10 Life Lessons From Vanessa Branson
10 Life Lessons From Vanessa Branson

10 Life Lessons From Vanessa Branson

Vanessa Branson is the younger sister of Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, but few realise that Vanessa shares the same entrepreneurial spirit as her brother, applying it to everything from art galleries and boutique hotels to the preservation of Eilean Shona, an island on the west coast of Scotland. We sat down with her to talk about her extraordinary life and what she’s learnt along the way…

Find The Wonder In Life

From many people’s perspective, my childhood was idyllic but, really, the fact is that my parents had lived through the war so they were determined to look on the bright side. In fact, growing up, our family motto was, ‘Isn’t life wonderful?’ If anything went a bit wrong, we were taught to try and find the funny side. It forged a very strong family spirit, even though I was the youngest of three and Richard, who was nine years older than me, was sent off the boarding school.


Give Yourself The Right Credit

Sometimes, particularly as women, we don’t give ourselves enough credit – especially as we get older. Growing up dyslexic probably had a lot to do with it. I enjoyed school, but I expect it would be quite a different experience today. Luckily, my parents were very encouraging when it came to taking different courses or taking on different jobs – I did lots of odd jobs when I was younger, and it was very life affirming. I wasn’t very risk averse and that was probably a good thing. Every single job taught me something. We weren’t exactly foolhardy back then, but we weren’t coddled in the way some children are today.


Surround Yourself With Interesting People

I met my husband Robert when I was 17. He went to Cambridge, which meant our posse of friends were largely graduates. It felt like I’d entered a whole new world that was full of energy and optimism. We were living in the moment and having a lot of fun. They were such creative people and when Robert started working for Virgin, it felt like a whirlwind. It’s extraordinary to think about what the team were all working on back then. In 1983, we were married and shortly afterwards, in 1986, I opened the Vanessa Devereux Gallery on Blenheim Crescent in London. We showed a number of emerging artists there, including William Kentridge’s UK debut exhibition. It was never about making any money, really, and I always hoped the next show would be the blockbuster. But it didn’t happen!

Vanessa Branson, 1980
Vanessa Branson, 1980

Muddle Through When You Have To

My career was something I was very passionate about, but I remember being on holiday with my family one year, where they tried to encourage me to start my own. I tried to protest, telling them how important my work was to me, but they insisted I could do both. They weren’t ganging up on me by any means, but rather trying to show me that it was possible to muddle through and enjoy everything life has to offer. I certainly ended up doing a lot of muddling through – we didn’t really take maternity leave back then and nor did we expect to leave our children in all-day care. You just found your own way to manage everything, even though the guilt felt overwhelming at times. In hindsight, you realise that self-criticism and anxiety is such a wasted emotion. I know I was a good mother – we had a lot of fun and I know my children are proud of everything I’ve done.


Pursue Your Passions

My father had lived in North Africa during the war and while he didn’t necessarily talk about that time a lot, we all knew he had a deep respect for the culture there. In 2002, after I’d closed the gallery following the birth of my third child, I went to Morocco with my friend Howell James, and we decided to develop an ancient crumbling palace in the centre of Marrakech into a beautiful boutique hotel – El Fenn. There was a lot of anti-Islamic feeling then post 9/11, so it was a bit of a mad decision, but my parents were (again) hugely encouraging. Over the years we’ve worked so hard on it – I hate not finishing a project – and I’m so proud of it now. 


Do The Right Thing

Despite joining marches protesting the invasion of Iraq, nothing changed, so I decided to set up a trilingual arts festival – the Marrakech Biennale – instead, comprising visual art, literature and film programmes featuring acclaimed international and Moroccan artists. It was intended to be a platform for debate, but I could suddenly feel all the threads of my life coming together. I know we gave lots of people a voice and helped to establish Marrakech as a richly diverse and eclectic platform for the arts. I felt a huge drive to make it a success.


Nurture The Planet

When I was pregnant with my fourth child, Robert decided we should buy an island. I thought he was bonkers, but I first saw Eilean Shona on a beautiful day and knew it had to be ours. We’re only its caretakers really – you never actually ‘own’ an island because you can’t take it with you – but it’s been under our wing for 30 years now. About ten years ago, I’d have probably given it away (it had all started to feel overwhelming) but we’ve recently had more time and money to invest in it and we’ve been developing a culture programme up there, including writing workshops and retreats for scholarship students. We also work with the Royal College of Scotland, to help with its cultural residencies. Lots of people are writing about the island itself – it really is the most wonderful place and its full of inspiration.

Vanessa Branson, Eilean Shona
Vanessa Branson, Eilean Shona



Learn From Life’s Challenges

Robert left our family when the children were very young and I was fundamentally a single parent for a few years, which was very challenging. I’ve been lucky in many other ways, but the end of my marriage floored me. So much so, that I even went back to him briefly – that’s how much I believed in our family. Our eventual divorce certainly affected our children, but everyone’s okay now. Robert’s a good father and that’s what matters.


Look Back To Look Forward

I started writing my memoir One Hundred Summers: A Family Story the morning after Donald Trump was elected. It was obviously a very distressing time and I felt this urgent need to cling onto my family values somehow. I started writing about my father, who was born in 1918 – so it was nearing 100 years of history. It’s an extraordinary experience writing in this way and I highly recommend it if you’re not sure how to move forward in the modern world. Looking back will open your eyes to what’s important and it will help you shake off a lot of shame around any regrets or missteps. It gives your mind the right foundation to be able to move into the next stage of your life. It’s like closing one chapter and opening the door to another.


Use The Time You Have To Have Fun

I’m lucky to be able to say there are lots of wonderful things happening in my life right now. I’ve just finished my first novel – which is based on a lot of my own experiences and is in the editing stage. It’s an exciting time. At this stage of life, it’s about taking risks and using the time you have wisely. Anything that’s worth doing won’t feel easy, but you’ll amaze yourself at what you’re able to achieve if you want it badly enough. It’s all about having dogged determination and a bit of fun at the same time if you can – that’s what being a Branson is all about.

Visit VanessaBranson.co.uk. You can also purchase a copy of Vanessa’s memoir here.

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