Branson is still reeling from the deadly hurricanes that destroyed his island paradise, and he’s calling for a Marshall Plan to aid sustainable recovery in the Caribbean region. He told me he’s energized by the “climate skeptic in the White House.”
“When you’ve got 99% of scientists saying the world is heating up, the world is heating up. Yes, you’ve got a climate skeptic in the White House but most sane people – most rational people – know that we have a problem. It’s sad to have someone like that in such a position of power and therefore all of us have just to work that much harder to rectify any damage that he does.” Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group
Photo: Richard Branson in conversation with Alison van Diggelen for the BBC World Service. San Francisco, October, 2017. Credit: Lewis van Diggelen
Here’s a transcript of the segment (plus some bonus material), edited for length and clarity:
The BBC’s Gareth Mitchell: First, a futuristic plan to transport us in supersonic tube trains. This is a concept called the Hyperloop and now one of the world’s richest people is investing in it. Virgin Group founder, Richard Branson has just done a deal with one of the companies developing the technology, Hyperloop One. Alison van Diggelen, our reporter in Silicon Valley has been speaking to Richard Branson. The conversation begins with Branson’s other great interest: space. Not just Virgin Galactic, but plans to improve connectivity for citizens back here on earth.
Alison van Diggelen:What makes Virgin Galactic distinct from what Jeff Bezos is doing with Blue Origin and Elon Musk with SpaceX?
Richard Branson: With Virgin Galactic our principal reason for being is to help this beautiful earth that we live on. Space can help people back here on earth…One of the things we’re going to be doing through a company we’re involved in called One Web is put an array of 2,000 satellites around the earth. That’ll be the biggest array of satellites in space and they can help connect the 4 Billion people who’re not connected today. If you’re not connected, and you can’t get Internet or wifi; it’s difficult for you to start businesses and help your children get educated in remote places….
Alison van Diggelen: What’s the timeline on that?
Richard Branson: One Web should be up and running in about 2 ½ years time (first launches are due to start in 2-3 months). Virgin Galactic’s mission is taking people into space, making them astronauts, and giving them an incredible experience and a chance to look back on this beautiful earth. Next year (2018) should be the year for Virgin Galactic, the year that VSS Unity goes into space, the year I go into space and we start taking people into space. Because Virgin Galactic – unlike what Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk’s are doing – is shaped like an airplane, like a spaceship (they’ve gone for big rockets) – it can go into space, it can come back, it can land again and we can grow it. So one day we can do point to point travel…
Photo: Richard Branson shows off Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity. Credit: Jack Brockway
Alison van Diggelen: What does that mean? Rocket speeds around earth?
Richard Branson: We could potentially (laughter) send people into orbit at 18,500 mph which would mean you could go anywhere on earth in 45 minutes. Realistically, our bodies won’t cope with that so we most likely would send people into sub-orbital flight, traveling at more like 4,000 mph which would mean London to Australia in 3-4 hours, instead of 18 hours currently, so still a big step forward: much faster than Concorde was and still tremendously exciting.
Alison van Diggelen:What are the tech challenges to making that happen?
Richard Branson: The advantage we have today is something called carbon fiber and that is an awful lot lighter than metal – which is what Concorde was built with. That can also be used in the building of engines. A plane can be an awful lot lighter. The technology on supersonic engine power has moved ahead dramatically since Concorde. Unlike Concorde, which was built by British and French governments, and really never made any money, we think we can actually build planes to go supersonically that would be economically viable as well. Of course, as a private company they have to be economically viable…
Richard Branson: 20 years ago, BR existed in Britain and it was pretty dire to say the least…most government run companies are not great, so we said to the government we’d be willing to take over the West coast main line and we also promised we’d transform it. There were 8.5 million ppl using it then. We brought in the Pendolino train and this year we’ll have approx. 40 m people using it, but we’re restricted to ~130 mph – whereas our trains could be going 160 mph – because the track isn’t good enough. So we’ve been looking for technology that will transport people at much greater speeds. The exciting thing about Hyperloop is that if we could get a straight line between London and Edinburgh or London and Glasgow, we could transport people in about 45 minutes. That would open up the cities more than anything and the idea of being able to get into a pod…the pod could literally come to your office or your home, pick you up, go down a tunnel…the pod will connect to our system and then it takes off and 45 minutes later, a grandmother in Glasgow could find herself in London, the pod carrying on and taking her to see her grandchildren somewhere in London: A lot easier than the 4.5 hours it takes currently on trains.
Photo: Virgin Hyperloop One team: Giegel, Branson, Pishevar. Credit: Virgin.com
Alison van Diggelen:What’s your timeline on that? My mother is 85 and she has grandchildren in London…
Richard Branson: I’m a little younger than her and am determined that it will happen in my lifetime. I will try to make sure it happens in her lifetime. Obviously we have got to have discussions with the government, they are building a high speed line but I think this could be compatible with that – and could be separate from that: Great Britain needs a lot more capacity. Obviously it’s not just for Great Britain…We are talking to countries all over the world…
Gareth Mitchell: That’s Richard Branson, talking to countries all over the world, and also to Alison van Diggelen. Let’s talk to Bill Thompson.
Bill Thompson: I really wish I could believe the Hyperloop is something I’ll see in my lifetime. The idea is a very interesting one: vacuum tube, high acceleration, low friction. There are enormous engineering challenges. I do think that talking it up as if it’s just around the corner is too much of a distraction from solving the real problems of urban transportation. Getting permissions…sorting out the safety problems will take a lot more work. What happens if the power goes down when you’re traveling at several hundred kilometers per hour in a steel tube? I’m pleased to see it being talked about but I’m certainly not holding my breath.
Note: Virgin Hyperloop One was previously known as Hyperloop One and before that: Hyperloop Technologies. It’s distinct from rival: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies or HTT. Confused? Don’t be! Find out more here.
What can Uber and Fox News do to change their hostile work environment for women? And how can organizations create a productive atmosphere where men and women thrive? Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialoguessat down with Julia Gillard, the 27th Prime Minister of Australia to get her insights. Gillard got the world’s attention after making an impassioned speech to parliament, detailing the sexual harassment she endured as prime minister. Her Misogyny Speech has empowered many women and a provided a wakeup call for “unenlightened” men.
“I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man…I was personally offended by the leader of the opposition cat-calling: ‘if the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest women of herself ‘ and when he went outside the front of parliament and stood next to a sign that said ‘Ditch the witch’…(and) a sign that described me as ‘A man’s bitch’, I was offended by sexism, misogyny every day from this leader.” Julia Gillard, 27th Prime Minister of Australia
“Company reputation and consumer pressure is actually putting the spotlight on businesses to change behavior, and women can work with that to put a spotlight on work practices in their business,” Julia Gillard.
Did Julia Gillard anticipate Bill O”Reilly being fired?
Listen on the BBC Podcast (@26:40) or to the short clip below:
Here are highlights from our conversation:
I began by asking her if there’s anything she’d add to her speech in today’s work environment…
Julia Gillard: It was coming from a place of frustration and mounting anger about the way in which gender has intersected with my prime ministership and some of the many sexist jibes and treatment I had to put up with. For many women, it’s come to represent something that answers their own frustrations. A lot of women come up to me and say: “this happened to me at work. I wake up at 3 in the morning and really wish I’d said X, Y and Z; and then I’ve watched your speech and it’s given me some heart that I really should call out sexism when I see it.”
Julia Gillard: What’s interesting about the Silicon Valley environment is: company reputation and consumer pressure is actually putting the spotlight on businesses to change behavior, and women can work with that to put a spotlight on work practices in their business; and put a spotlight more generally on that fact that not enough women study and come through the STEM stream… We do want to be encouraging more girls to go into the sciences, engineering, into coding, computer science and new technology because that’s where so much of the future is going to lie.
Alison van Diggelen: Uber has been accused of having a hostile environment for women. If you were on the board of Uber, your advice to them?
Julia Gillard: I’d give the same advice to any company, whether it already had a public problem or not. First look at hiring practices and see whether there’s any gender bias, even unconscious…Look at promotion practices, it could be managers valuing time sitting at the desk rather than results, which would count against women who also have family responsibilities. I’d be setting policies, practices, cultural norms about treating everyone with respect. No practices of going on boys’ nights out where women are excluded.
There’s a range of things you can do from structural biases, actual policies to cultural influences. You’ve got to be thoughtful at every level and make it easy for women to say something’s wrong here, all sorts of ways of raising a complaint, including putting in complaints with anonymity, so women can get a spotlight on issues without feeling they themselves are at risk.
Roger Hearing: Asit Biswas (in Singapore), in your experience, in the areas of government and academia, do you feel a lot of progress has been made?
Prof Asit Biswas: There has been some progress, but it’s not enough. In academia, the number of university presidents who are women, I can count on two hands…there’s a great deal of glass ceiling…In India, I was surprised to see the culture has deteriorated: there’s more harassment, not much being done about it.
Alison van Diggelen: I do want to go back to Julia Gillard’s point about consumer pressure. Boycott movements* (and demonstrations) are happening against Fox (News) because of accusations of sexual harassment…
Roger Hearing: We should explain, Bill O’Reilly…There have been allegations against him and it’s emerged that money has been paid to those people, though he says the allegations have no merit.
Alison van Diggelen: Exactly.There are boycott movements shining a light on sexism and bad behaviors. Companies can’t get away with it like they used to. Tech is playing a role in exposing these bad behaviors and a lot of companies are aware of it and are trying to close the income gap and improve the retention rates of women, and making sure that all men become enlightened men and treat women with the respect that they deserve.
*Mercedes-Benz – one of the first major sponsors to drop Bill O’Reilly – said in a statement: “The allegations are disturbing and, given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now.”
Deep learning; geek nostalgia; Google’s Pixel phone; and why seeking ‘uncomfortably exciting’ opportunities can bring success.
Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialoguessat down withGoogle’s Dave Burke, an Irishman, who has risen quickly through the ranks. He leads the Android team, with responsibility for the device and developer ecosystem; and Google’s Pixel phone. How did he succeed so fast, and what qualities does he seek when hiring for his growing team?
I interviewed Burke this month for a BBC World Service report exploring Irish identity and success in Silicon Valley. We had a lively and wide ranging conversation full of insights for tech geeks and entrepreneurs alike, so I’m posting the uncut interview for your listening pleasure.
“It’s his ability to intuit a bold vision for the future, and then be comfortable in the abstract and yet push tenaciously forward over multiple years. Successful mathematicians need a similar personality – they have an intuition that a solution exists but initially have no concrete certainty on how to prove it and have to persist, sometimes over decades. Einstein’s story of deriving his theory of general relativity is a good example. This personality trait attracts other smart people… For Elon, the ‘contagious confidence’ extends out to his customers, i.e. many are willing to pay a high premium for a Tesla car and don’t seem to worry about the future viability of this fledgling startup, simply because have confidence in the founder.”Dave Burke, Google
Here’s are some highlights of our conversation:
On the secrets of Burke’s success @00:20
“Seek out challenges that are uncomfortably exciting…there’s always a risk of failure, but if you succeed, you could make a huge impact.”
Why he’s so excited about deep learning @19:23
“The big hot area is deep learning, using neural networks….applying lots of data. You can make machines do incredible things…The potential for deep learning and for AI to make our lives easier is very exciting.”
On Google’s Pixel phone @27:15
“Software pushes the hardware and hardware pushes the software. To advance the operating system, you need to have them working really closely together. It allows Google to have its own product. If you’re a Google user, this is the ideal phone for you.”
On rumors of a new Pixel phone this year @27:54
“I can neither confirm nor deny rumors. Technology moves very fast, the cadence…Typically every year, you try to do something new and exciting…we are very busy, working on a lot of stuff… The reviews have been great…but I see the potential for so much more, in terms of innovation, product quality.”
We also discussed Burke’s “geek nostalgia” for the BBC Micro computer by Acorn (the precursor to ARM); the gravitational pull of Silicon Valley; the three questions you need to ask to discover if someone is “really Irish”; and flying robotic lemonade stands!
Look out for more “Fresh Dialogues Uncut” featuring Elon Musk, Arianna Huffington, Charlie Rose and Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard.
Why should businesses even care about a healthy environment? That’s a fundamental issue for Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company. Chouinard and Patagonia are respected by many environmentalists who credit them for putting this philosophy into practice:
“Fundamentally, businesses are responsible to their resource base. Without a healthy environment there are no shareholders, no employees, no customers and no business. Our mission is to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis” Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia
Chouinard is putting his money where his mouth is with a generous company “Earth Tax” devoted to environmental activism. He explained to me how he’s inspired young people and companies to protect the environment.
Nevertheless, Patagonia is arguably fighting a losing battle, especially at Christmas time, when rampant consumerism is in full swing. Here’s my latest BBC report that explores the contrast between Patagonia’s priorities and that of Silicon Valley shoppers who just want “more stuff” and wouldn’t dream of being seen twice in the same dress (dahling!)
This week, as the pro-business, “to hell with the environment” Trump administration prepares to take power, I plan to launch a new series of interviews. My aim is to profile leaders and organizations that are making the environment and climate change action a priority; and are standing up to Trump’s anti-science, anti-environment recklessness.
My report aired on BBC Business Matters on December 23rd. The segment starts at 16:00 on the BBC podcast.
Here’s a transcript of the segment (edited for length and clarity) and a longer version of the report:
BBC Host, Roger Hearing: Alison, I know you’ve been looking at all this…the commercialization of Christmas…I imagine where you are in California, there are a lot of people being pushed into buying things they might not want to? I gather you’ve been investigating…
Alison van Diggelen: Absolutely. I had a rare interview with Yvon Chouinard…he’s the founder of Patagonia, the sustainable outdoor clothing company and is revered by many environmentalists. Chouinard explained to me why his company wants to minimize its impact on the environment and inspire other businesses to do the same. I visited one of Silicon Valley’s busiest malls to see if this green message is resonating with consumers.
[Music: Walking in a Winter Wonderland at Valley Fair Mall]
Alison van Diggelen: I’m here in the mall and there’s a tangible sense of stress as Christmas fast approaches. Shoppers crowd their favorite stores, cell phone lists in one hand, fistfuls of bags in the other. Exhausted mothers and fathers are pushing prams, groups of teenagers maraud the aisles, laughing and posing for photos.
I’m right by the “North Pole” and Santa is waving to wide-eyed children, surrounded by about a dozen Christmas trees with twinkling lights and red baubles. A baby took one look at Santa and started crying. There’s a sickly sweet smell of cinnamon and pumpkin spice in the air. People are looking for bargains: quantity not quality. For many shoppers, “the environment” is the last thing on their minds.
Eggnog gal: There are a little bit of Grinches…but that comes with Christmas. They’re very angry and hostile and they just want to get in the mall, get everything they want and leave. Maybe it’s just the crowds, the financial burden. Maybe they’re just not in the holiday spirit this year.
Young mom: My son’s closet looks like Beyonce’s…it just has so much clothing in it. I love children’s clothing and I buy him so so much. He’s two and a half and he’s so cute! [laughter]
Teen: I just feel like, if I wear a dress once, people see me wear it, like I’d rather have a new dress…something else people can see me in. I’d rather have more stuff than just like one really expensive thing.
Alison van Diggelen: This “wear once” mentality is abhorrent to Yvon Chouinard, who’s notorious for wearing the same flannel shirt for over 20 years. His company, Patagonia is known for its sustainable outdoor clothing. As a founding member of the “One Percent for the Planet” organization, it donates one percent of its sales (not just profits) to environmental causes.
Alison van Diggelen: You’ve impacted so many businesses. Steve Jobs once called you to “green” Apple?
Yvon Chouinard: We’re influencing small companies, not large companies. A lot of the green stuff is green washing.
Alison van Diggelen: Do you feel Apple’s efforts are green washing?
Yvon Chouinard: Absolutely – it’s like that with every large corporation. They’ll pick the low hanging fruit, but when it starts getting a little bit tougher…They’ll do the things that turn into more profits, but when you really have to knuckle down and be truly responsible, they’re not going to do it.
Alison van Diggelen: What do you feel has been your biggest influence in greening the world? The business or consumer side?
Yvon Chouinard: Young people. I wrote this book “Let my people go surfing” that has gone around in nine languages and that has influenced a lot of young people and small companies are really paying attention. The idea of changing large corporations is pretty naive of me.
Alison van Diggelen: I spoke with Jesse Simons of the Sierra Club, an environmental group founded by Scottish naturalist John Muir. He praises Patagonia’s eco leadership but feels it could do more…
Jesse Simons: I’d like to see Patagonia go “all in” on their work on clean energy (and follow Apple’s lead by) committing to 100% clean energy and doing it all the way up the supply chain to ensure that every piece of clothing, zippers, everything are coming from a manufacturing site powered by the wind, the sun and the earth.
Alison van Diggelen: Gary Cook at Greenpeace credits Patagonia’s efforts against our “throw away culture” with its “don’t buy this jacket” campaign and its repair and recycling services. But he points to the company’s continued use of toxic chemicals and he’d like to see them eliminated from its supply chain.
Although Patagonia is seen to be raising the bar on corporate sustainability practices, its prices are out of reach for many consumers. Back at the mall, I spoke with another bargain hunter…
Diana V: We went to check out the Patagonia store in Reno, Nevada and couldn’t find anything for under $100, so we left…We’re just being very cautious right now with our money. Waiting to see what happens with our economy and our national political situation.
End of Report
This part of our interview didn’t make the final cut:
On Patagonia doing more
Sierra Club’s Jesse Simons: I’d like to see them (Patagonia) work with other outdoor industry brands to show them how it actually makes biz sense to stand up to bad trade deals. It would be great to see them take their leadership and use it to get other companies to similarly pay a living wage, take care of the environment in countries where they’re manufacturing their goods, so that they can feel good about saying no to bad trade deals.
Chouinard talks on Earth Tax, Agriculture and Death (I’ll post the full interview here soon for your listening pleasure)
A: Tell me about your trip to Scotland in 1970 – why was that the inspiration for Patagonia clothing?
Y: I was in business of making climbing equipment. I came to Scotland to climb Ben Nevis and saw a rugby shirt in Dept store in Edinburgh. At that time, active sportswear was basically grey flannel sweatshirts, pants. Men didn’t wear colorful sports clothes. It had a blue body, yellow stripes. I was wearing it around Yosemite, everyone said “Woah!” A light went off…I imported a few…I said, maybe I’ll get into the clothing business.
A:Tell me about that 1% for the planet? An earth tax?
Y: Your typical large corporation is out to make as much money as they can for the shareholders. And what the shareholders do with their profits is their biz. We believe it should be done in the business as well.
I believe in taxes. Especially the kind of taxes where you get to decide where the money goes. So we just tax ourselves 1% of our sales – not our profits – 1% of revenue given away to 900 different small activist organizations working to save our planet.
A: Some people say there’s a conflict here: you are an environmental company. You’re saying: save the planet but at the same time, you’re saying: buy our products. You have to make your products, you have to sell your products. You have to make a profit in order to stay in business. Otherwise you go belly up. So talk about that conflict between being a company, a business and doing good for the planet.
Y: Well, to put a spin on it. I’d say buying a jacket from us causes less harm to the environment than buying a jacket from another company that doesn’t put all the thought and processes causing the least amount of harm. For instance, we only use organically grown cotton. That’s fine. Growing cotton organically causes less harm but it doesn’t do the world any good. It still causes the world a lot of harm. That’s why I decided to go into the food business. I want to go beyond organic foods, organic cotton to what’s called regenerative agriculture. The difference is, regenerative agriculture builds soil and captures carbon. And so now I have to go to my cotton farmers – who supply us with cotton – and say: you can’t plow any more because every time you plow, it releases all the carbon you’ve captured back into the air. So agriculture is one of the biggest causes of global warming so it’s probably the biggest thing we can do to save this planet.
A: So is that going to be a major focus for Patagonia?
Y: It’s a major focus for me, that’s for sure. I’m really excited about this. I think it’s our only hope to regulate the climate. We’re not going to do it any other way. Agriculture has a chance of sequestering so much carbon out of the air through changing our grazing practices and our farming practices; and basically going back to the old way of doing things. And that’s what gets me excited.
A: Tell me about the long term future. How are you going to make sure, beyond your lifetime, that Patagonia keeps the environment central to its mission.
Y: We’ve become a B-corporation company. That’s different than a regular corporation. In a B-corporation you can put down what your values are and they have to be values that are good for the planet, good for society. So the way the law states: if I die tomorrow, the stock is in a trust and this trust would have 8 years to divest 80% of that because the law doesn’t want you to have all your stock, your foundation have all your stock in one corporation. (In) a B-corp you wouldn’t necessarily have to do that and we wouldn’t have to sell to the highest bidder which would be to go public. All the laws force you to go public, pretty much…we wouldn’t have to do that
A: But would it keep the environment central to its mission?
Y: That’s part of the values that we’ve inculcated in our charter, under being a B-corporation.
A: Will your son or daughter stay at the helm?
Y: I don’t know…I have no idea what’s going to happen after I’m dead.
A: Are you grooming them to do so?
Y: Yeah, they are slowly taking over more responsibility, absolutely. My daughter is head of sportswear design right now and my son is on the board. They both have the same values that my wife and I have.
A: One last question: going back to Scotland – John Muir, I know he’s been an inspiration to you. Do you have a favorite quote or inspiration from him?
Y: (laughter) When I was a climber, it was John Muir and Emerson, Thoreau and the transcendentalists, philosophers which had a different attitude to climbing mountains than say the Europeans did, which was to conquer the mountains; and our attitude was you climb them and leave no trace of having been there.
Last night, Elon Musk’s SpaceX achieved a spectacular milestone in the history of space travel: its Falcon 9 rocket launched 11 satellites into orbit, performed a spin and landed back on earth, six miles from where it launched. Why is this ultimate recycling feat so consequential?
Quite simply, this could revolutionize space travel as we know it today.
and “then we could resume the journey”…to Mars and beyond. Watch the interview, starting at 35:00
The back story of SpaceX
“I always thought that we’d make much more progress in space…and it just didn’t happen…it was really disappointing, so I was really quite bothered by it. So when we went to the moon, we were supposed to have a base on the moon, we were supposed to send people to Mars and that stuff just didn’t happen. We went backwards. I thought, well maybe it’s a question of there not being enough intention or ‘will’ to do this. This was a wrong assumption. That’s the reason for the greenhouse idea…if there could be a small philanthropic mission to Mars…a small greenhouse with seeds and dehydrated nutrients, you’d have this great shot of a little greenhouse with little green plants on a red background. I thought that would get people excited…you have to imagine the money shot. I thought this would result in a bigger budget for NASA and then we could resume the journey…”
On negotiations with the Russian military to buy two ICBMs
“They just thought I was crazy…I had three quite interesting trips to Russia to try to negotiate purchase of two Russian ICBMs…minus the nukes…I slightly got the feeling that was on the table, which was very alarming. Those were very weird meetings with the Russian military…’remarkably capitalist’ was my impression (of the Russians).”
Why he chose to create his own rocket company, SpaceX
“I came to the conclusion that my initial premise was wrong that in fact that there’s a great deal of will, there’s not such a shortage. But people don’t think there’s a way. And if people thought there was a way or something that wouldn’t break the federal budget, then people would support it. The United States is a distillation of the human spirit of exploration. People came here from other places…people need to believe that it’s possible, so I thought it’s a question of showing people that there’s a way…There wasn’t really a good reason for rockets to be so expensive. If one could make them reusable, like airplanes then the cost of rocketry (and space travel) would drop dramatically.”