Although I have heard several distinguished persons as part of that recurring series including, Madelyn Albright, Colin Powell, Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Rudy Guiliani and most recently, George Will, Sir Richard was one of the most memorable. Part of the reason for that was the complete confidence of the man. Confidence gained through both success and failures.
He came from a comfortable life with private schooling, made somewhat difficult because of dyslexia. When he was sixteen, he started a newspaper and did quite well with it, using it as a vehicle to popularize songs he was pushing through a fledgling record company. That record company would eventually define the man and his business acumen. A fellow student, working with him suggested that because they were all novices at business a good name might be Virgin Records. And that, as Paul Harvey used to say, is “The rest of the story.”
I’ll skip the “begats” of the Virgin Empire and settle for providing you a link to Wikipedia, should you wish to explore that further. His enterprises are certainly a work-in-progress. As I write this, Virgin America has changed significantly in his stake in the company. While I have yet to read his book, I am sure that the unconventional approach he takes to problem solving and his strong belief that before you start a business you should be trying to solve a problem that is meaningful to you, are keys to “Things They Won’t Teach You in Business School.”
When he spoke to the ADA he had yet to embrace his adventurous side: the search for speed in Formula 1 cars, ships, hot air balloons, and his more recent descent to the bottom of the sea. Space interests him and he has plans to make commercial travel practical. What I heard at the Meeting was his pride in developing Virgin Records, his pride in growing the airline that his friends told him he had no knowledge of, and his confidence that his venture into rail traffic in Great Britain and beyond would be equally as successful.
He disavowed an interest in solving the U.S. rail problem, suggesting that we were not yet at the “trying to solve a problem” phase. I found it interesting that he didn’t confess that many of our rail problems came because we started by using an English model, including the gauge of our tracks, which I am told trace their origins back to the Roman cart paths of Great Britain.
Considering why the ADA chose Sir Richard as a speaker, I think his image: that of a wide-eyed, out-of-the-box thinker who is willing to take responsibility for his own success or failure appeals to the image that the ADA thinks is their representative membership. I am unsure if that is an accurate picture of the present dentist, particularly those coming out of school today; burdened with $250,000 or more debt, seeking security, dependent in many cases on the Corporate World, at the expense of their independence. But, even if inaccurate, it is a nice image and may serve to inspire our dentists to heights otherwise unattainable.
It seems to me that the advertising agency that developed the Dos Equis commercial with “The Most Interesting Man Alive” may have cast the actor in the commercial with an eye to an image set by Sir Richard Branson. There certainly is a resemblance, and I’m sure Sir Richard wouldn’t shy away from the coincidence. I know Jonathan Goldsmith would not.
In my next post I’ll relate a story about Paul Harvey and how he affected my life when I was in college. Stop on by.