Judges, Part III: the Sir

Sir Richard Branson is an anomaly among the billionaires of our acquaintance. To be honest, he’s the only billionaire of our acquaintance—most people we know store their savings in their change pocket. But there’s more to Sir Richard than meets the eye, despite the fact that meeting the eye is a talent of his: His daring escapades, animated hair , and infinite money are catnip to bored journalists who prefer the questionable adventures of a handsome billionaire to the handsome growth charts of questionable billionaires.

Sir Richard, not surprisingly, is a long-time fan of Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up. As a schoolchild he was a conundrum: a brilliant child who nevertheless couldn’t seem to learn to read. Sir Richard has dyslexia, a mixed blessing that confers a constellation of intellectual advantages (many startup founders are dyslexian, as were Einstein and da Vinci) alongside an incongruous inability to benefit from conventional reading instruction. On his last day of school, the headmaster told him that he’d either end up in prison or become a millionaire (a nearly guaranteed prophesy, given that without a supportive family, dyslexians who could have changed the world often do end up in prison).

Sir Richard began building his octopusial 400-company mega-business, Virgin Group, in a basement in West London when he was 20. (At that age, what we were doing in the basement was not founding companies. Ah, youth! How we wasted you!) He started with a magazine against the Vietnamese War and moved on to a record shop, christened Virgin to reflect his status as a business virgin. The name lives on, despite the fact that his virginity (in that realm—we don’t speculate further) is long lost.

Sir Richard credits his success in part to luck—a rarely acknowledged lady in the self-satisfied halls of billionairehood, but apparently Sir Richard’s good friend. How else to explain that his 1982 foray into music production—a recording of sheep baaing along with a drum machine—reached number 42 on the UK charts? While pop songs often sound as if the vocalists were born in a barn,  vocalists that actually were born in a barn are rarely considered star material. To appreciate their potential requires some serious outside-the-box thinking. As Sir Richard has said, “My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them…from the perspective of wanting to live life to the fullest.” Making a hit record from barnyard noises seems to qualify in every respect.

Having laid his business virginity to rest once and for all, Sir Richard moved on to quixotic challenges that involve lots of money. His attempt to make the fastest Atlantic crossing in an expensive yacht was foiled when the yacht capsized, necessitating his rescue by helicopter. His effort to win a car-racing bet ended with him on an Air Asia flight in a stewardess uniform, serving passengers coffee. Standing on his dignity doesn’t appear to be a pastime of Sir Richard’s. As he has said, “You don’t learn to walk by following the rules. You learn by doing and by falling over.”

Luckily, Sir Richard’s fallings-over have only bolstered his renown. This knight errant is not only the UK’s premier twitterer, an honor in itself, but also the world’s most social CEO and most followed person on LinkedIn—and an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church Monastery. When British Airways paid him £500,000 to settle a lawsuit, he distributed it to his staff. As moguls go, that’s uncommon.


All in all, the five judges are extraordinarily nice rich people. As to how they got that way, it’s our conviction that people who’ve suffered unjustly, through no fault of their own (not enough to break their humanity mainspring, just enough to seed compassion), are likely to be empathetic. All five of these judges (well, four definitely—Butler we’re not sure about) have battled against—and overcome—unfair misjudgment: Sir Richard against myths about dyslexia; Banks against adolescent and fashion-industry narrowmindedness; Kelly against preconceptions about the working-class; Blakely against…uncomfortable pantyhose (and, to her credit, the men who make them). As a result, we believe, they share a sympathy with humanity—with us, to be specific—that’s rare in their colleagues in the one percent. Their presence made it a privilege to be part of the VOOM final.

Next, the contest! Which was notable for its lack of Shark Tankian contestant belittling and inter-judge bickering, but we’ll do our best with what we have.

your Efoldi friends


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