I was coming out from a meeting a few weeks ago when someone made a comment about a CEO Summit in Lima, Peru, and that Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, was going to be a keynote speaker. I quickly researched the event and found out that the price tag to be a participant was about US$1,500. Unfortunately, I am a co-founder of a startup and not a chief executive at a corporation, so I could not afford it. But there is a reason why I really wanted to meet Branson.
A few years back, I remember reading on the news about a company promoting the sale of trips to space. It was the end of 2005 and it really grabbed my curiosity and attention. I have always had a passion for technology and at that moment I already knew that the daily life of today is just the science fiction of yesterday. The company was called Virgin Galactic, and they were proposing to open a pre-sale of tickets to go to space for US $200,000 a seat. The passenger had to pay a few years in advance for a guaranteed spot in a space journey—and it sounded like Star Trek—but I had just flown from Los Angeles to London in Virgin Atlantic, and it was such a different and amazing experience of air travel that I knew this company was for real. I wanted to get involved, but I did not know how.
I thought that maybe I could be the first one in Latin America to sell tickets to travel to space. I had a friend who had more than 10 years in the travel industry and she was thinking about starting a new travel agency. I suggested her that the new company should focus on the premium VIP segment and that we should try to get the exclusive rights to sell Virgin Galactic tickets in Latin America. I made a few phone calls and sent some emails, until we finally got a response from Ned Abel Smith, undersigned as “Astronaut Relations, Production and Marketing” at Virgin Galactic. I got really excited and we started to prepare the materials he requested.
I collaborated with the travel agency idea, assuming I would be getting a stake in the company. I looked for an office and found a great house, which I proposed to buy and rent to the new travel agency. I suggested that the logo design should have a spaceship flying around the world through space. My travel agent friend got an investor who was ready to finance a new travel agency but the investor did not like the space travel component of the project. Actually, most of the people around me thought it was a silly idea and that the travel agency did not sound like a serious company if we were to offer travel packages to space. During those days, I had to travel for work and when I returned back from my trip a couple of weeks later, the investor had already purchased the house that I had found and the new travel agency was already incorporated.
I was just kicked out of the project.
At that time, even though I had a college degree in Business Administration, a Masters in Economics and was a Ph.D. candidate in International Political Economy, I did not know what entrepreneurship really meant. I did not know what a startup was or how to structure a pitch deck. I had no clue that angel investors existed—willing and passionate to finance ideas for a small stake in the venture. I just did not know. I never had a mentor or an advisor for entrepreneurship. I guess I had always been an entrepreneur working in the dark.
But when I heard that the founder of Virgin Group was coming to Peru, I did not want to miss it. If I was not going to be invited to assist as a participant to the CEO Summit, I thought that maybe I could organize something and have Sir Richard Branson come to me.
At first, I asked my friends at the Global Entrepreneurship Week organization in Peru to propose to the Ambassador of the UK if we could host a cocktail party at the formal residence of the Ambassador. The Embassy liked and supported the idea. However, almost three weeks passed and we did not get feedback from Sir Richard’s camp. I did not want to wait much longer without a confirmation, so I searched for someone in my network that had one degree of separation with Sir Richard.
I am lucky to be a part of the Wayra family. Wayra is one of the largest and most successful startup accelerators in the world. I asked the Wayra global team to put me in touch with Ashley Stockwell, guest academy director at Wayra UK. Ashley has spent the last 19 years working across a range of Virgin businesses including Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Trains, Virgin Drinks, Virgin Mobile, Virgin Media and Virgin Galactic. Not many hours had passed since my first message to Wayra when I received an email from Ashley offering to drop a line to Sir Richard Branson himself and enquire about his availability to attend a cocktail party in Lima to network with some startup Peruvian entrepreneurs.
A few days later, I got an email from Ashley, putting me in touch with Helen Clark, personal assistant to Sir Richard Branson, confirming that he will attend the cocktail party. So I started to coordinate the details with her, the UK Embassy and Wayra Peru. Wayra Peru secured the best caterer in the country for the cocktail, the Ambassador was kind to offer the Residence for the event, and Sir Richard agreed to a 30 minute fireside chat and Q&A with the Wayra entrepreneurs, and to network with us for a couple of hours. And the cherry on top, I was asked to pick Sir Richard Branson up to take him to the cocktail party!
Almost eight years have passed since I thought about selling Virgin Galactic tickets in Latin America and on April 11, 2013, I had the chance to organize a cocktail party in Peru for the founder of Virgin Group. He had arrived to Lima in his private plane early that morning and he was scheduled to fly out of Lima that same evening after the cocktail. I have never enjoyed the Lima traffic so much! I was lucky to share almost 90 minutes on the road chatting with Sir Richard, Helen, Greg Rose from Virgin Group and Owen O’Connor, director of the UK Trade and Investment office in Peru.
During the ride, Richard told me that he schedules up to 20 talks per year around the world, raising about US $500,000 per talk for Virgin Unite, a not for profit foundation of the Virgin Group, that unites people and entrepreneurial ideas to reinvent how we live and work in the world to help make people’s lives better. Virgin Unite also incubates new, independent approaches to leadership including the Elders, the Carbon War Room, and the Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship. We kind of joked around about me owing him US$ 500,000 for the fireside talk and Q&A with the Wayra Entrepreneurs in Lima.
Before arriving to the Embassy, I could not help but share with Richard my idea of selling his space trip tickets in Latin America and how everyone told me I was crazy. Richard told me that the fellow that wrote back to me was his nephew Ned, who has changed his last name to “RocknRoll” and recently got married to actress Kate Winslet (Titanic, The Reader, etc). Unfortunately, I was not persistent with the space tickets idea. After I felt crossed by my collaborators on the deal of founding the travel agency, I had no motivation to continue the conversations with Ned.
But I did keep the email and I printed it out. At the end of the cocktail party, and before Richard left to take his plane back, he was kind to sign the Virgin Galactic email.
And what a message he wrote: “KEEP IT UP!”
Gary Urteaga (@Urteaga)
Gary is an ambassador and advisor for GEW/Peru. He is the co-founder of Cinepapaya.com, a startup finalist of Intel Challenge Latin America, accelerated by Wayra Perú and Start-Up Chile. He won 2nd place in Startup World Peru, 2nd place at the Best of Accelerators Startup Battle Latin America by The Next Web and it is the first Peruvian startup to receive investment from 500 Startups. Gary wasnamed one of the 10 Latin American entrepreneurs to watch on 2013 by Pulso Social.