June 06, 2023

Diversity and differences: an asset to be valued

The importance of a culture of inclusion explained by someone who has been used since childhood to deal with inequalities and fighting against stereotypes in order to follow her own aspirations.

Maria Laura Albini is a professional with over twenty years of experience in Sales & Marketing in leading international consulting firms and companies, for which she has held senior roles with increasing responsibility. She has currently left her corporate career to devote herself to a series of entrepreneurial ventures, both at management consulting and startup level as a mentor and/or investor.

He is a Partner at ARAD Digital, an independent consulting boutique founded together with former colleagues and front lines of YOOX Group. The startup specializes in supporting companies in times of transformation, making the most of opportunities arising from the advanced use of digital channels. Let's get to know her better in this interview.

You describe yourself as an innovative person guided by the give-back philosophy. Can you tell us more about your background and career path?

Certainly, indeed I thank you for giving me the opportunity to do so. I was born and raised in the province of Milan, to a foreign mother and a deaf father, and since childhood I have been accustomed to dealing with diversity and cultural differences in an international context and often going against the grain of socially imposed standards to follow my inclinations.

My paternal grandfather was a simple person but at the same time a visionary; he was one of the heroes of the Lombard resistance, one ahead of his time, and he passed on to me a desire to do, to help others, to assert myself, and a passion for innovation. In fact, when I was ten, in 1990, he gave me the IBM PS/1, a magical object for me, with video games and different Microsoft programs, which allowed me to become familiar with the first technological solutions. By the time I was fifteen years old, I already had very clear ideas about what I would like to do when I grew up: I was convinced that I would open a company of my own, a company that would have a strong technological connotation. For this reason, unlike so many friends and acquaintances who chose classical studies, I decided to enroll in ITIS (Istituto Tecnico Industriale Statale), with a specialization in computer science, where I developed an interest in everything that can be done with a computer, which allowed me to grow in my career path, thanks to the analysis of data-driven business processes and Customer Relationship Management systems.

After ITIS, despite having already received several jobs offers from major companies, I enrolled at Bocconi University in Milan where I had the opportunity to study abroad at UCLA in Los Angeles, taking a course in e-Commerce, which was my last exam before graduating with honors in Business Administration, with a specialization on information systems. After that, I started working with Innext, a business and strategy consulting firm, and then moved on to Accenture, within which I worked for 5 years, trying my hand at a wide variety of sectors: from telecommunications/media, to banking, through Retail. In 2010, I joined as CRM manager in YOOX, for which I followed the set up and implementation part for both multi-brand and single-brand business; it was a small startup within a group that was already very important at the time. In 2015, I accepted the proposal of FC Internazionale Milano, creating the company's new CRM and Marketing department and contributing to the launch of the Media House, whose assumptions were to produce quality content, unique experiences, and innovative engagement models for Inter fans. Here again, although in a structured context, the activities I oversaw were set up from scratch, with a startup mentality.

Nearing the age of 40, I wondered where my childhood dream of becoming an entrepreneur and founding my own company had gone. So, in late 2019 and early 2020, together with old friends from YOOX, we developed our project, ARAD Digital, initially with not a few difficulties due to the pandemic and the subsequent cuts that our client companies had made to their budgets. All this prompted us to innovate our offering model, which started from pure advisory activities, to also offer temporary management activities to ensure the grounding of the initiatives proposed during our management consulting workshops. We support different realities in the digital transition. Today, we count a team of 30 people between consultants and collaborators, and the growth we are experiencing is really surprising and exciting for those who, like me and my partners, have seen the startup emerge and expand so quickly and in such a short time.

Alongside my entrepreneurial vocation, I combine my willingness to support young people, women, men and their startups, in their own growth paths because the philosophy of give-back has always been a part of me; I like to help people improve themselves and chase their aspirations, harnessing their potential. My path has not been without difficulties; in fact, there are many obstacles I have had to face in order to conquer the different job positions I have held over the years. With my story, I would like to be an inspiration to other people and, for this reason, I have decided to join mentoring and training programs, with several entities, including Accenture Alumni Association, for which I was recently appointed advisor in the steering committee, La Carica delle 101, Startup Bootcamp Fashion Tech , Valore D, SheTech, Young Women Network, WeSportUp and WomenXimpact. In addition, I support entrepreneurial ideas and new business startups through Enceladus Ventures which supports early stage startups and IAG of which I have the pleasure of being a partner. For several years, I have been teaching and I am currently Scientific Director of BEAT Academy, a professionalizing program organized by H-FARM and I always very gladly accept invitations from Bocconi and SDA Bocconi to explain to students what omnichannel CRM and Marketing is, through concrete cases I have had the opportunity to work on with my consulting firm.

Among the youngest Business Angels of Italian Angels for Growth (IAG). How did your passion for the startup world come about and what do you appreciate most about being part of a now well-established entity in the Venture Capital industry like IAG?

I have loved the startup world for as long as I can remember, because I love making things happen. Thinking about an idea and seeing it come to fruition, I find it to be the equivalent of achieving a small miracle, and I have had examples in my family and in my close circle of friendships or work relationships that have given me the strength to take this path for myself.

I also remember the exact moment when this idea was born. I was 15 years old, I was in the States visiting my American cousins, we had gone to Washington for Independence Day, and I don't know exactly what triggered in me; maybe the fact that I saw in the United States an open-mindedness that in Europe, in those years, there was not or maybe the perfect organization and realization of an event attended by thousands of people, triggered in me the desire to be able to build my own company, to become a reference figure in my field of study. In the evening when I mentioned this to my mother's cousin, who had already been living there for several years post-1989, when due to the communist regime she had to leave Romania, he tried to dissuade me in any way, saying that it is very difficult for a woman to acquire leadership roles, that so many people would try to hinder me. Perhaps, however, his very words contributed, along with the rest, to fuel my entrepreneurial desire; to prove first and foremost to myself my value and the contribution I could create for society.

With this idea in mind, I dedicated myself to the startup world starting with my dissertation, whose theme was launching a new business for the production of 2D and 3D mobile video games. I started as a Mentor with Startup Bootcamp Fashion Tech, Bocconi4Innovation, and WeSport Up, and then launched together with other former YOOXers Encelado Ventures. In addition, I also served as an external commissioner of the City of Milan for a dedicated call for startups during the covid period.

When I decided to join a structured group of business angels, I chose IAG among the different entities that exist in this field because it is one of the benchmarks in the industry. I had been following IAG for several years because I had had the good fortune to cross paths with some of the founders in my professional career, in particular Lorenzo Franchini, Paola Bonomo and Enrico Castellano, as well as historical partners such as Stefano Papini and Francesco Acabbi, friends, and former colleagues at Accenture, who over the years, always kept me updated on the developments of this beautiful project.

IAG, to me is, first, give back, that is, to help the startup world grow. In addition to this, it offers the opportunity to make investments involving private capital, serving innovative startups in Life Science, Deep Tech, Digital and Fintech companies and to join a network of industry professionals. In addition, IAG allows me to be constantly updated on technology trends and the Venture Capital world in general, a world that is still underdeveloped in Italy. IAG works every day to build a future in which innovation has the necessary resources to have a positive impact on society, and I feel very aligned with this vision. Investment in R&D in Italy compared to other European countries and the rest of the world is still low, and our industrial fabric is mainly composed of small and medium-sized traditional companies, often not very inclined to change. However, the market is asking us to redefine the rules of the game, not only financially, but also in terms of business sustainability, and companies, if they want to continue to be competitive, will have to innovate, in order to have a solid business model in the long run. Investing in innovative startups is one way to do that!

By the side of the community, recently engaged with "Mentorship Milano," a project created by women for women, with the aim of helping them enhance their talents to realize their dreams. In IAG, the percentage of female business angels has grown in recent years, as well as in the entrepreneurial projects analyzed and those in which partners have invested with at least one female founder. What is your advice for women who would like to approach the world of investment or would like to implement an entrepreneurial project?

Personally, I actively support the importance and richness of gender diversity and the empowerment of female leadership through mentorship programs such as the one promoted together with the City of Milan, to raise awareness and influence on the issue of stereotypes, to positively affect the conditions of young women, enhance their role in society, and contribute to overcoming the gender gap in the work environment.

I am convinced that the teaching of gender equality should be done from an early age and, for this reason, I became a mentor for Inspiring Girls , the program founded by Miriam González Durántez and promoted in our country by Valore D, which brings to middle schools stories of women, told by female protagonists, to encourage girls and boys to follow their own aspirations and ambitions, free from gender stereotypes.

I have always struggled firsthand against diversity and gender stereotypes, choosing studies and a career that were considered purely masculine. At the beginning of my career path, male supremacy in leadership roles was evident, and numerous were the discriminations I had to face. However, I always had a clear direction in mind, and perseverance and hard work allowed me to grow both as a person and in my work and achieve the goals I had set for myself. With my story and mentoring programs, my intent is to convey to the younger generation, and especially to girls, that there are no male or female jobs or activities, that it is crucial not to be influenced by prejudices and never to limit one's freedom of choice and dreams.

My advice for those who want to approach the world of investing is to turn to associations such as IAG that allow you to understand the logic and workings of this world and where there are professionals from different fields who can evaluate different investments. For those who, on the other hand, do not have the economic availability to do so, starting to collaborate as a mentor in the various existing accelerators including, for example, Bocconi4Innovation and StartupBootCamp FashionTech is definitely a way to start getting in touch with the founders and the various entrepreneurial initiatives. Especially for those who aspire to implement an entrepreneurial project, I recommend approaching this path professionally, because it is not enough to have good ideas. The difference between a winning project and one that is not lies in a magic formula consisting of: training, balanced team composition, product or service with an attractive potential market, and perfect execution.

In a recent post of yours on LinkedIn, you mentioned that you are very close to the deaf community since your father is deaf and so was your godfather. How important is it to be able to listen, and more importantly, how could we achieve a truly inclusive society, within the reach of all?

For me, knowing how to listen is essential, but often modern egocentrism-that is, the need to be the center of attention constantly-pushes us more to talk about ourselves and listen less to others. Goethe summed it up well when he said, "Talking is a need, listening is an art."

In my opinion, listening is the first and most important action to learn to improve one's ability to connect with other people. Hearing is not the same as listening; in fact, active listening is characterized by a voluntary act by which we decide to pay attention to the sounds around us, through the sensitivity and intelligence with which we are endowed. Deaf people can do anything but hear, this is a lesson I carry in my heart, and it also implies that anyone can do anything they set out to do if they approach situations with passion, courage and determination.

Knowing how to listen well is a skill that can be trained with practice and practice. This I learned as a child, on the one hand from the stories of my father and godfather, both deaf from birth, for whom silence was their playmate, and on the other from my mother, who was born and raised in another country, with a different culture and language. Personally, therefore, I have always placed an absolute importance on words and listening, because they allow one to empathize with the other person, which is even more important in the case of deaf people, but valid for everyone. Active listening means showing interest in the person in front of you, giving them importance, paying attention to what they are saying, trying to understand what they are thinking and how they deal with situations. This generates mutual trust and acceptance and consequently sincere and stronger relationships between people. If we all spent more time on active listening, it would help us promote coexistence and appreciation of differences in our society through a critical revision of conventional categories, countering discrimination and intolerance produced by judgments, prejudices, racism, and stereotypes, which also reflects the definition of inclusiveness according to Treccani.

I take the opportunity of this article to make an appeal to all of you. My godfather, whom I loved very much, unfortunately passed away last year, leaving us a legacy of his beautiful project to carry on, a project that all of you can support with a small gesture by donating your 5x1000 to support CABSS , an association that aims to support deaf and deaf-blind girls and children, giving them the tools they need to express their full potential, supported by knowledgeable parents. It is enough to communicate to your accountant or CAF the tax code 97350450587 to be included in your tax return: a small gesture that can make a difference for someone in need. Thank you in advance to everyone who will help me spread this message.