Supporting Canadian Skills-to-Employment

    Meeting Richard Branson: A Journey of Inspiration and Connection

    Meeting Richard Branson: A Journey of Inspiration and Connection

    by Brad Loiselle, CEO of Skills Council of Canada

    In 2018, an invitation arrived that sent my heart racing. Virgin Unite was hosting a leadership gathering named 'Disruption for Good' on Necker Island that would be hosted by Richard Branson. My emotions were a whirlwind - thrilled, honored, excited, and yes, a bit scared. Would I live up to the experiences of the people I was going to meet? The imposter syndrome was real, and I felt it, not because I didn’t think I was good enough, but because our experiences might be different, and I wondered if I would have a place in conversations.

    Arriving on the island, the beauty and grandeur were overwhelming, but so was the realization that I was among global leaders. The attendees were a dazzling array of brilliance and influence: a Nobel Peace nominee from Africa, the President of Maldives, the President of, global entrepreneurs, and key figures from the White House and UK government. I was in awe from day one!

    The days were filled with the bustle of conversations around real world problems, and engaging conversations. The intellectual energy was palpable, but I was feeling a bit conflicted. With limited time, I wanted to spend our free time to build relationships, but I also wanted to discuss possible business opportunities. I felt that I needed to be seen for what we were doing in the education space, but always realized that it was more important to focus on building relationships, aiming to connect on a deeper, more personal level and perhaps in the future a business opportunity would present itself that could support our shared passions for helping the world.

    Being a strategic thinker, I thought about how I could build a relationship outside the business and social aspect of the days. I'd heard Richard played tennis every morning at about 6:30. Though I didn't play tennis, I decided I would learn while I was there in hopes I could play with him. My focus first started with me being on the court before he would arrive, and simply watching his practices. Night after night, I built relationships with other leaders, laughing and conversing late into the evening over cocktails, then morning after morning, bright and early, I dragged myself out of bed so that I was on that tennis court. Those back-to-back late nights, and early mornings made my days so much more tiring, but to build relationships, I needed to have time to connect.

    One morning, another guest who knew Richard showed up to play with him. After their game, I approached Richard's opponent to ask if he could teach me, and I explained I wanted to play Richard, but only if I could provide some sort of competition. He and I played multiple times each day, every day, and I improved to the point that I won a few games. On the last day, I was asked to play in a partner game with Richard. Thinking about it, I chose not to play on Richard's team, fearing that if I played poorly, I could cost him the game, and I didn’t want to be responsible for that. So, I played with my amazing coach, and we played hard and quite well, and most importantly, we all had fun. The real connection, however, was yet to come, which I would unknowingly experience years later.

    Fast forward to mid-July 2023, and another invitation arrived to join a group of leaders on Necker Island for another 'Disruption for Good' gathering. The excitement was familiar, and I could not wait to be there. I didn't know what to expect, but what I did know was that I wanted to be around like-minded people who were passionate about doing good for our world.

    As the week progressed, Richard asked me if I wanted to play chess, which led to multiple games over the days to follow. You can tell a lot about someone by the way they play the game. With our eyes moving across the board, each move telling a story about ourselves. I watched Richard carefully and I could tell he was doing the same. Richard commented about my style of play, noticing that when I slowed down my moves, he knew he got me reconsidering. I play fast, which can throw off more careful players. He was a great opponent, and I truly enjoyed all our games. It didn't matter to me who won; what mattered was being able to play. I was going to give it my all, and the joy was in the challenge.

    The conversations were so engaging all week, and I made some incredible connections that have lead to great business opportunities for them and us. The adventures also didn't stop all week, and while I was physically exhausted, I kept telling myself that to be seen, I must be present. I again dragged myself out of bed for an early morning bike ride up the mountains of a nearby island where Richard literally biked circles around most of us. Literally circles around us while going uphill almost the entire time! He is an amazing athlete, his energy and determination are impressive. Experiencing this side of his personality was awesome and I saw myself in him in so many ways. I also experienced new things, like an ice bath that sent freezing shivers across my body, while Richard’s encouraging voice guided me through the ‘take your breath away’ cold I was feeling.

    I eventually played tennis with Richard during the week, including a lengthy one-on-one, where I felt I gave him a run for his money, but in the end, Richard's skills overpowered my best efforts. I was amazed that after we concluded our one-on-one games, he then dragged a bucket of balls over to my side of the court and asked if he could show me how to serve more consistently. I was drenched in sweat, exhausted to keep up with him, but I put my best efforts forward. His never-quit persona was infectious, and I found myself pushing harder, striving to be better. Again, it didn't matter who won; what mattered was the game, the camaraderie, the shared passion, and I was seeing a side of Richard that warmed my heart.

    But something more profound was happening. All the effort I was putting into trying to be seen was making me see Richard and his team much clearer. They were so kind, loving, supportive, compassionate, and truly cared about all of us. I saw their genuine smiles, the warmth in their handshakes, their hugs, and their words. I realized that it was no longer about me trying to impress them; it was about me understanding them, seeing the humanity behind the fame, and realizing I only needed to be who I was. I did not expect to experience this profound change in my thinking about them, but also about business and relationships.

    Sadly, during this trip, my younger brother passed away. The news hit me like a tidal wave, and I found myself lost. The compassion I received from Richard and his team was something I had never experienced before. Jean Oelwang, the President of Virgin Unite, noticed me off in the distance while I was on the phone with my family, and she came over to hold me, support me, and showed me the love in her heart. Looking through tears, I could see her compassion looking back at me. It was yet another example of the beautiful people that work for this great organization. Shortly after, Jean mentioned to the group what was happening, and she pulled me up, where everyone, from Richard, the Virgin team, the President of Mongolia, leaders for change, and people I now call friends, gathered around me in a connected hug, encircling me with such compassion, their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them, and their eyes filled with empathy for my family and I. In that moment, I felt a connection that went beyond mere acquaintance; it was a bond of shared humanity. It was a Circle of Hope, which I then proceeded to create in remembrance of Matthew Tot.

    In the end, my efforts to be seen turned into me seeing Richard and his team more clearly. I saw the love behind Virgin Unite, Big Change, The Elders, the B-team, and all the incredible impact-driven businesses they are involved in. I saw the passionate people leading teams of caring and kind individuals. It was a revelation that changed not just how I saw them, but how authentic they are.

    'Thank you for being the change, the compassion, the heart our world needs!' My journey with Richard Branson, from tennis courts to chess boards, from fears and uncertainties to connection and clarity, has been a beautiful story of human connection. It's a reminder that our efforts to be seen can lead to seeing others more clearly, and that behind the public figures we admire, there are real people with real hearts, striving to make a difference in the world.

    These experiences were more than just discussions and adventures; they were insights into the soul of a man, into a company filled with incredible people who have inspired millions, who have inspired me! They were lessons in perseverance, joy, and the power of human connection. They were reminders that success is not just about winning, but about playing the game with all your heart.

    Thank you, Richard, Jean, Suzy, Sheetal, Cassidy, and the entire Virgin team for all that you do. Your kindness, compassion, and relentless pursuit of positive change have not only inspired me but have left an indelible mark on my heart. Your leadership and the connections we've forged will forever be a cherished part of my life's journey.

    Brad Loiselle

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