Creativity and innovation, hallmarks of the Italian spirit for design and craftsmanship, run throughout the innovative Italia Independent. Fusing contemporary design, Italian know-how, meticulous attention to detail and non-traditional materials, it encapsulates the best of the country’s assets and is best known for its unique eyewear creations. Founding partner Lapo Elkann takes a look at what it means to be a successful leader, company, and nation.
Do you consider the ‘‘Made in Italy’’ brand a competitive advantage for the country?
I don’t like the expression “Made in Italy” at all. It is an old concept. It represents the 80s. A better definition would be “created, crafted and conceived in Italy”, which is more powerful. “Made in Italy” puts the focus on the production, but we do far more than that. We create, we build projects and then we produce. “Made in Italy” does not represent all the amazing intangible assets and know-how that shape our ideas and products. We have amazing artisans, outstanding companies and excellent entrepreneurs. To give you an idea, leading French luxury groups have established their best production lines here in Italy. So, creativity and innovation are definitely amongst Italy’s best assets.
I am aware that you worked with one of the greatest diplomats of all times, Henry Kissinger. What are the key lessons that you have learned from him?
I have been PA to Henry Kissinger and I worked for him for two years. One of the most important things that I have learned is that when you achieve, or you did something well, you could have always done better. And that is something you should never forget. Emotional intelligence is key. Additionally, you need to be smart and understand immediately who are the people that support you, who are the ones against you, and who will challenge you. Through their eyes and gestures you can read people and understand what they are going to be like.
Being an entrepreneur means also being a leader. What do you think are the skills that innovative leaders should have?
In my definition of leadership I should, first of all, state that I despise arrogant leaders. I despise presumptuousness and I do not like mean-spirited people. In my range of actions and in my work I always try to put kindness at the center, even if sometimes I expect people to overachieve.
I like things to be done properly, and I am meticulous. The reality is that in order to be a leader, you need to do more than others, and to succeed you need to be very clear that what you say is what you do. It is essential to look at your teams and find ways to help your human resources grow and be always motivated, because they are the best assets of the company. A happy employee or a happy collaborator will make a better company. I consider myself very direct. I do not like formalities and fake impressions because they slow the business down. Moreover, I believe active listening is very important. I always try to hire people from different areas for my company, as they surely have something to teach me. It is very important to include in your teams people that are talented, capable and hungry. I am constantly hungry myself.
My story as an entrepreneur starts in high school. I was so bad at school that failure pushed me forward. My student life was frustrating, so I decided to seek success myself, my own way. If somebody said no to one of my ideas about a product, I would not listen. I would push everything to make it happen. Many people fear innovation and are incapable of seeing it.
I believe innovation is the key to success. My first glasses were made of carbon fiber. I am the first one who developed them. I am the first who did thermo-sensitive eyeglasses that change at 30 degrees of body temperature. I was already doing matte finishing on cars 15 years ago, not now when it is trendy.
I like to anticipate trends. Cross-pollination of ideas is the key. You must be able to borrow ideas from different industries. Therefore, we get to the most important factor about great leaders: humility. Being humble is important not only in the way you relate yourself to others, but also in the way you see yourself. You can be extremely successful without having to push other people down, because that is a sign of insecurity – which in turn is an indicator of non-leadership. However, insecurity can be an asset too because it may lead to constant innovation.
A good leader must also be visionary. It must be a person who grows his or her projects with a clear vision and who brings something that has not been done yet. Before being an entrepreneur, you have to be human. I have recently opened my personal foundation – L.A.P.S. – an academy for experimental projects. And at the base of my foundation is the conviction that everyone should be allowed to have happiness. At the moment we are supporting two main projects: a school in Campania and laboratories inside a jail for young inmates to learn a job and have a professional tool for social reintegration.
I would like you to comment on one of your quotes that I found interesting. You said: “Only a long-term vision can bring prosperity and wellbeing to a nation, business or organization”. What is your vision about Italy’s future?
We need to unite the country even further and bring regions – from the north to the south – together in a common vision for the nation. We need to focus on infrastructure. Not just by building highways and bridges, but also by developing tourism and hospitality. We need to develop a more interconnected promotion of the country. I would also like to see big companies work much more with smaller ones.
Having said that, I want to stress that everything I do, I do it with love and for the love of my country. It is a real love. Sometimes it can be a “love and hate” relationship, because I would like to see my country doing much better. I love my country and I believe Italy has an enormous potential.