Breaking Free: Bransonís Early Years

“I was never, ever interested in becoming a businessman or an entrepreneur,” says Richard Branson. At 56, despite his intentions, Branson has become one of the most successful and eccentric billionaires of the 20th century. He is the man behind one of the most recognizable brands in history and is sitting on an estimated fortune of $3.2 billion.

Born in 1950 in Surrey, England, to happily married parents Ted and Eve, Branson recalls a childhood filled with nothing but love and encouragement. Ted was a lawyer who had relunctantly set aside his passion for archaeology at the request of his father to follow in the family footsteps. Eve was an airline hostess who originally pretended to be a man in order to become a pilot instructor. Together, the two ingrained within Branson a sense of hard work and the need to be financially successful.

Branson’s mother was always thinking of ways to make money. With no television in the house, Eve would spend most of her time in the garden shed constructing wooden tissue boxes and wastepaper bins, which she then sold to shops, including Harrods. Everything being the family affair that it was with the Branson’s, Ted spent his time creating special pressing devices to hold the tissue boxes together while they were being glued. “It became a proper little cottage industry,” Branson recalls.

Branson’s parents took extreme measures to encourage their children’s independence. While driving home one day when Branson was just four years old, his mother made him get out of the car miles before they had reached the house and insisted that he find his own way home. Not surprisingly, Branson got lost. But, it was a lesson he would never forget.

Soon, Branson and his siblings began setting challenges for themselves. One Christmas holiday, Branson bet his Aunt Joyce ten shillings that he would be able to swim by the end of the two weeks. He spent hours in the ocean each day practicing but still could not keep himself afloat. Finally, as the family was leaving on the last day, Branson made his father stop the car so that he could have one last chance at swimming. He ran to the ocean, pulled off all his clothes and despite the huge waves, managed to swim a circle. He had won his ten shillings.

Sent to boarding school until he was 15, Branson found success on the field rather than in the classroom. He excelled in a wide range of athletics, which found him popularity at school, but he struggled with his academics because of his dyslexia, which at the time was a relatively undiagnosed problem. “Since nobody had ever heard of dyslexia, being unable to read, write or spell just meant to the rest of the class and the teachers that you were either stupid or lazy,” he recalls. “And at prep school you were beaten for both.”

Sent to a different school, Branson was initially expelled for his nocturnal visits with the headmaster’s daughter. But, after writing a fake suicide note, Branson got the expulsion overturned. Back in school, Branson set up Student Magazine at the age of 16 and opened the Student Advisory Centre a year later, which was a charity to help young people. After his first issue of Student, the headmaster of Branson’s school wrote a note saying, “Congratulations, Branson. I predict you will either go to prison or become a millionaire.”

In the next forty years, Branson would go on to prove his headmaster right on both counts.

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