It’s been a long journey so far, but what a ride! I was born in a small Italian city, the kind that many of us want to escape from because they are claustrophobic, conservative, with no real opportunities for people who think ‘outside the box’. I was always a bit weird, compared to many of my friends, in that I spoke English with my mum at home, an oddity which I was ashamed of at the time, but which became my passport to the world. Since I was a child, I wanted to do something that made me travel and made the world a better place. When I was a little older than a teenager, after finishing my studies at Bologna and Sussex Universities (Erasmus, what a blessing), I decided to move to London and look for work in the international development/NGO field. I had this idea of me working in some remote African village, building wells, teaching kids, distributing food aid. And I am proud to say that - after a miserable start stuffing envelops for a Britsh NGO for 6 months - I had my first breakthrough: an assistant job, working closely with the field officers and the local partners. I started climbing ‘the ladder’, meaning I started getting better jobs, going abroad, learning new skills in project management, fundraising, communication and whatnot. It was an exciting time, working hard paid off, and I had no one to thank but myself.
However, a little voice in my head started telling me that there was something wrong. I didn’t like many things, from the fact that I was managing projects and handing out money to people who didn’t really want to talk about ‘participatory assessments’, but wanted a job and live in a dignified way with their families and friends. People who really just wanted what everyone else wants: enough money for food and a nice house, plus maybe a little extra cash for some fun. There was such moralist attitude in many people I met - especially those who handed out the cash for these projects - the kind that goes “You are poor, you don’t really know what you need”. And then there were the power-dynamics, the politics, the hypocrisy, the patronising attitude ('but they are soooo happy, in their villages! I really wish we could be more like them!").
Us and them. The white and the black. The European and the rest. The civilised and the ones who are on their way to becoming so (the fantastic expression “developing countries”, tinged with political correctedness in opposition to “Third World”, which was just another way of saying “c’mon guys, try to be a little more like us and you’ll be just fine!”). Except, that they were not, despite years of “development”, getting any better - if anything worse - and “we” (the rich ones) were just doing the same thing over, and over and over. A little disgusted by it all, I decided to embark on a transition. I still wanted to ‘help the world’, but I wanted to do it in a smarter way, and I wanted to do it with people who were doing it in a smarter way. A lot of stuff was changing in the world at the time - Seattle, Genoa, then 9/11 - which somehow made the world look harder, more hostile and combative. This was more or less the time when I discovered social entrepreneurship, this world of people who started companies and made money while helping the world at the same time. I decided that this was the area I wanted to explore. I left my paid, full time job, started doing odd consultancies here and there, started asking myself questions, went back to school to try to answer some of these questions (didn’t, but learned a lot of answers other people had cooked up) and then set off looking for adventure.
As it happens, adventure came my way, after a series of twists and turns (if you leave a door open to the world, you never know what might come in!). This adventure was called The Hub. I became fascinated with the idea of a place where people like me could meet, could come up with ideas, projects, even businesses, that could make the world better. I loved - in the era of technological connectivity - that it was all about the physical, the spacial, the design, the cool things that make people go “WOW!”. I decided my transition challenge was going to be going back home (Italy) but in a different and bigger city (Milan) and see whether I could start a social enterprise called The Hub there. My friends thought I was crazy - why go back to a country you have left and which is far worse than when you left it in the first place? But this was the real challenge: changing the world had to start at home, because this is where it’s hardest.
I did it. I set up the Hub Milan - in the midst of the worst financial crisis in years - and doing it taught me loads of lessons. There’s nothing like full-on responsibility and entrepreneurial risk to make you feel like you are REALLY doing something. There’s nothing like spending all the money you have put aside (or your parents gave you) to make you feel like you are really jumping off a cliff. And there’s nothing like being immensely proud about something you are doing to restore faith in yourself and in the world. It was hard, it led to sleepless nights, to worrying about stuff all of the time, to becoming hyper-sensitive to every little mistake, to learning how to trust other people, but also (a first time in my life) to learning that when this trust is not deserved, one should not be afraid to be firm. And now that the Hub is done - it stands beautiful and proud in the middle of Milan, my own social enterprise - I can call myself a social entrepreneur. And what is most: I gained the respect and trust of lots of people, and even though I came back to London when my son was born (wow! now THAT’S ANOTHER TRANSITION!), I still feel completely connected with hundreds of people whose paths I crossed and whose future (I hope) I contributed to reshape.
My greatest lesson? If you are afraid, don’t be. You might get hurt when you jump, but it’s far more painful to live thinking “what would have happened if I…?”. This notion made me understand that the future is not a train set in a track that we board at some point. WE are the future, and if we jump we can make of it what we want.