Jean Oelwang

Jean Oelwang

29 October, 2012
CEO of Virgin Unite

Jean Oelwang heads up Virgin Unite, the philanthropic arm of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.  Virgin Unite uses business as a force of good through innovative initiatives such as the Carbon War Room where entrepreneurs are brought together to address climate change issues in various sectors as well as The Elders, a group of ten visionary leaders who work publicly and behind the scenes to provide advice and inspiration for campaigns that do good for humanity, such as a recent campaign to stop the practice of child marriage.  We talk to Jean Oelwang, CEO of Virgin Unite about her journey and experiences at Virgin Unite.
Ecozine: Could you share more about Virgin Unite?
Jean: We are the nonprofit arm of the Virgin Group and we’re fully funded by Richard Branson and the core management and the funding all goes towards our frontline projects.  We are working with 200 businesses globally and we have offices in the UK, Australia, US, Canada, South Africa.  Our work spans across Africa, Australia, and India for our global initiatives.
Ecozine: Please share more about your journey at the Virgin Group?
Jean: I started out in a corporate role in the telecommunications sector and then I started volunteering in Chicago for homeless teenagers.  That was the turning point for me when I realized that there are 70,000 homeless kids under 18 and there needed to be systems change.  We need to have co-operation between the NGO, business, and government sectors to change the issues we face.  I then went into developing the mobile phone business in emerging markets such as Bulgaria, South Africa, Singapore, and Australia and became even more passionate about the government and social sector working together.  When I was in Australia, one day, the board said it wanted to focus on working with the business and social sector and I was there at the right timing to start a foundation.
Ecozine: How big is your team at Virgin Unite?
Jean: We currently have 24 team members.
Ecozine: With so many issues we are all facing as humanity, how does Virgin Unite choose which issues to focus on?
Jean: It is not just one issue that we focus on, so we need new entrepreneurs doing business as a force of good.  There is a strong belief that transforming emerging markets needs to be done through businesses that do good for the planet.  We work with over 200 businesses that are helping to drive change, and we are also incubating businesses through our new initiatives The Elders and Carbon War Room.  We support independent businesses via leadership and training and we’ve got a community of people to support the work that we do.  We’ve also set up the Branson Centres of Leadership which support economic freedom by encouraging young people to start their own business.  In the US through Virgin Mobile, we are working with homeless teenagers to end homelessness.  We try to integrate everything in our whole business to drive change.  Another great example is that we’ve set up Virgin music festivals where participants volunteer at the front lines and engage customers to talk to the homeless.  We’ve also used ring tones to raise money.  We look at every aspect of our business and use that to promote and stop issues to create greater futures for young people.
Ecozine: Please share about some of Virgin Unite’s initiatives.
Jean: It makes the most sense to have initiatives that go to the core of our business because if not, they won’t last long.  It is important for staff and customers to integrate into one community through our initiatives.  Through The Elders and the Carbon War Room, we’ve had lots of different people collaborate on conflict resolution and environmental issues.  A third area that we’ve focused on is job creation and entrepreneurship because if there is no work for people, they can’t be lifted out of poverty.  It’s about using the assets we have and focusing on the gaps.
Ecozine: How does Virgin Unite select which businesses to partner up with?
Jean: We first have to get a business to define its purpose and then put on the lens of people and planet as well as to look at the overall community’s wants and needs to create a framework to outline ideas that go to the core of who you are.  Businesses we’ve supported have made a major difference to the world through their products and services.
Ecozine: What are some of the examples of businesses that have partnered up with Virgin Unite?
Jean: For our own businesses like Virgin Holidays which has the Caribbean as one of its primary destinations, we give back to the community by creating jobs and promoting sustainable tourism and we’ve got built in holiday tours that do positive things for the community and the environment.  All of our employees live and breath to take care of these destinations.  With our Branson entrepreneur centres, we support young people and some have set up businesses that have become part of our supply chain for the long term, like bed-and-breakfast businesses that we send customers to and reef restoration projects that visitors can visit.
Ecozine: Are there any projects you’ve participated in on-the-ground?
Jean: In Asia, I’ve personally participated in projects in Australia where I worked with indigenous young people on a music program and the Champions program, which was created with an organization called Oasis, helping vulnerable young people through mentoring.  We had staff from Australia matched with young people and they would go out every Tuesday night for a meal and do projects together.  It has been amazing watching the change in both our staff and the young people.  In India, Virgin Atlantic has been working with Free the Children on creating sustainable villages.
Ecozine: How does Virgin Unite use social media to spread its message?
Jean: Richard is a huge fan of Twitter, Facebook, and he’s blogging all the time. With our Screw Business as Usual, we’ve been promote it through social media by getting people to send in their videos, to share ideas and stories about their businesses.
Ecozine: Do you have any tips to give to young entrepreneurs who want to make a difference through their businesses?
Jean: I think there has never been a better time to start a meaningful business and looking at opportunities out there.  There is a new frontier of new businesses that are putting value in natural assets.  There is a shift towards businesses having purpose and value at their cores.  But there is a danger in making sure that the business sustains itself with a good business case that can generate enough revenue.  The models of social enterprises are interesting to look at.  Businesses, NGOs and governments are financing businesses in brand new ways.
Ecozine: What are some of the initiatives and networks that young entrepreneurs should turn to as resources for starting their businesses?
Jean: With our Screw Business as Usual initiative, we’ve got hundreds of case studies where people can see the examples of great businesses that are doing good.  With the Carbon War Room, there are many ideas around businesses reducing carbon.  Investment funds such as Propel, Acumen Fund and Skoll Foundation are great sources for people to look at the types of businesses that are being funded and looking at new types of businesses.
Ecozine: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Jean: There is great potential for business as a force of good.  Looking at the power of people, social media, new types of entreprises, and the new ways of business that business leaders such as Paul Coleman from Unilever and Ray Anderson from Interface are doing, these are all things that are creating the perfect storm to transform the way we live.
For more information on Virgin Unite, visit:

By: Ecozine Staff


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