Sir Richard Branson
“Peace is not something you wish for,” Sir Richard Branson said Tuesday night at UCI’s Student Center. “It’s something you make, something you do, something you are, something you give back.” Steve Zylius / University Communications

Sir Richard Branson, the world-renowned British industrialist who built the Virgin Group into more than 360 companies, limped into the UC Irvine Student Center’s Pacific Ballroom on Tuesday night, still recovering from leg surgery. But he was off and running once he began speaking to the standing-room-only crowd.

In a discussion that ranged from space tourism to the merits of conciliation versus war, the knighted Branson never lost track of the evening’s theme: fostering world harmony through entrepreneurial problem solving.

“Peace is not something you wish for,” he said at the second Living Peace Series talk, co-sponsored by UCI and the Center for Living Peace, Orange County. “It’s something you make, something you do, something you are, something you give back. In America, there are many institutions that teach people how to kill – billions of dollars are spent on that. But how many universities teach reconciliation instead of war? If we spent more time teaching negotiation for peace, a lot of conflicts could be avoided.”

Branson’s nonprofit foundation, Virgin Unite, teams governments, business leaders and volunteers to forge solutions to global ills. In an effort to head off war, for example, a VU group in 2003 tried to convince Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq – too late, as it turned out. The organization also has worked behind the scenes in Zimbabwe to help establish a coalition government. In the U.S., a VU task force is targeting the proliferation of street children. And Branson has commissioned a study of drug enforcement policies around the world.

“America’s drug policy is the most oppressive on its poor people and black community when it comes to jailing the drug user,” he said. “We hope this commission can come up with some different ideas, because if you spent the same money on drug rehab that you spent in prisons, the results would be massively better.”

Questions from the audience gave Branson a chance to expound on other topics.

On Virgin Galactic space travel: “Within 10 years, we will have taken more people into space than NASA has in 60 years. When you have governments involved, it’s always going to cost a billion dollars a shot.”

On entrepreneurship: “People will try to convince you that you’re wrong to do what you’re doing – that it’s not original, that you should get a safe job. The only way to prove them wrong is to move on and do it. Ninety of 100 ideas do fall by the wayside, but as my book title says, ‘Screw it, let’s do it.’”

And to a little girl who asked how she could help: “Are there people in your neighborhood who are less fortunate than you? Help them – maybe take them a little bit of hot soup. Start in any small way you can, and you’ll feel good about yourself.”

The next scheduled speaker in the Living Peace Series is His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, who will share his views on ethical leadership at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 4, at UCI’s Bren Events Center. Ticket information will be posted Tuesday, March 22, on the Living Peace Series website.