In this exclusive interview, Sir Richard Branson, co-founder of The B Team, founder of the Virgin Group, and philanthropist, makes the case for why business leaders need to transform our economic system and the future.
COVID-19 has adversely impacted nearly every business around the world, including our own, and there will be challenges for many for some time to come. At the same time, the pandemic has shown there is more that unites us than divides us. If we put our heads together, we can come up with brilliant solutions to our biggest problems.
The pandemic has shown us the need for an economy that doesn’t leave anybody behind. We face so many challenges: the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity; rising inequality alongside diminishing trust in public institutions; new technologies and their impact on privacy; mass migration, civil unrest and poor economic opportunity; democratic backsliding, nativism, xenophobia ... the list goes on and on.
It is tempting to compartmentalize and look the other way. But business as usual is no longer an option. As crises intersect and reinforce one another, leaders across business, government, civil society, and the philanthropic community must work together to advance collaborative, global solutions. Ever the optimist, I am confident we can and will.
It’s not all doom and gloom. There is an enormous amount of economic opportunity to be seized. If we lead with bold action and courageous collaboration, together we can contribute in meaningful ways to improve people’s lives.
That was part of my reason for founding The B Team. We need to orient business toward a broader bottom line that values people and the planet alongside profit.
People everywhere deserve the opportunity to lead their lives with dignity and a sense of security. All people — not just the few — must benefit from economic growth. The global public demands it. The well-being of future generations and the health of our planet depend on it. And business has the power to help drive it. That’s why, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, The B Team’s overarching mission is to help build a more inclusive economy by 2030.
An inclusive economy will bring a new definition of success in business. It will encourage long-term solutions in finance and investment and create new norms around a broader bottom line. Companies and markets will measure and report on what matters. Company results will need to reflect all elements that drive an inclusive economy, which means taking account of environmental, social, and governance metrics alongside financial results.
The B Team Leaders have helped demonstrate the feasibility and necessity of holistic leadership, leading to new norms and standards. Businesses are taking bold steps to adopt principles of inclusive growth, from Danone pioneering the “Entreprise à Mission” model to align its social and environmental objectives with its purpose; to Natura &Co’s 2030 “Commitment to Life”; to the United Nation’s Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance that Allianz, PensionDanmark and others have joined.
There are limits to voluntary business action, however, and a crisis of conformity continues to plague leadership and the private sector at large. We cannot drive the greatest transformation of our lifetime toward a more inclusive and sustainable economy without closing gender, generational, and racial gaps in leadership. And we won’t secure an inclusive economic future until we address existing norms, policies, and incentive structures that are unfit to support bold thinking and action by business leaders.
Inequality is now a major risk and challenge to business and government alike. In the current pandemic, how can business help address challenges such as vaccine inequality? What are the best ways for the private and public sector to collaborate on solutions?
COVID-19 has exposed enormous rifts in our willingness and capacity to come together as one human family and tackle global challenges. Vaccine inequality remains a real problem, and the story of governments’ vaccine procurement has shown just how devastating the impact of vaccine nationalism can be. It is also short-sighted, because only a comprehensive, joined-up global response will help us eradicate COVID-19 for good.
But there are also positive stories. Our foundation, Virgin Unite, has worked with a great group of partners to help bring together a donor collective to work with the brilliant Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to support their COVID-19 response. It’s precisely these kinds of public-private partnerships that will help us make progress in tackling global challenges.
Screw it, let’s do it. We don’t have time to wait around for the perfect answer. We’ve got to get out there and make change happen for our children, our grandchildren, and generations to come.
Embrace diversity and inclusion. Wherever you are and wherever you’re headed, make it a priority to achieve equitable representation in leadership. If we all look the same, chances are we all think the same — and the same old thinking is not going to spur the innovation and bold leadership needed to meet this moment. To change how we do business, we must change who is in leadership positions.
The B Team is a group of business and civil society leaders spanning the globe, with a unified purpose: to bring an end to “business as usual.” They share the belief that Plan A (where companies are driven by profit alone) is no longer acceptable. Alongside spearheading change in workplace equality, diversity and inclusion, and climate change, a major focus of The B Team is on improving governance and combating corporate corruption.
A collaborative project that has become the North Star here is the development of Open Ownership, an initiative calling for an end to anonymous companies and the illicit trade they enable, by advocating for the public registration of company ownership.
Bringing transparency to company ownership was one of the first major anti-corruption issues where The B Team set an exemplary pace and showed that the role of business could be catalytic in making a powerful impact.
The B Team brought business to reckoning at a time when it was at a tipping point. Alongside supporting its partners in launching Open Ownership, The B Team undertook diverse outreach work as well as supporting the issue in the B20 forum (the official G20 dialogue forum with the business community).
Through the B20, some of the world’s most prominent business voices spoke out for beneficial ownership transparency, providing reassurance to the global business community that this heralded positive change for business. Such accountability and data accessibility has not presented the cost to business or to IP that many feared. On the contrary: ownership transparency simplifies due diligence, thereby reducing risk in the supply chain — creating a strong case for business.
Four years after the establishment of the Open Ownership project, 109 countries have committed to disclosing beneficial ownership, with 6 million beneficial owners from more than 200 jurisdictions currently in the global register.
The anti-corruption work of The B Team also supported the enactment of the AMLD5 (5th EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive), and the Corporate Transparency Act of January 2021 in the U.S., both of which focus on company ownership transparency.
The overarching message behind the project is that of the golden rule: if companies play fairly, they’ll be treated fairly. The B Team strives toward a global norm where ownership is proudly and publicly acknowledged. As we rapidly accelerate toward Industry 5.0, where business increasingly contributes to societal goals, we need to build the systems that enable resilience and impact. We need to know who is behind the companies that are building our future.
The mission of The B Team hinges on the premise that it’s time to be “10x bolder” in corporate governance. This begins — and ends — in authenticity, transparency and credibility, with business as a force for good rather than a conduit for profit regardless of human cost.
“Our current economic model is broken. But it did not break itself. And it will not repair itself. … We can build a new one that is sustainable, trusted, and strong. The public is calling for it. Future generations depend on it.” — The B Team
Because shell companies are involved in all kinds of illicit financial flows, they become the getaway vehicles for corruption, enabling international fraud, tax evasion, trafficking, even modern slavery. The B Team engaged with this because it’s something business leadership can change. Anonymous companies are not needed for good business; legitimate businesses don’t hide who owns them and who has an interest. You should know who you work with; you should be proud of your links to a company.