Partnering on the Planet’s Most Pressing Issues

Jean Oelwang believes that bringing together the right people for the right cause, and doing so with an entrepreneurial approach, can  help solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. Oelwang ’87 Bus is the founding CEO and trustee president of Virgin Unite, the Virgin Group’s independent nonprofit foundation. A former employee of Virgin Mobile in Australia, she pitched Virgin Unite to company founder Richard Branson after she heard Branson talk about wanting to increase his philanthropic endeavors.

Virgin Unite was founded in 2004, and in the years since, Oelwang and her team have worked with partner organizations to bring together groups of individuals from across the world working in business, government, and the nonprofit sector. These initiatives include the B Team, a group of business leaders focused on ensuring equal and fair workplaces, and The Elders, originally spearheaded by Nelson Mandela and his widow, Graça Machel, to focus on peace and human rights. “Importantly, this group of elders shows up in the world by always starting from a place of service to others, with no other agenda than that of people and the planet,” Oelwang says.

Last year, Virgin Unite launched the Planetary Guardians to address the urgency of climate change; the group comprises an intergenerational mix of experienced leaders—primatologist Jane Goodall, marine biologist Sylvia Earle, and former Irish president Mary Robinson—and a group of rising leaders such as Pakistani-American environmentalist Ayisha Siddiqa, Mexican activist Xiye Bastida, and Chadian geographer Hindou Ibrahim. “The conversations between the generations add richness and depth to the resulting solutions,” Oelwang says. “Both sets of wisdom are equally important and create far better outcomes when combined.”

Oelwang, a 2022 Alumni Fellow and author of Partnering: Forge the Deep Connections That Make Great Things Happen, founded her own nonprofit, Plus Wonder, to leverage the power of partnership.
—Parizaad Khan Sethi