you are leading a good life, you can brush certain things aside.”Working, Necker Island © Jenny Southan

Necker has a reputation for being hedonistic but perhaps that’s the secret to success?

Audacious Ideas actually started on a New Year’s Eve party when I was dancing on the bar with Larry Page from Google [who own’s neighbouring island Eustatia] and Jeff Skoll who started Ebay. We got down and we put our arms around each other and said, ‘Let’s do something audacious next year together’. Then, of course, the next day we’d all had a few too many and we forgot about that conversation until that Hobie Cat ride three months later when I suddenly went ‘Audacious Ideas!’ And suddenly remembered that really good party and those words. So out of good parties can come good things.”

Jenny Southan and Richard Branson play tipsy tennis on Necker Island

Richard Branson plays tipsy tennis on Necker Island with Jenny Southan and other media

What are you working on next?

“Before Covid, 90 per cent of my time was spent on the not-for-profit things I was talking about. And now I can get back to them. We just launched Planetary Guardians, which is monitoring the nine main planetary boundaries of the world – the climate change, the rainforest, the ozone layer and so on. We have scientists for each boundary and every six months they’ll do a talk about is the world going the right direction? Is it not going the right direction? How much has it gone the wrong direction? In the future, we should be able to be very clear how the boundaries are progressing in each of these different sectors.”

What motivates you to keep going?

“I see life as one long, learning process. I never went to university, so every day I’m learning something new. I think that for all of us here, we’re all in positions where we can make a difference. I think it’d be very sad if we ever stopped making a difference. If you get yourself in a position where you can make a difference, you shouldn’t waste that position.

“I want kids to be proud of what we what we’re doing and their kids to be proud of what they’re doing. I think, in the end, you’re down to a family and friends and your reputation is everything. I think what you create, what difference you make, that’s really important.”Necker Island


Necker Island can be rented exclusively through Virgin Limited Edition (for up to 48 guests) from US$140,000 per night night including all meals and drinks, return boat transfers from Beef Island or Virgin Gorda airports and water sports equipment.

Individual stays during select weeks of the year start from US$5,650 per night night with the same inclusions, although minimum lengths of stay may apply. 

Virgin Atlantic flies three times a week between London Heathrow and Antigua with return economy fares starting from £496 per person.