Our latest Building Better Business interview is with someone focused on telling other people's stories more than his own. Sam Branson is an entrepreneur, adventurer, producer, philanthropist and musician.
His latest project sees him working with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton to form HiddenLight, a global studio working on TV, film and digital documentaries and scripted and unscripted entertainment.
He's also a co-founder of Big Change, a charitable trust on a mission to help young people "thrive in life, not just in exams".
Sam joined us to talk about why he feels a successful business and business leaders can be a force for good in the world.
Sam, tell us a bit about the story of HiddenLight
"HiddenLight is a global production studio that focuses on celebrating the best of the human spirit. We're telling stories of courage in the face of adversity, from all sorts of people around the world, and trying to give voice to people who don't have a platform.
I've been doing TV and film, mainly documentaries, for the last eight years or so with my company Sundog Pictures. We've done a whole range of different things. However, one constant is my passionate belief in the medium of film to change people's lives.
There's no other medium that lets someone sit in the comfort of their own home, and watch something that can completely change their perspective on the world. Film can take a person watching it around the globe and can help dissect very complex issues.
At Sundog we'd covered everything you can think of - including reporting on gay rights, race, the death penalty, the war on drugs, HIV and the truth about alcohol.
We were pitching a series based on Hillary and Chelsea's book, Gutsy Women. In the process, I was blown away by them - they are so intelligent, down to earth, family orientated, and so driven to have an impact.
In the middle of the pitching process I just sent them a heartfelt email saying: “I don’t know if this is something you’d even consider and I don’t want to distract from what we’re doing here. But I’ve been trying to create an even bigger impact with my company and you guys have been amazing partners. Would you ever debate setting up a new business?”.
Long story short…after a year of conversations and meetings we ended up partnering on HiddenLight. In a way it’s supersizing what Sundog did, but we're also looking to go into scripted productions too.
I wanted to combine my passion for the world and passion for film in a company that specifically used film to inspire and engage people in the world around them.
At the moment we’re raising capital to action our plan which is to have a really big impact in the world and hopefully entertain and engage people at the same time."
What productions and stories are you working on at the moment?
"There is so much going on and lots we can’t talk about yet. What I can tell you is that we are filming a series at the moment for Apple TV, which is incredibly exciting. Based on the book Gutsy Women written by Hillary and Chelsea, it’s about the women who've inspired them throughout the ages, who’ve had a huge impact on the world.
He interviewed amazing people around the world and asked them “What’s the one piece of advice that you'd give to people?”. The host is a young influencer, Patricia Bright, and she's helping to make a series that’s inspiring for everyone but especially relevant to young women.
In unscripted, we’re working on some very exciting pilots at the moment, and our drama team have secured the rights to some really fascinating books with amazing stories. I can’t talk about those right now but our USP is high quality, impactful stories, celebrating the best of the human spirit. Giving voice to people from all around the world and who have an amazing story to tell."
What are your aims as a company?
"We’re focused on being at the forefront of best practice in the industry. Historically, production companies have quite a bad track record of looking after people.
It’s a very freelance-based business so we want to be absolute leaders - not just in how we work with our staff but also in treating every subject matter with respect.
We’re trying to give people a voice, for example giving people from the places that we're talking about an opportunity to be in the production or on the production side.
We try to find directors and producers who are from the places that we're talking about, including them in that process, making sure we have diversity in the business.
Obviously with the Clintons involved, and my natural interests anyway, we’re giving women an opportunity to direct and to be involved across all the different aspects of the business."
You’ve talked about how you’re building a better business by treading lightly, shining a light on things that really matter.
You’re all philanthropists at HiddenLight - do you all bring your philanthropic ideals to the business?
"Yes, in a lot of ways. A business has to be business and if there's no fuel tank, you're not going to go anywhere. It's like a charity - if you're not strategic in your business approach you can’t get anywhere.
A philanthropist in essence is a human being who cares about the world. It's someone who feels like they can use their resources, their intelligence, their passion, their creativity, their voice, to be able to benefit another situation.
I think all of the HiddenLight team in their own way want to have a positive impact on people's lives. That obviously will shape the content.
Hillary is an absolute expert in politics. Now, none of our work will be political - HiddenLight is an apolitical business. It’s about human stories and they could be about anyone. But think about the insights Hillary has as a human being, on a level that that that not many people have, and how she’s a lifelong advocate for change. As a young lawyer she was fighting for women's rights and she was on the board of lawyers that took down Nixon, which I didn’t realise until recently.
I've been so surprised and impressed by Hillary and Chelsea's humanity. And obviously, Chelsea in her own right is a global health expert and works tirelessly and brilliantly to help people in that way.
Then in my own life, there are the adventures I've undertaken, as well as philanthropy and my experience in film. It's a pretty special team and I think we can do some real good in the world as a company and at the same time, create a really strong business."
Is there anything else you want people to understand about HiddenLight?
"I feel that those of us who are creatives, storytellers and filmmakers have a genuine responsibility.
Right now, with the level of challenge that the world faces, I think everyone has a responsibility to use whatever medium they have to create a world with more compassion.
What that means is going to be different on an individual basis – it could be how people treat themselves, how they treat each other, and how they treat the world.
I’m trying to model this in my private life as well. Another of my passions is music, but I'm trying to make an impact as well as express myself and be creative. When I perform (as Waves Rush In) I’m trying to share my experiences and insights but more importantly to give others the licence to feel and share their own.
The songs on ‘Seasons Change’, for example, stem from wanting to remind myself to accept the ups and downs of life, where we come from and the possibilities of where we can go in this unique journey.
It’s all about striving for a better future and a kinder world together - and I think we have a responsibility to use whatever skills and opportunities we have to do that.
That's my big mission - how can we use every medium to inspire people to be a little bit more compassionate. I genuinely believe that as human beings, we can solve all the big issues.
And not only can we solve all these issues, but in the process of collaborating to solve them, we're going to create a much nicer place to live.
We need to be an antidote to the addiction that the world has to negative media. And everyone has a responsibility to do that."
We love that statement – we all have the responsibility and the ability to be more compassionate and make the world a better place. That leads us on to Big Change. Can you tell us more?
"Big Change came about after my sister and I and a load of friends ran the London Marathon. We thought we’d like to do it in a really fun way and so we had thirty-four friends dressed up as a giant caterpillar. We broke the world record for the most amount of people attached to each other. That was the whole way through, including loo breaks, which was quite interesting…
We raised quite a lot of money for charity but then about a year later, you find yourself thinking, where did that money go? How was it spent? We just had no idea. We knew there was something in this.
Then after the London riots, as young people, we were saying “Wow, I didn't realise there was such a level of frustration going on”. That all contributed to our thinking that we should found a charity that specifically focused on helping young people thrive in life, not just exams.
It seemed that all the focus is on how well you do academically and all the other parts of the human character was just put to one side.
So we founded Big Change - we’re all adventurers so we climbed Mont Blanc to launch the charity. Adventure is a personal love of mine, but I’ve developed a big passion for pulling people in through something adventurous and exciting, and then educating them without them realising it.
We’re proud of our achievements so far – through backing 45 Big Changers we've now directly impacted the lives of 7.7 million children and young people, 200,000 teachers and parents, 45,000 schools and communities and unlocked over £60million in follow-on funding.
As an organisation we back amazing entrepreneurial ideas that can create systemic change. So we're not interested in “plasters”. We ask what is the root cause of this problem, and how can we really change the system for good.
The idea is that we don't have to continue this for hundreds of years to come.
We raise money through different mediums – one of them is Strive, which is a fundraising event programme. These are big multi-disciplinary events, where we’ve done things like travel from London to the edge of Europe and halfway back again under human power.
But the main focus is on ideas that can really change the environment for a young person. A lot of people say “I want to change this individual child's life” but we want to ask who's involved in that child's life? How do we support parents? How do we support teachers? And how do we support change in the system? We give these people an opportunity to prove their model and then go on and get further funding.
As an example, one of our first projects was Frontline, which was the work of the people behind the Teach First model. They took the premise in to social care. We gave them £215,000 to support a three-year pilot and they ended up getting a large part of £40 million funding to scale their work nationally. Our early backing meant that they could show a new way was possible and they now train and support over 1/3 of all children’s social workers.
Right now we’ve got a very sharp focus on reimagining the education system. We think it's not totally fit for purpose today. That’s partly because it's just a very difficult thing to change.
We've just launched a new report: A New Education Story with our global network of leaders where they come together saying that we can't just put plasters on the old system but need to rethink what we are educating for. What do young people need to thrive in life, not just exams and how can we make sure young people, teachers, parents and communities are all part of the change rather than it happening to them)?
We're not going to be able to change the system unless we change standardised testing. No matter how good a teacher is, or how progressive the school or its head is, as soon as you have to hit certain criteria, all the good stuff just gets put by the wayside. We need to broaden our view of success and how we assess young people so we aren't just celebrating a narrow view, but can support all young people to develop and show their strengths."
I’ve personally seen the impact Big Change has had in local communities. Do you think that today it's possible to build an organisation – whether that’s a business like HiddenLight, or a non-profit like Big Change - without actually thinking about how community will support it?
"I think it's possible to build a business without thinking about community, but I don't necessarily think it's the right way. I think - what is a business *but* people?
If I've learned anything from the way my dad's done business, it's that he always says it's a group of people working together to try to add value to a situation or the world. If that’s philanthropy, it's trying to change a dynamic that needs shifting. If it's in business, it's trying to provide people with a service that they need.
The way that I look at business is to always simplify things. We know the world's a very complex place now but it’s also like a village. Back in the day, people in a village would be saying, I'm really skilled at woodwork, another person grows amazing apples, and the next person is skilled at healing.
A village community functioned on the concept that we all have something to offer - a value, a skill, and people would barter - "I'll give you 10 apples if you fix my kitchen table".
That sounds really crude and simple, but I always ask people who are coming into business, especially young people - what is your skill set? How can you add value? And what needs do people have?
If you're looking at business, you might be in an industry that people are already active and skilled in, but you can still ask what needs do people have that aren’t currently being serviced. Think how you can add value to that, and how you can create value in you and your product. Do that and there will be a demand for it, because that's just the law of physics!
So when we say business, I just think of a group of people working together to create things of value, whatever it is they’ve chosen. Whether it’s a charity, non-profit or a business, it's a group of people working together to solve the problem that they have.
I think a business is a community of people so without having it in mind, it’s not likely to be very successful or at least not a very rewarding place to work.
You need diversity - different skills, different sexes, different backgrounds and different ethnicities. This is a bit of an aside but the main philosophical reason why I was against Brexit is because I just believe in diversity. I believe in all sorts of different perspectives and views. And it has been proven that diversity is better for business, better for life, better for relationships, and in all sorts of different ways.
I'm also a very big believer that we need to drop the labels. I think labels, especially in the media, seem to dehumanise people."
We totally agree with that perspective on inclusion and diversity. On to our quick-fire questions - are you a fan of business management books or podcasts? And if so, what would you recommend?
"I'm not, but I'm very much into books of personal growth.
It comes back to the question of community. We're all human beings, and if we're people working within a business working on growing ourselves, we will grow our perspectives, and hopefully those of the people around us.
My personal view is business books are great but the number one thing anyone can do is focus on growing themselves as best as possible.
As you change your own sphere, the sphere around you will change. And if everyone's developing themselves, collectively, you'll be in a much stronger place and able to do better business.
I've got so many favourite books it’s hard to pick a stand-out but The 5am Club is one. It completely changed how I approach the day, and my scheduling, and really massively elevated my productivity."
What advice would you give to your younger self, or any entrepreneur starting a business today?
"I would say that you've got to do something that you're passionate about. Business is difficult - you’ll have setbacks, times that you pull your hair out, times of elation, but if you are deeply passionate about what you're doing, you will see it through.
If you're passionate, you’re excited. If you're excited, you're more open. If you're more open, you're more creative. If you're more creative, you're better at problem-solving. If you’re better at problem solving, you're better at getting done what you need to get done.
And more than anything, passion is contagious. As a leader in a business, the number one thing you can do is inspire the people who work with you."
If you weren't doing what you're doing today, what would you do? Where would you be?
"Probably trying to do what I'm doing today! I’ve always thought if I could go back in time, maybe I’d have wanted to be an extreme sports athlete, but that's a bit blue sky.
I think I’d be working towards being a full-time musician or some kind of storyteller but always combining those with my passions for adventure and a more compassionate world."
If you want to learn more about what Sam is up to visit him on Instagram:
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