April 27, 2022

European and American investors: interview with Laurenne Hemily-Figus and Andrea Di Natale

The point of view of Laurenne Hemily-Figus, among the very first IAG members since 2008, and Andrea Di Natale, who joined the network almost two years ago.

Laurenne Hemily-Figus has worked in Washington, London, Chicago, and Milan in international finance for nearly 20 years at the most renowned investment banks in the world. He then decided to embark on an entrepreneurial path by launching products that protect the environment. He obtained a Ph.D. from King's College in London in Environmental Sciences. During this same period, he also found the time to buy and manage various properties in 3 different countries and on 2 continents and started immersing into the world of Business Angels.

Andrea Di Natale lives in the Netherlands and specializes in the scale-up of the Operations of Tech companies. Always passionate about developing hyper-growth organizations, systems and processes, he has worked for start-ups and large companies in America, Africa and Europe. He is currently Head of Global Operations at Oyster, a start-up in the Human Resources sector.

Laurenne Hemily-Figus

What is your background and how did you approach the world of business angels?

I grew up in France. Having a little sister with Down Syndrome, my dream was to study medicine in Paris. But for economic reasons and family needs, I had to move to Washington and go through a training course more suited to my financial situation. I received support from the Catholic Church and drowned in studies at a Jesuit university, with the commitment to achieve economic independence as soon as possible to help support my sister and mother. Graduated at 19, I started working on the staff of an American parliamentarian, followed by consulting for the World Bank and then joining international financial institutions. I discovered the world of Venture Capital in 1987, in London on the trading desk, with the responsibility of syndicating an important American Venture Capital Fund internationally. In 1990, I worked with Continental Bank in Milan on the first Private Equity Fund (and found one of the fund's founders in IAG many years later). Later, I became responsible for the first trading desk of Leveraged Buy Outs (LBOs). These experiences spurred me to launch into the entrepreneurial field, dedicating myself to the environment sector. It seemed to me the one that was objectively closest to my initial passion, medicine and saving lives. Shortly after moving to Rome, I discovered IAG and with Betsy Robinson (also Phi Beta Kappa) we became the first two female members of IAG in September 2008.

You have a great interest in strengthening private sector initiatives and partnerships with governmental and intergovernmental organizations that promote environmental protection and related human values of health and employment. What future do you foresee and how important is it to raise awareness about environmental issues?

The role of governments and governmental and intergovernmental organizations that promote the protection of the environment are essential to achieve true and substantial protection of both the environment and the related human values of health and employment. I believe that there must be clear and precise laws that private and public companies must oblige. That said, creativity and passion can and must lead to solutions that are not only positive for the environment and health but also economically interesting for entrepreneurs. Innovation, disruptive technology, and logistics are the fields that I am most passionate about right now. But at the base it is always the people who make the difference.

Over the years you have financed and sponsored several startups and lived in the US and England. Do you confirm the tendency among US investors to invest in a concentrated manner, i.e., investing a lot in a few winning companies, unlike European investors who tend to diversify investments, i.e., investing little in many companies regardless of their chance of success?

My very opinion is that US investors are known as "zip code investors." Perhaps because they can find so many investment opportunities in their own "zip code" and do not need to go too far from their border. And they typically bet significantly as well. It is also true that they are less aware of the reality outside their geographical area and are less likely to consider investments elsewhere. European investors, on the other hand, tend to diversify their investments more and to follow the “spray and pray” model I have seen done in Israel. This is partly due to various reasons, which are slowly changing, such as the lack of tax breaks and relatively fewer investment opportunities at the local level. Even if the great initiative of my partner Luigi Capello with LUISS ENLABS is giving new important outlets for the creativity of Italian entrepreneurs, there’s still a long way to go.

Multiculturalism has a considerable weight in the creation of innovation. Given your experience abroad, what advice do you feel you can give to young Italians who intend to create or work in a startup?

First, I would recommend getting involved in socio-economic-cultural programs for the sake of the environment and health, such as RetakeRoma (in which my 4 children have participated from the beginning). Then I would say that it is essential to go abroad to deal with other realities, abandoning your "comfort zone" at all costs. When one is no longer in control of one's environment, he does not dominate the language and is forced to confront other customs and cultures, which I believe provides a glimpse of another point of view, allowing dreams and passion to become reality. I have worked for more than ten years creating initiatives and platforms to assist Italian children to study abroad, mainly in England and to join one of the best-known Israeli technical-scientific universities.

Andrea Di Natale

What is your background and why did you choose to be part of IAG?

I have a background in engineering and consulting, and since the beginning of my career I have been passionate about the Tech sector. In 2009 I moved to Silicon Valley, where I earned an MBA from Stanford and worked with Tech companies in the Bay Area. There I discovered the world of start-ups and Venture Capital, and, thanks to my professional network, I became a business angel.
In 2015 I returned to Europe where I continued to work in the Tech sector, mainly in the scale-up of Operations, initially with Jumia (e-commerce in Africa, IPO in 2019), then Booking.com, and finally Oyster (HR platform, Series C), of which I am currently responsible for Global Operations. I joined IAG two years ago because, beyond the investment opportunities, I wanted to deepen my knowledge of the Italian and European ecosystem of start-ups and VC tech and make my experience in operations available as an advisor or champion.

You said you have important professional experience abroad, including over five years in Silicon Valley. Can we still think that an ecosystem like Silicon Valley could be born in Italy or is it an already outdated model?

The Silicon Valley ecosystem was born from a combination of access to talent (e.g., Stanford, Berkeley), capital (e.g., Sand Hill Road) and a culture of risk. This created a virtuous circle, which allowed many brilliant ideas to become reality in a short time. In my opinion, the ecosystem is currently under pressure from the point of view of talent (with trends such as great resignation or remote work) and capital (with surplus and excessive valuations).
I find it difficult to adapt such a model in Italy, particularly because of the difference in access to talent and the culture of risk. I think that in Italy there is still a strong propensity to look for a permanent job in a stable reality (perhaps with fewer prospects), instead of taking risks in an unknown start-up. Furthermore, Italy has a harder time attracting international talent due to both the legislative framework and the language barrier that still exists.
Furthermore, in my opinion, there is still work to be done on education in the start-up sector and on collaboration with universities. When I graduated from the Polytechnic of Turin, I had no idea how a start-up worked, and I would have never considered a career in that area.

What are the most important obstacles entrepreneurs face in founding a startup outside the United States? How important is it to have willingness to take risks and the possibility to fail?

1) Size and speed of market access 2) Access to human capital 3) Access to financial capital

1 - Size and speed of access to the market. In the United States, an entrepreneur has immediate access to a market of 300M people and can ''sell'' in 50 states that have the same language, the same services and generally the same regulations. Furthermore, the legislative framework is conducive to innovation, and offers fast and streamlined processes for registering and launching a new idea. The entrepreneur himself in Italy is faced with a more fragmented market and slower processes.

2 - Access to human capital. In the US, it is not unusual for a senior executive from a large company to leave the senior position to 'take a chance' in a start-up. In addition, a resume with entrepreneurial experience - even if it has failed - is highly appreciated by small companies. In Italy this is less common, and therefore it is generally more difficult to create a high-level team with the experience to scale-up. In this sense, IAG has a very strong added value, supporting and completing the skills of the founding team.

3 - Access to capital. Despite the fact that in Europe the ecosystem of VCs and angel investors for early-stage financing has matured a lot in recent years, the financing opportunities still remain lower than in the US.

You have been with IAG for two years, what has surprised you the most?

First of all, the value and passion of the community of angels and advisors. The multidisciplinary nature of the community allows us to evaluate the investment from different perspectives, and to find experts in the specific sector / market we need. I particularly appreciate in-depth discussions after membership meetings, with often heated and exciting debates.
Furthermore, I was pleased to see the willingness of the other members to dialogue even outside the meetings. This allowed me to further expand my network despite the physical distance to Italy.
Finally, I was positively surprised by the professionalism and organization of the IAG team - especially in the presentation and due diligence phase of the deals. A real added value for those who, like me, follow the activities only part-time.