When Richard Branson was around six years old, he was in the backseat of his mother’s car on his way to visit his grandmother.
With about four miles to go, the future billionaire founder and chairman of the Virgin Group started acting up – and his mother, Eve, stopped the car, pushed him out, and told him to find his own way there.
More than 30 years later, Branson explains in the new documentary “Don’t Look Down,” he found himself feeling just as desperate as he stood on a massive hot-air balloon, preparing himself to jump and release his parachute before he reached a point of no return.
The film chronicles Branson’s two record-setting hot-air balloon trips – a transatlantic one in 1987 and a transpacific one in 1991 – in which Branson and his copilot Per Lindstrand both faced death. “Don’t Look Down” features an interview with Branson’s mother, serving as insight into the mindset that has made Branson such a risk-taker.
“She was incredibly supportive, lots of love, but every opportunity she had, she would push us to the limits,” Branson told Business Insider at Virgin’s New York office, where he was promoting the film.
In a Virgin blog post from 2013, Branson explained that on that day his mom kicked him out of the car, she was punishing him for “causing mischief in the back seat,” but his lonely, scary trip to his grandmother’s house ended up becoming an experience he would grow to become grateful for, and one symbolic of the way she raised him. He was to always be in control of his emotions and rely on himself to get what he needed.
These traits would combine into a love of adventure.
Branson told us that his mother piloted glider planes, parachuted, and was one of the first air hostesses on a jet airliner. “She did quite a lot of adventurous things herself,” he said. “And I think she sort of expected it of her sons, so I had a lot to live up to.” In fact, he says in the film that before he was born, his mother was preparing for him to be prime minister. “I think I soon realized that if I were to satisfy her wishes for her son, I had to do some pretty extraordinary things in my life.”
Eve had her son develop a certain stoicism in the face of challenges. “His whole upbringing was to think of other people,” she says in the film. “He wasn’t allowed to be angry. He wasn’t to be jealous. Fear wasn’t allowed. All those things had to be squashed.”
Throughout his career, Branson has taken his mother, now 93, along to either witness or participate in his adventures. “We just did a 1,500-mile bike ride from the north of Italy to the south of Italy and she drove with the grandkids following us,” he said. “So it’s great that my mother’s able to participate in these things.”
Describing the day Branson made his transatlantic flight in ’87, Eve says, “My husband was terrified, but I just couldn’t think that way, because I think I quite would have liked to do a lot of it myself.”