As Richard Branson’s right-hand-woman Jean travels a lot and I wasn’t able to connect with her directly for this interview. Instead I sent over some questions by email (old skool!), which she very kindly answered on one of her many long visits to the airport departure lounge… Here’s what she had to say about her journey to where she is now and surviving as a small business today:
WTC: How did you start out in business? What’s been your driving force?
JEAN: My first job was with a telecommunications company in the US and then from there I had the wonderful privilege of working in a number of emerging markets to help set up mobile phone companies. The job that changed my life was when I left the corporate sector for a bit and became a VISTA volunteer (a bit like the domestic Peace Corp in the US) and landed in a homeless centre for teenagers in centre city Chicago. It was there that I realised how broken our siloed government, business and social sector systems were as I watched young people as young as twelve try and survive in the streets.
WTC: Why was Virgin Unite created and how did you come to be involved?
JEAN: In the late 90s, I was asked by the Virgin Group to come on board to help them set up a mobile phone company in Australia. After four years of getting the business off the ground, I decided I needed to follow my passion about changing the way the business, social and government sectors work together to make the world a far better place. Fortunately, Richard was also looking at starting up a foundation for the Virgin Group. So I put a plan together, pitched the idea to him and we were off! Virgin Unite was then created through hours of discussions with the Virgin Staff across the world. We decided we didn’t want to set up a normal corporate foundation, but instead create a catalytic engine that would help drive business as a force for good within and outside of Virgin. Today we’ve got a great team doing just that and helping to incubate new approaches to global leadership; such as the Elders, The Carbon War and the B Team. We’re also building a wonderful community of people who never accept the unacceptable. I could not have ever dreamt of a better job!
WTC: Is there anything small, cash-strapped start-ups can do on their own to drive social change in business? What kinds of useful information and advice can small businesses find on the Virgin Unite site?
JEAN: Every business can make a difference. Putting people and planet alongside profit at the core of your business is no longer a nice to have, it is something that will ensure your business survives. Even if this is something as simple as making sure you delight your own people and customers to make their lives better, through to having a larger purpose to change the world. What a different world we would live in if every business thought about what is best for people and planet in all they do. At Virgin Unite we’ve worked with partners to create eight steps for transformation to help guide a business on how they can make a difference in the world. We’ve also gathered hundreds of stories of businesses that area already doing great stuff to inspire all of us. You can check them out at www.virginunite.com. Happy screwing business as usual!
WTC: In these tough economic times when banks seem reluctant to lend, what do you think about the crowd-funding culture? (kickstarter etc.)
JEAN: I love the idea of crowd funding as it furthers the notion of community and really leverages the wonderful digital tools that are now available. As we move more rapidly to a “global village” crowd funding and other social media tools are turning upside down our notion of community and allowing us to bring good ideas to scale much more rapidly. In this new era of radical transparency, brands and companies are no longer owned by marketing and central management teams, they are owned by people. Companies who want to thrive need to embrace this new paradigm and start treating customers as part of their community rather than just as numbers in a spread sheet. Crowdsourcing takes this one step further and allows people to have financial ownership as well.
WTC: As a very successful women in business, any tips on how to survive the rat race?
JEAN: Stay true to your feminine values. Far too often as females we think we need to de-emphasise values like; transparency, collaboration and a strong focus on people in order to survive in a competitive male world. The great news is that these feminine values are starting to become more and more important in this new world. Do what you love. Don’t compromise and stay on a path that is true to your dreams. So many times people, especially females, fear taking a career diversion to do something different. These twists and turns are often the turning points in your life that give you a much wider perspective on your purpose. For example, when I left the corporate sector to become a VISTA volunteer everyone made me feel as if I was stepping off a cliff and that I could never get back on the corporate ladder. That year radically changed my life and paved the way to my current role – and was one of the best years of my life! Avoid the rat race. You don’t need to climb the corporate ladder and get involved in the dreariness of politics. Constantly do what you think is the right thing to do to make other people’s lives better and success will come.
WTC: You must have done a lot of travelling with your work. How do you keep organised?
JEAN: My blackberry and my ability to get on-line anywhere in the world keep me organised and as stress free as possible (with some help from my wonderful assistant, Sue Hale!). My office is on planes, in airports, meeting rooms and at home, so constant access to cloud services is critical for me.
WTC: What would you say is the most important thing for small businesses to understand/realise about the Internet today?
JEAN: The most important thing for small businesses to realise is that their brand is owned by people all over the world. Social media has democratised power. Every small business needs to understand the evolution of social media and the internet to effectively build a community. These tools give us the wonderful opportunity to have two way conversations with our customers and our staff – and basically make them more of a family. Small businesses (actually all size businesses) need to truly embrace and understand the power of listening that the internet offers, which will transform the way they build their businesses.
WTC: If you could go back and tell yourself one thing you know now when you were just starting out, what would it be?
JEAN: Less powerpoint presentations and more conversations. The beauty of life lies in our human connections and so often in business we lose this and begin to take ourselves far too seriously. So if I could go back in time, I would tear up the powerpoints and spread sheets and focus far more on stories, laughter and compassion.