If you look at the ECG recordings of a person you will see steep crests, frightening troughs, and sudden spikes, both upwards and downwards. There cannot be a better metaphor for journey of human life than these patterns on the monitor.
We all go though highs and lows in our lives, sometimes we are extremely ecstatic and sometimes we feel overwhelmingly miserable. But what matters is that just like the ECG graph, the human life continues to prevail nevertheless. The journey of 67-year-old Sir Richard Branson, an English business magnate, investor and philanthropist, is no different.
Born with limitation
Richard comes from an affluent family. His grandfather was a distinguished judge during the late 1800s while his father was a successful barrister. His mother became one of the first women to become a flight attendant in England.
However, influential titles and luxury did not ensure a smooth childhood for Richard. As a toddler, he had poor motor coordination which also impaired his speech. More often than not it was impossible to decipher what he was saying.
He was diagnosed with myopia and dyslexia, a condition in which a person is unable to read or write properly throughout their life. Despite these conditions, his parents pushed him and tried their best to groom him like any other child.
As a family tradition, Richard was sent to a boarding school called Scaitcliffe School, in Berkshire. Richard hated it because he always got into trouble and struggled in class. Aged 8, he still could not read and could not make out the letters and numbers on the blackboard. Education became a torture to him and he was often beaten up for poor performance.
However, just like his father, Richard turned out to be extremely good at sports. Richard became the captain of the football, rugby, and cricket teams. He won every race and unintentionally set a new record for the long jump after deciding just to give it a try. The fun lasted until the first injury that Richard received playing football. The doctor told him that he could not play sports for a very long time, and he was back in the classroom hitting rock bottom and being the worst in every subject.
Starting his first business
In 1963, he moved to Stowe school, where he met the widely-read Jonathan Holland-Gems, who helped him develop a passion for journalism and newspapers. Jonathan Holland-Gems and Richard were put off by the amounts of pointless rules and regulations at Stowe School.
There cannot be a better metaphor for journey of human life than ECG patterns on the monitor.
There were compulsory Sunday church attendances, there was the Combined Cadet Force where boys dressed up as soldiers and marched around the school with rifles, and there was the ancient practice of fagging (equivalent to ragging in India). In 1966, the pair came up with several ideas on how to improve the school.
They started a magazine named Student and promptly got to work on writing up all the possible contributors and advertisers. Richard focused on sending out hundreds of letters and placing calls to find advertisers willing to commit to Student. The commitment paid off when they received the first hard copy of Student and a £250 cheque for advertising. They even got Gerald Scarfe, an English cartoonist famous for his work with the Sunday Times, The New Yorker, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, to draw them a cartoon and be interviewed.
Richard realized that he wasn’t going anywhere with his academics and finally left Stowe School when he was almost seventeen, after cheating on the final history test.
The headmaster’s parting words were “Congratulations, Branson. I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionaire.”
The Student magazine became a way to give young people a voice and challenge the perceptions of youth culture. Readers were intellectually absorbed into a variety of topics including music, pop culture, the Vietnam and Biafra wars, and other various issues still unaddressed and relevant today. The magazine expanded with several prominent people giving interviews like Mick Jagger and John Lenon.
Moving into music
At the same time, Richard noticed one recurring detail that was a huge part of every Student gathering – music. The revolutionary dreams of young generations changing the world, the politics, the anarchy, all of it fascinated him. What he also noticed is that if people were to choose between buying the new Bob Dylan record and buying food, they would go for Dylan. Richard thought about selling cheap mail-order records through the magazine. To do this, they came up with the name “Virgin”, because they were all virgins when it came to business.
But in 1970, the Student magazine died quietly, as the Virgin Mail Order took its place. In January 1971, Post Office workers went on strike causing the Virgin mail-order business to almost collapse. To save the company, he came up with a physical shop of Virgin. People conceived it as a place where they could socialize and listen to records together, get absorbed into the music they were going to buy. He then created Virgin Records, a record label to promote unknown but talented musical artists. Virgin Records eventually became the world’s largest independent record label.
Taking the aerial route
Branson’s interest was not limited to the music business. By 1983 his empire of over 50 companies generated combined sales of more than $17 million. In 1984, he started his own airline business named Virgin Atlantic. But again, disaster struck in 1992 when his airline business nearly went bankrupt.
To sell his Virgin Records to Thorn-EMI to keep his airline flying. The sale was just below the $1 billion mark, and Branson managed to pay off the bank now owning Virgin Atlantic wholly. Branson won the battle, but lost his beloved music company and felt crushed. From then on, he was always determined to never owe more than he earned.
In 1999, Richard Branson was knighted for his services to entrepreneurship. In 2002, he was named in the BBC’s poll of the “100 Greatest Britons” and in November 2017, Forbes listed Branson’s estimated net worth at Rs 3,320 crore.
Today, Richard controls more than 400 companies in 30 countries. He always challenged himself to go a step further believing that he can not only compete with large enterprises but that he could do their job better.
The repetitive failures never deterred him and today, he is reaping the benefits of his calculated risks that he took over two decades ago. He is truly an inspiration to all those who are born with certain disabilities and gives them hope that it is always possible to achieve big in life, for the sky is the limit.
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