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Necker Island, Virgin Unite and Richard Branson’s Secret Flamingos

April 17, 2012

If you and I have had a good chat in the last few weeks you’ve probably heard how excited I was for my trip to the Caribbean and slated to meet one of my personal heroes. Around 25 amazing people gathered to touch each others lives and brainstorm about the future of Virgin Unite - Richard Branson’s personal charity. It was a really awesome opportunity to connect with some game-changing people from a wide variety of industries making a difference across the globe.

Obviously, with that came the opportunity to finally meet Sir Richard Branson in person. The event was held on his private island down in the British Virgin Islands – a secluded little path of grass called Necker Island. I definitely knew to expect the unexpected but I can assure you that nothing really prepares you for an experience like this one. Sir Richard does things on a grand scale with such a distinct personal signature that it really separates him from all of the other mega-celebrity entrepreneurs out there. He transcends business and turns it into something so personal and expressive. He’s one of the few people that you can really say has turned commerce into art.

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Some people say that you should never meet your heroes, but to me that’s small-time thinking. If you’ve picked your heroes right you know that you can glean so much more from them in person. Actually interacting with them, observing their body language and how they present themselves to people. This was a chance to see Richard Branson in his natural environment – a chance to see what he’s really like. What makes him tick. What it’s like to sit next to the guy while you eat. What his favourite drink is… Little things like that.

Getting to Necker Island is sort of tricky, but I think that’s part of the point. Unless you own a yacht or a float plane or some type of submarine that converts into a plane (guess who actually does), getting to Necker Island involves a couple of flights and then a jaunt to Puerto Rico. Then it’s a flight to nearby Beef Island – the closest airstrip before taking the boat ride over to Necker.

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The British Virgin Islands is an amazing place. It’s got some of the friendliest people you will ever meet. There is zero crime rate - yes zero – that was an interesting concept to wrap my mind around. Can you tell I work in San Francisco’s SoMa District? No locks on your doors and no need to worry about your valuables. The islands boast an ultra-low 2% unemployment – draw from that what you will. The whole place has a laid-back vibe that I could really get used too.

As the boat leaves Beef Island and heads deep into the BVI, you immediately start to notice the yachts getting bigger and bigger. Eventually you see so many of them that they just sort of blend in together and you find yourself thinking “hmm, there goes another cruise ship.” Then you have to remind yourself that it’s just one person’s boat. Albeit with a full-time crew of twenty or so.

You would be tempted to say it was a playground for the rich and famous but Richard Branson is really the exception around here rather than the rule. The vast majority of the people living in the yachts and villas dotting these many atolls aren’t the rich and famous – they’re the people so rich that you have no idea who they are.

It was reminiscing about these yachts that I realized that I had a boat-related problem facing me. I was scheduled attend an early breakfast, which meant getting to Necker Island around 8 am. But the first commercial ride over there was only available from 9am onwards.

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With a little bit of luck and a whole lot of Social Fluency, I was able to cajole my way into a ride on board a staff boat. It was ferrying over the workers who make their living on Necker Island – everybody was getting ready for a day’s work. Listening to everybody chatting and bantering made me feel more at ease than I have in a long time. It was a very calm and serene ride over to Necker and, surrounded by these giant mega-yachts, they began to take on an almost cold and lifeless look from where I was sitting. Tucked in next to the locals, everybody was in good spirits. It was a beautiful morning to be racing across those turquoise-colored waters. I began to feel a little bad for the people on the big yachts, knowing that many of them would never get a chance to roll into Necker Island like this.

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I was finally able to meet up with Richard Branson and the rest of the crew after arriving (on time I might add). The brainstorming session began almost right away. It was an incredible opportunity to talk to some real influencers – some people who’ve accomplished so much and are looking to share the benefits of their expertise with those around them. It was hard not to look around and feel as though you were amongst a dream team.

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The rest of that first day was spent sailing. On Richard’s catamaran the Necker Belle. The third largest catamaran in the world. Feeling genuinely blessed to have gotten two awesome boat rides in a day, you couldn’t help but just sit back and take it all in. I was also lucky enough to have a great conversation with Mike Clein – who’s also involved in the Future Of Health Now. This was a group of tech guys who really “get” marketing. A who’s-who of movers and shakers and they were all there dangling off the world’s third largest catamaran. Also got to see my friends Robert Hirsh and Mike Dillard from the Elevation Group.

There was no slowing down.

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The first night was a surreal tribal-themed party hosted by Richard himself with a bunch of guests in attendance. Richard got up and made a speech and instructed us all to enjoy ourselves to the fullest. Drinks, dancing – all the great stuff. I probably don’t have to tell you that he man knows how to tell a story and throw a party.

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I woke up in a private villa surrounded by jungle, then noticed a private pool outside. It took me several minutes to realize that you have to go into a separate cave to use the bathroom here. Trust me, that’s an odd realization.

The next few days rank amongst some of the best times of my life, permeated with some of the most inspiring conversations I’ve had professionally. Joe Polish was there along with Yanik Silver – two guys that I have tremendous respect for. Jim Kwik was also in attendance – he’s the world’s fastest speed reader and his ideas on personal improvement “The Art of Warmth” are something everybody needs to check out.

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It was on my final full day there that I had an incredibly transformative experience. That moment that sums up why you’re there and makes you step back and say “whoa”. One of those ones you can’t quite explain but you remember for many years afterwards.

I was just sitting down for breakfast with some of the other attendees when Richard strolled into the room. He announced that he was going for a run and would see us all soon. We wished him well and went back to our breakfasts – I don’t have to tell you how awesome the food was. Not two minutes later, Richard walks right back in and tells us “I’ve decided to postpone my run. Come with me – I’m going to show you something amazing.”

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Suddenly breakfast just doesn’t seem interesting anymore.

Jusy muself and a close friend, head outside and Richard motions for us to follow him. He tears off into the jungle – where there’s no real path or trail – and begins moving through really thick brush leading the way. He has purpose to his moments and it was obvious that he knew exactly where he was going. The jungle got thicker and thicker and Richard was moving fast and staying low – getting underneath all the big branches. I didn’t know what to expect and part of me, realizing that I’m chasing Richard Branson through the jungle towards parts unknown, starts to run through all sorts of different scenarios in my head. I begin thinking to myself “please don’t be cloning dinosaurs… Please don’t be cloning dinosaurs” as I did my best to keep Sir Richard within visual range.

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A few minutes after following Sir Richard through the jungle, he starts “shhhh”ing us and whispering to stay low, not to speak or say anything. Bracing myself for a raptor attack, he indicates a clearing in the distance. This is sort of weird because we’re surrounded by trees. He then leads up into a wooden structure which turned out to be a viewing area. We try to stay as quiet as possible.

Richard is holding his finger to his lips.

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He tells us, quietly, to have a look.

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Totally unsure of what I’m going to see, I peek over the wall. There is about 100 flamingos just chilling in the middle of a jungle oasis. They were as hot pink as South Beach in the early 80s. Then Richard starts explaining how Flamingos are native to the Virgin Islands but were basically hunted off the island – chased out by man.

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He told us that he took it upon himself to bring them back and decided to create this jungle sanctuary for them. It’s his own personal project and you could tell by the way he was talking that he keeps this one close to his heart. He insisted we be quiet because he didn’t want to disturb these flamingos.

Not only is this guy kiteboarding around, creating companies and hosting parties – he’s single-handedly repopulating his own island with flamingos. You may not know this, and I’m sure Richard didn’t know this, but flamingos mean a lot to me. Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya you get used to flamingos. Lake Nakuru is a famous breeding ground for flamingos in Kenya and they’re a very vivid symbol of my childhood. I don’t need to try to explain this moment – it’s just one of those ones where you step back and say…

Wow.

It was an especially surreal moment in a several-day span of surreal moments. Eventually, Richard led us out of the observation area (quietly as ever) and we headed back down the path towards the beach and everything else in the non-flamingo world. In typical Branson-like fashion he turned around and instructed us to “mind the Komodo Dragons”.

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Yup. He’s got Komodo Dragons.

Meeting one of my heroes and having a legendary few days with some of the most influential thinkers in the game was obviously something I’m going to cherish for a long time. As for Virgin Unite, I’ve become a part of the program and I’m now working on the task force putting together new fundraising strategies. All I can say is, look forward to some amazing parties because we’re going to need all of your help to make Virgin Unite as amazing as it can be.

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I’m adamant that projects like the Branson Centres for Entrepreneurship are something that’s going to be getting people excited about making a difference. Business can be a force for good – for positive, transformative change. Richard is right – screw business as usual!

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After leaving Necker Island I was lucky enough to meet up with David Johnson, a great friend of my dad’s who not only has one of the biggest yachts in the area – he’s the guy who built the newest yacht club. I was given a guided tour of his epic floating home, The Resolute and it was hard not to be in awe of the whole thing.

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It was when I was heading home that things really seemed to come full circle. You can’t take your opportunities for granted and you should always be down with rolling in amongst the staff showing up to trim the hedges and prep the kitchens. I truly realized how lucky I am to be a part of big moments like this and how this is an experience that I have to pay forward. I have come a long way from a village in Africa. The flamingo’s just came along for the ride, I guess.

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It definitely helps to be able to connect with great people doing great things but, after my whole experience with Richard and the rest of Virgin Unite, it got me really thinking about my whole ethos. Having a grand vision means solving the world’s problems. Entrepreneurship and, especially, enabling more entrepreneurship really is the cure for many of these. From one grand vision emerges many more.

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And it was there on the plane, soaring high over all of the mega-yachts, that my thoughts lingered on philanthropy and private islands… About how my grand dreams and visions have been compounded in just a few short days. Sure, a very successful person might buy their own island, but not every one of them is going to repopulate it with flamingo’s.

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