Using Social Media to Spawn Italian Entrepreneurialism
Richard Boly and I worked together in the early 1980s at Regis McKenna, Inc., Silicon Valley’s legendary PR firm. I was impressed with both his intelligence and passion, but I was not surprised when he decided that PR was not for him and decided to return to college where I lost track of him sometime around 1985. Then, in 2006, out of the blue he emailed me. He had stumbled across Naked Conversations and was startled to find my name on the cover.
It turns out Richard became a career diplomat for the US State Department back in 1994. In the time since he and I had smiled and dialed for Silicon Valley clients, served in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Paraguay, Italy, and Washington, D.C., where he worked on U.S.-EU economic issues. He is the most junior diplomat to win the Cobb Award for commercial diplomacy.
Between his PR stint and his diplomatic career, Richard was fairly diverse in his activity, starting a shrimp hatchery in Ecuador, consulting the Inter-American Development Bank, and raising money for charities.
When Richard found me he was serving in the US Embassy in Rome, where he was focused on entrepreneurialism for Italians. I remember him telling me over drinks, when we got together in Palo Alto, CA, " Italy is the most charming place on earth, but it’s like living in a museum. Italians need new opportunities. They need to be closer to Silicon Valley and technology. He invited me to visit the US Embassy in Rome and speak with entrepreneurs. It has remained one of the great honors of my post-authorship career.
Richard serves now as the Coordinator of the Partnership for Growth, answering directly to the respected US ambassador, Ronald P. Spogli. In this role, he has, according to multiple sources, contributed significantly to Italian entrepreneurialism. In that capacity, he is also likely to be the person who has instigated more social media programs than any other diplomat. None of them is designed to extol the virtues of the US. All are designed to facilitate conversations that will help Italian entrepreneurs.
Here are his answers to my questions.
1. Can you briefly describe to me your duties under Ambassador Spogli at the US Embassy?
I work full-time on the Partnership for Growth (P4G), which is an initiative of Ambassador to Spogli, and the U.S. Mission in Italy to spur economic dynamism here. We are attempting to:
1) Move research to market;
2) Grow risk capital markets;
3) Spur innovation by strengthening the intellectual property rights (IPR) regime; and
4) Create and promote Italian entrepreneurial role models.
What is really unique about P4G is our creative use of new media tools such as blogging, interactive video webchats, BarCamps, LinkedIn, and even the cutting edge video conferencing technology of the Italian company TVBlob. This approach has allowed us to create a nationwide network of like-minded individuals and groups in less than two years. They help form the backbone of a developing Italian new venture ecosystem. It has also allowed us to carry our message unfiltered directly to the Italian people.
Even more amazingly, we have achieved this during a period when the U.S. “brand” has been under significant negative pressure, especially among our target audience – young Italians.
2. Why should the U.S. Embassy care about economic growth in Italy?
The simple answer is: enlightened self-interest.
We have no better ally and partner than Italy. Their economic development is in our mutual interest. Italy’s economy has grown at an average annual rate of less than 1 % in recent years. We risk having a great partner with the experience and capacity to join us to address future challenges without the economic resources to bring to the table.
We don’t have all the answers. Entrepreneurial ecosystems in America have evolved through trial and error, not some grand master plan. We share what we hope will be helpful.
P4G has taken a bottom-up, grassroots approach to promote an ecosystem that supports high-growth scalable ventures. We also try to avoid bureaucratic inefficiency and a slow legal system. These issues require a political consensus and more years than Ambassador Spogli has in his tenure in Italy.
3. How, when and why did P4G get started?
Soon after his arrival in 2005, Ambassador Spogli organized an offsite for his senior leadership team to identify long-term, strategic goals for the subsequent three years. He challenged us to look beyond our daily work and identify “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” worth pursuing. P4G was a key goal coming out of it.
We believe the P4G has created something in short supply in Italy: optimism. A 2004 Pew Research Center survey asked a simple question of both Americans and Italians: “Does success depend on factors outside of your control?”
Barely a third of Americans said yes, while fully two-thirds of Italians said yes. We Americans believe we are masters of our fate. This is an essential element of entrepreneurial risk-taking. Such optimism is in short supply in Italy, where all-too-often, private actors wait for the government to make the first move, before risking their own capital.
4. And just what did P4G accomplish in the three years since that meeting?
Here’s a whole laundry list:
- Fulbright BEST Silicon Valley Immersion Program. Top Italian science graduate students interested in entrepreneurship spend six months in Silicon Valley. They take a crash course in entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University and then joining a high-growth company in their field of expertise.
- Angel Investor Boot Camp. Twenty prospective angel investors spent two days with the Golden Angel Network based at Marquette University, and two days at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City. The learning and bonding that occurred led to the quick formation of the Italian Angels for Growth, a Milan based network that makes seed investments in Italian start-ups.
- Face2Face: Capturing Creativity [link in Italian]. This innovative, interactive video web chat allows students and budding innovators and entrepreneurs to watch live interviews with successful Italian entrepreneurs. Another Italian entrepreneur, who draws out the guest’s story, conducts the interview weaving questions from viewers, sent real time over the web. These live interviews are maintained as podcasts. The program has been well-received, with professors in nearly a third of all Italian universities weaving this program into their curricula.
- Deep-dive visits by serial entrepreneurs and tech transfer gurus. We’ve hosted nearly a dozen U.S. tech transfer experts and serial entrepreneurs who have shared information and strategies on the medical device, biotech, and pharma sectors. We also joined with the Kauffman Foundation to allow researchers to easily share their innovations. We hope Italy will be the first location outside of North America to participate in iBridge.
5. Tell me more about Face2Face. Was it the first online video program started by the US State Department? What has been the result?
Face2Face [Italian] is a video webchat “network” developed by our Public Affairs team in Embassy Rome. The most prolific user of this network has been “Capturing Creativity. “ The real innovation of Capturing Creativity is that it is unrehearsed, unscripted and the host and guest are Italians only loosely affiliated with the Embassy. We provide the platform, chose the guests, but otherwise let the Italians shape the discussion.
This program has helped build both virtual and real communities on entrepreneurship. By the end of June, we will have nearly 30 hours of quality interviews with first-generation Italian entrepreneurs. I believe that this is the best existing Italian language web content on entrepreneurship.
6. Marco Marinucci, a Silicon Valley Google executive, has started Mind the Bridge. What does the US Embassy Rome have to do with that? What’s your personal role?
I first spoke to Marco Marinucci in late September 2007 and discussed his vision for the Mind the Bridge business plan competition. It was a no-brainer to give Marco the full support of P4G and I urged him to speed up his launch so finalists could be announced at a high profile January 2008 Silicon Valley reception at which Ambassador Spogli would speak. We recruited great partners in Italy (First Generation Network) and Silicon Valley Business Association Italy America (BAIA) and Silicon Valley Italian Executive Council (SVIEC).
Mind the Bridge was launched in late November with a great social media publicity blitz. (What do you expect from a guy who works at Google!) We printed pocket-sized publicity cards and distributed them at universities around Italy. We urged university professors to promote the competition among their most innovative students. Ambassador Spogli taped a promotional video that ran on the Mind the Bridge website.
In barely four weeks, Mind the Bridge attracted nearly 50 applicants. Marco, BAIA and SVIEC assembled an A-team of Italian and Italian-American entrepreneurs and VCs to evaluate the submissions and chose the six finalists. The finalists were teamed up with mentors in Italy. Mentors will help the finalists polish their business plan and hone their elevator pitch. The Mind the Bridge finale will be public presentations by the finalists in San Francisco on April 1 (no joke!). That same week, finalists will meet with potential investors or business partners in Silicon Valley.
7. Could you tell me about First Generation Network? Are you involved in that as well?
First Generation, like Face2Face, grew out of a dinner I had in Milan in December 2007. When I first met Marco Palombi, I was blown away. I didn’t know that there were young serial entrepreneurs like him, because I hadn’t met any in Rome. Marco said that Milan was different and so when I first visited Milan, I asked Marco to get some serial entrepreneurs together for dinner. That night, I met Michele Appendino, who founded one of Italy’s few venture funds and who now is investing in the solar space. I also met Gianluca Dettori, who as the head of Vitaminic was the youngest CEO of an Italian publicly traded company. He now is investing in and mentoring a group of Italian start-ups – kind of like an angel investor on steroids. I met Massimiliano Pellegrini, who grew through the roof of Dada USA’s mobile phone content sales.
This group observed that US entrepreneurs are treated as rock stars, while in Italy, they remain unknown. We talked about how the “young entrepreneurs” group within Confindustria (the national association of employers) had few 1st generation entrepreneurs, but were mostly the young scions of old money. We lamented mainstream media’s unwillingness to help distinguish in the public’s mind between first generation entrepreneurs, who risk their money and reputation on a new venture, and the sons of self-satisfied incumbents, who devote more time to protecting their rice bowl than innovating.
I recounted the many conversations we had had with young Italians and the many blank looks we received when we asked them which Italian entrepreneurs were their role models. Not only did they not have Italian role models, they couldn’t name any young Italian entrepreneurs.
I expressed my view that in achieving social change, sharing the experiences of pioneers representing the change sought is crucial. If young Italians could see that people, just like them, had risked and succeeded (or failed, but had gone on to risk again and succeed), we could spread the acceptance of entrepreneurial risk taking. I used the simple analogy of a packed beach on a hot summer day. If you arrive and see no one in the water, you’ll wonder what’s the matter – sharks, jellyfish, razor coral. But when you arrive there are lots of people in the water, you’ll jump right in. We needed to get the message out that Italy’s entrepreneurial waters were inviting and safe.
Marco and Michele began to recruit fellow first generation entrepreneurs to join the new organization, the goal of which was to provide entrepreneurial role models and mentor the next generation of entrepreneurs. First Generation Network publicly launched in June 2007 at a “entrepreneurs’ summit” held at Ambassador Spogli’s residence. In addition to Ambassador Spogli, luminaries who spoke to the gathering of 80 young entrepreneurs include: Andrew Viterbi, co-founder of Qualcomm; Carl Schramm, President of the Kauffman Foundation; Giacomo Marini, co-founder of Logitech; Alberto Sangiovanni Vincentelli, Berkley Professor and co-founder of Cadence and Synopsys; Renato Soru, Governor of Sardinia and founder of Tiscali; and Minister for Innovation Nicolais. You can watch the event (all in Italian, except for Schramm) on the web.
Being in the vanguard has at times been frustrating for First Generation Network. For example, the leading business daily, Il Sole/24 Ore, recently did a two-page spread asking questions of eleven Italian innovators. Six of the eleven were 1Gen members, but 1Gen was never mentioned in the article! Frankly, the relationship with the Embassy has also presented challenges. As I mentioned before, “dietrologia” or divining the “real” truth is core to the Italian press and First Generation Network has not been immune to such creative interpretation.
8. Are other US Foreign Service posts involved in entrepreneurship? Do they use social media? What advice do you have for them in that area?
Yes. The State Department and other government agencies such as the Commerce Department have programs to support entrepreneurship overseas. Some of the most noteworthy include: Middle East Entrepreneur Training as part of The Middle East Partnership Initiative; the Economic Empowerment in Strategic Regions – an inter-agency initiative led by the State Department; the Partnerships for Promoting the African Entrepreneur; and the Enhanced Partnership in Northern Europe (e-PINE), and the Department of Commerce’s Program for Entrepreneurial Growth. Also, the State Department “America.gov” website highlights Entrepreneurship in its “Achieving growth through open markets.”
Partnership for Growth is unique in that it is a systemic initiative born out of the U.S. Mission Italy, based on dozens of consultations with experts in both Italy and the United States. The P4G itself is a bottom up initiative, with elements of our Embassy in Rome and our Consulates in Florence, Milan, and Naples, weaving together literally hundreds of activities that support the four key P4G pillars outlined in question one. We have also identified and in some cases help create like-minded Italian organizations that help multiply our efforts.
9. I am conducting this interview under sponsorship from SAP, a global software company. Of what relevance should these entrepreneurial and social media programs be to them or any other enterprise?
The simple answer follows from the rationale for the Partnership for Growth: an economically strong, dynamic, and open Italy will be a good place to do business. Italy is a founding member of the G-7, so its economy makes up an important part of the world economy. Since increasingly, global companies bring innovation in from the outside through acquisition, a more dynamic new-venture ecosystem in Italy will offer fertile new ground to acquire new innovation. A more dynamic Italian economy will also increase the demand for new technologies and services.
10. Several Italian entrepreneurs have either moved to the US, announced intentions of doing so or have based their businesses in the US. Do you think programs such as you have started might stem the outflow of young tech talent from Italy to the US?
We hope the P4G will help create an ecosystem in Italy that will support young Italian entrepreneurs. We have no interest in furthering the Italian brain drain, and in fact, the visa our Fulbright BEST scholars receive as part of the Silicon Valley Immersion Program require them to return to Italy at the end of the six-month program.
We understand there are many models to building a new venture ecosystem, an exciting one for Italy being the Israeli approach. A decade ago, U.S. VCs were not beating a path to Israeli entrepreneurs’ doors, so entrepreneurs from Israel moved their front offices closer to Sand Hill Road, while keeping their technical teams back home. This lead to a rash of Israeli IPOs and VCs decided it was a good idea to open up offices in Israel to access the source of this entrepreneurial spirit.
There are a few examples of Italian companies taking this tact, something the Partnership for Growth has supported. Media Lario is one. Funambol, the open source software company that allows you to push your Outlook files to your mobile phone i.e. doing what a Blackberry does, has its software developers in Pavia and its corporate offices in Redwood City. We hope by developing linkages between Silicon Valley and Italian entrepreneurs, that we can spark more such ventures.