West Bay

Virgin founder Richard Branson visits Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) -- It was a flurry of handshakes and photographs as British billionaire Richard Branson greeted employees at the Virgin Pulse headquarters in Providence on Monday.

"Everybody just started to scream," Virgin Pulse CEO David Osborne said. "They surrounded him and he just jumped into the crowd and started taking pictures with everybody."

The 67-year-old founder of Virgin Group visited the Fountain Street office building for the first time Monday, talking with employees and answering questions during a 30-minute interview with Osborne.

"We've been in these offices for six months," Osborne said. "He's never been here so it was just kind of fun to walk him around."

Employees came from the nearby Framingham, Massachusetts, office and from other corners of the globe to hear Branson talk about his career.

"It came out of feeling completely hopeless at school," Branson said when asked what spurred him to become an entrepreneur. "Being dyslexic [and] not understanding anything that was going on on the blackboard."

Branson also said he believes the best businesses are created by people who are frustrated by something not working correctly. He said he launched Virgin's airlines after he was delayed multiple times at an airport. Frustrated, he chartered a plane and offered cheap tickets to fellow stranded passengers. The next day he said he called around and looked for second-hand 747s on sale, and the rest is history.  

Branson said it hasn't all been rosy -- he recounted trying to launch Virgin Cola, only to have Coca-Cola "kneecap" him after Virgin pulled a controversial Times Square publicity stunt that irked the soda giant.

Providence's Virgin Pulse is one of many companies under the Virgin umbrella. The employee wellness firm has received close to $6 million to stay in Rhode Island and create more jobs.

"If you've got a company where people [have] a real purpose in what they're doing and they're making a real difference in other people's lives, that's fantastic, and this is the epitome of that," Branson told the crowd gathered Monday.

Employees were eager to shake Branson's hand and hear his anecdotes. 

"We're all the way over here in Providence and obviously he's got a lot going on," said Stephanie Melf, who's worked for Virgin Pulse since October. "So it was really cool that he made the time to come visit."

"The Virgin feel and the Virgin vibe is very rock star," said Siera Barton, a Virgin Pulse employee who came from Framingham to meet Branson. "I think he lived up to that."

Osborne said it felt "surreal" to have Branson in Rhode Island, but joked that when clients and friends ask if he's met the British business mogul, he can now say "yes."

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