Defying traditional recruitment norms, Elena landed a top-tier consulting role without a CV. Her enthusiasm, motivation, and unorthodox approach led to an invitation for an interview that changed her career trajectory.
Elena's work on a UN project with BCG was transformative. Tasked with reducing response time in emergencies, the fruits of her team's labour weren't apparent until years later when her project was hailed as one of the best executed by the organization.
Elena's audacious leap into entrepreneurship is a compelling tale of strategic thinking meeting bold action. Applying her consulting acumen to dissect the value chain, she built an ice cream empire in Turkey, a country previously unknown to her.
“Look, I originally wanted to be a fashion designer.”
Elena’s parents disapproved, wanting her to follow in her father’s footsteps as a lawyer. Disagreement over her destiny drove her to leave home soon after turning 19. “Neither of us got our way; I went to school for civil engineering,” Elena says, “I worked at a bar at the same time. You don't do this in Italy. Leaving home, bartending, and studying engineering because it's one of the toughest things you can possibly think of.” Elena began falling out of love with engineering around the same time she had a conversation with the soon-to-be husband of one of her best friends.
Her curiosity was piqued as the man, a consultant at Arthur D. Little, began to paint a captivating picture of his work - diverse projects, interactions with various clients, and an ongoing journey of learning and growth. Interested, Elena inquired further about these intriguing 'consulting' firms, and in response, he generously penned down a list of potential employers on a disco napkin, adorning each with a star rating based on his personal preferences. The top-tier firms, such as BCG and McKinsey, received four stars.
Upon graduating, Elena wasted no time in contacting these star-studded organizations. Despite her impressive academic record and full-time work commitments, Elena's understanding of the corporate recruiting process was minimal. It was an era before email, so she faxed her CV, hoping for an immediate response that never came.
Undeterred, she contacted them, offering to resend her CV, suspecting a technical glitch in the fax transmission. Yet, the silence from the four-star companies remained deafening. Elena then lowered her sights on the three-star firms but met the same result. Elena, however, was not one to be easily defeated. As an engineer seeking to transition to another field, she discovered additional options while searching through the Chamber of Commerce for companies working with German clients. So, instead of sending her CV, she picked up the phone and offered to do an internship.
Her unusual approach seemed to strike a chord with the secretary, who transferred her call to a senior partner at one of the world’s biggest consulting firms at the time - Arthur Andersen. Elena’s sheer enthusiasm and motivation were undeniable, leading to an immediate invitation for an interview. Without time to prepare a CV, she hopped on a bicycle and headed straight to the interview. That led to a second, followed by a thrilling call - she was in - without even submitting a CV.
Her initial experiences in business were intense, akin to drinking from a fire hydrant while strapped to a rocket. But, starting as one of the firm's lowest-rated employees, she rapidly learned and improved. She was rated one of their best by the end of her second or third year. Eager for further growth, she decided to pursue an MBA.
Elena's time at INSEAD, a globally focused business school, was pivotal.
“INSEAD, it made me. I became a different person. This is really what shaped me, what made a big difference in my life.”
Next, she made it into one of those 4-starred firms on the disco napkin.
“In BCG, we were at the very beginning of our cooperation with the United Nations. And we did quite some exciting and experimental projects with them. But, you know, that was the World Food Program.”
The World Food Program is a vital entity, stepping in when lives are threatened by hunger due to circumstances such as tsunamis or civil wars. One of the program's most significant challenges is the urgency in delivering food supplies, as any delay can cost lives. During Elena's tenure, she was tasked with reducing response time in these emergencies, a project with immense logistical challenges due to the unpredictability of disasters and, often, the crippling of local infrastructure.
Elena's team devised a model to enhance delivery time, subsequently executing a global rollout. This involved travelling to remote locations, from Uganda to Zambia, for extensive on-ground training.
Initially, the fruits of their labour weren't apparent, leading Elena to express her frustration and even contemplate leaving the World Food Program. Yet, years later, she learned that her project was hailed as one of the best executed by the organization. This recognition shed light on her professional immaturity, overlooking the complex nuances of initiating change in a large organization.
Transitioning to real estate development, Elena worked on luxury developments with brands like Four Seasons and Bulgari. Despite her successful career, she questioned her path and faced a personal crisis. With the help of a coach, she confronted the fact that she had been living a life projected onto her by others' expectations.
Upon realizing that the corporate path was not what she wanted, Elena was left at a crossroads. Despite not knowing her destination, she yearned for a role that provided direct impact and accountability. With this newfound insight, Elena decided to become an entrepreneur.
However, she soon found herself in a predicament – she didn't have a business idea. None of the possibilities she explored, like retirement homes and bottled mineral water, appealed to her. Eventually, her love for food guided her path. She dissected the value chain, considering production and distribution and settling on retail for direct consumer exposure. After a structured thinking process, Elena narrowed her options to a bakery, a pasta bar, and...
An Ice Cream Empire in Istanbul
The reasoning was multi-layered; the initial investment was significantly lower compared to other options, an ice cream shop being around just 40 square meters. Although the equipment was costly, fitting and setting up the shop was relatively cheaper. Furthermore, the gross margin was staggering, around 85%. After all, she was selling sugar, either milk or water and air. This promising business model left sufficient resources for staff salaries, rent, marketing, and profit.
She toyed with the idea of pasta but quickly realized that ice cream was a treat while pasta was more of a meal. This subtle difference drastically affected the consumers' willingness to pay. It was more accessible for people to shell out four euros for an ice cream, but ten euros for a quick pasta seemed steep.
Returning to her home in Florence after globetrotting for her education and real estate career, she was adamant about staying put. However, building an ice cream empire from Florence or Italy, where she knew little about the sector and competition was already fierce, seemed impossible. Driven to find the ideal country to launch her venture, she meticulously crafted a list of macro and microeconomic criteria akin to BCG's approach. This list was uniquely balanced with her personal preferences, illustrating a blend of strategic and individual decision-making.
In the end, Turkey emerged as the obvious choice. This was back in 2010, when the country was still basking in the afterglow of a booming economy, despite the global financial crisis, and Erdogan's rule had not yet shown its controversial side. Articles in 'Il Sole 24 Ore', the Italian equivalent of the Financial Times, seemed to sing nothing but praises for Turkey's economy. Add to that the fact that Istanbul alone boasted a population of 18 to 20 million people, more than the entire population of the Netherlands, and it made sense to try and crack the market in this city.
Equipped with a business plan and fueled by her entrepreneurial drive, Elena journeyed to Turkey, balancing her part-time real estate job while investigating the local market and setting up a professional network to aid in launching her venture. However, life threw a curveball when her proposed business partner could not deliver the promised funding, leaving her venture in limbo.
In this precarious situation, Elena discovered her latent networking skills, raising the necessary funds for her venture and its future growth. It was an exhilarating journey, full of unexpected twists and turns, teaching her valuable lessons that she likens to an 'additional MBA.'
One key learning for her was humility and realizing the uncertainty inherent in the entrepreneurial journey. As opposed to her time at BCG, where forecasts were in known environments, and history was a reliable predictor of future performances, the reality of a startup was a blank canvas, full of potential but devoid of predictability. And from this learning, Elena set forth to navigate the unfamiliar waters of her ice cream venture.
“Through repeated tweaking, fine-tuning, and an unrelenting pursuit of comprehension, I started uncovering the secret recipe for my business model.”
The Turkish landscape started shifting. Once a rich fertile ground for ventures like Elena’s, the economy began to wobble under Erdogan. As a result, the once lucrative margins were getting slimmer, and with each new shop's launch, the risk of failure loomed larger. Initially planning to set up 20 to 30 shops before stepping back, she saw the terrain becoming increasingly challenging.
“Eventually, I passed the torch to a local player, whose family-run approach proved instrumental in keeping the business alive and thriving.”
After the sale, she found herself in the throes of endless possibilities. Should she dive back into entrepreneurship, stay in Turkey amid its growing complications as a lecturer for Koç and Sabanci University, where she was teaching entrepreneurship and innovation courses, or return to the corporate world? These dilemmas paralyzed her for a year until she started experimenting, leaning into what she enjoyed and eschewing what she didn't. That exploratory phase brought her to İTÜ ARI Teknokent, a Turkish incubator and colossal enterprise receiving 10,000 applications per year from startups wanting to participate in their program. This experience allowed her to mentor, guide, and nurture numerous ambitious startups, ranging from IoT to virtual reality, all trying to leave their mark in the complex and vibrant Turkish market. These years, filled with the infancy of blockchain, machine learning and virtual reality, were a whirlwind of excitement and innovation.
But amid the innovation and growth, she felt an unease. The complexity of Turkey's economy was stunting the startups, entrapping them in a cycle of local growth and distracting them from international expansion. To overcome this, she joined programs to expose these startups to the U.S. market, a pivotal step towards international recognition. Brimming with ambition, fearlessness, and top-notch engineering skills, working with these Turkish startups was incredibly rewarding and inspiring. However, the winds of change kept blowing, and she decided to leave Turkey in 2017.
“My decision coincided with two significant events - meeting my future Turkish husband and relocating back to Italy.”
Back home, she joined H-Farm, an enterprise that married her love for entrepreneurship with her consulting experience. Here, she was immersed in cutting-edge technology, e.g., a very early adoption of GPT. The company’s unique approach, unconstrained by individual sales objectives, resonated with her belief in authenticity and value-driven service.
Thus, the tapestry of her journey, woven with various threads of entrepreneurship, consulting, management, and technology, led her back to Italy. From opening shops to mentoring ambitious startups, her past experiences served as the stepping stones to her present and will undoubtedly shape her future. Yet, even as she journeys forward, she remains firmly grounded in the wisdom of her past, continually embracing the lessons embedded in failures and successes alike.
"Diversity of experience is what makes me what I am today," she says, "it helps me unpack and understand how to approach new situations."
The Power of Innovation at H-FARM
Elena’s work with H-FARM Innovation, now operating as MAIZE, demonstrates her commitment to pioneering projects. From developing a marketplace for beauty professionals to advising startups, Elena brings her wealth of experience to the forefront. She describes the organization as a “Thiel organization," marked by decentralization, competence-based hierarchy, transparency, trust, and strong community culture. It provides a stimulating environment for her, as she views success not as an individual accomplishment but as a shared victory with her work community. It's manifested in successful complex projects, satisfied clients, created value, increased revenues or margins, and tangible improvements brought by new solutions, methodologies, or frameworks her team develops and applies.
Beyond her work, Elena values social sustainability and is deeply concerned about the global economy's dismissive attitude toward specific individuals and communities. She is disturbed by instances such as child labour in cocoa harvesting and the exploitation of workers in cobalt mining for our everyday luxuries. These harsh realities have inspired her to act, aiming to become an independent board member in Italian companies to fight against these inequalities while offering support through her experience in internationalization, innovation, digitalization, and overall strategy. In this quest, Elena also prioritizes her personal life, seeking to ensure she has ample time to devote to her husband. Success, for Elena, is thus a balanced blend of professional achievements, social activism, and nurturing her relationships.
In conclusion, Elena's entrepreneurial journey is a testament to her resilience, curiosity, and willingness to defy conventions. Furthermore, her story serves as a reminder that success is not just about financial gain but about fulfillment, impact, and continuous growth. As she navigates the ever-evolving business landscape, Elena continues to inspire other aspiring entrepreneurs with her commitment to innovation, social responsibility, and personal growth.
Elena's story embodies the hero’s journey in its truest form, from overcoming initial challenges, seeking growth, and coming full circle with a richer understanding of herself and the world. Her perseverance, curiosity, and courage to learn and adapt continuously resoundingly demonstrate that one can transform challenges into opportunities for growth. Her odyssey truly embodies the evolution of a business maverick.
See what Elena is up to these days at: MAIZE
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