Vancouver’s most elite and curious packed the Convention Centre in record numbers Friday for a Board of Trade luncheon featuring Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson.
The $200-a-plate Free The Children fundraiser served up traditional shepherd’s pie and treacle pudding — Branson’s favourites — to 1,400 seated guests before SFU chancellor Carole Taylor took the stage to prod the world-famous billionaire for morsels of wisdom.
“A business is simply you coming up with an idea to make a difference in other people’s lives,” Branson told the rapt crowd, referring to the philanthropic philosophy he expounds in his 2011 book, Screw Business as Usual.
“If you can create something that’s going to make a big difference in other people’s lives, then hopefully at the end of the year you’ll be able to pay the bills, and it will come in the way it goes out.”
When asked about his love affair with Africa, he told a touching story about having dinner in a rural village and being approached by one of its elders.
“She just whispered near the end of the evening that, ‘It’s incredibly embarrassing to ask this, but if I could get $300 to buy a sewing machine, with that sewing machine I could employ five people, and I’d be able to get you that $300 back.’”
Branson said he doesn’t usually carry much cash but did happen to have $300 in his pocket that day, so he gave it to her without expecting to ever see it again.
“I was back four months later and four beautiful girls came up to me with this beautiful robe, which they hung over my shoulders, and the $300, which they gave me back, and I asked where (the woman) was, and she was down at the marketplace selling her goods.”
It wasn’t all wholesome moralizing. Branson also scored big laughs with off-colour anecdotes about everything from the romantic pursuits of his younger days, to proctology exams, to sticking it to his competition in the early days of launching Virgin Airlines.
Branson’s tidings of goodwill continued later in the afternoon. After the luncheon he dropped in on a brand new theatre venue on the Downtown Eastside to announce more than $50,000 in grants for the Broadway Youth Resource Centre and the Project Limelight Society, a theatre development charity for at-risk youth.
“Here you’ve got a project where wonderful women are taking kids who maybe had difficult, difficult times, and they’re going to teach them how to act and sing,” he said. He was flanked by Mayor Gregor Robinson, and actor Cory Monteith, a B.C. native who was once a troubled, drug-addicted youth but with some coaching and encouragement rose to become the star of the hit TV show Glee.
The $25,000 grant for the Broadway Youth Resource Centre, which offers peer counselling and housing services for youth ages 12 to 24, will fund the creation of a resource room with a range of support services.
The Project Limelight Society will use its $26,550 grant to support year-round performing arts programs, theatre workshops, and a food security program.
Branson wraps up his short stint in Vancouver on Saturday, but will return in October to give a speech at the Surrey Economic Summit.