Smoke em up!

That was the unexpected message for thousands of budding entrepreneurs who paid to come to Chicago’s McCormick Place on Tuesday morning hoping to hear business tips from laid-back British billionaire Sir Richard Branson.

The 66-year-old Virgin Group founder mixed in some unorthodox parenting advice for entrepreneurs about raising their children along with his more conventional business bromides.

“If they’re going to have a joint, do it with them,” the father of two told conventioneers from the stage. “Don’t let them sneak off and do it on their own.”

After a smattering of awkward laughter, Branson felt compelled to add that “I’m on the global drug commission” and that he has been working hard to reinforce the idea that drugs are “a health problem and not a criminal problem,” a message which got a warmer response from his audience.

Though it seemed to catch many in the audience unaware, Branson has made no secret of his occasional marijuana use and has been an advocate for decriminalizing marijuana.

Stephen Kelly, the CEO of conference organizers Sage, had prompted the off-script remarks from Branson during an onstage Q&A by asking him how he made sure his children learned their values. Kelly briskly moved the conversation onto safer areas and cued up videos that showed Branson meeting with Nelson Mandela and other statesmen, and Branson’s attempts to conquer commercial space travel.


A well-rehearsed anecdote about how Branson founded Virgin Atlantic Airways by renting a jet with his credit card after he and his fellow passengers were left stranded overnight in Puerto Rico by American Airlines allowed the billionaire to point to his rock ‘n’ roll past.

The day after he hired the jet, Branson said he called up Boeing and told them that he owned a record label that handled artists including The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols and Phil Collins and “I’d like to know if you have any second-hand 747s.”

Pitched another softball question about how he manages his work-life balance, Branson said he had learned to delegate at an early age. In a reference to his private Caribbean island, Necker Island, he said that “I’m lucky enough to work on an island,” adding with a chuckle as he motioned to the crowd, “and one day you can all do that too.”

After a brief stop in his backstage trailer, Branson was whisked away by handlers who declined to allow a Chicago Inc. reporter to speak with him.

Article first shown on Chicago Tribune