Interview with Cristina Scocchia, AD Illy

by Francesca Lai

‘Seneca said that luck does not exist: there is the moment when talent meets opportunity. I often think about this sentence. If talent, until proven otherwise, is equally distributed, why shouldn’t the opportunities to put one’s talent to use also be?’ Cristina Scocchia, Managing Director of illycaffè, quotes the greatest Roman Stoic philosopher to talk about inclusion and diversity.

In a room at the Illy Caffè in the Giardini Reali of St Mark’s Square in Venice, over a cup of coffee, an interview with one of the most successful managers Italy has ever had turns into a profound reflection on art, the social role of business, and the importance of restarting the ‘social elevator’, which is ‘indispensable in any democratic society’.

‘If not now, after a pandemic and with a war going on, when should we prioritise merit in organisations? Companies grow, the country grows, people grow,’ commented the CEO.

The occasion is the inauguration of the new Illy Art Collection dedicated to the Biennale Arte 2022 and inspired by the theme of the 59th International Art Exhibition, Il latte dei sogni (The Milk of Dreams). Included in this new collection are six artists who are all profoundly different in terms of style and origins, chosen by Cecilia Alemani, curator of this edition of the Biennale Arte. They are the recent winner of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, Cecilia Vicuña, and Felipe Baeza, Giulia Cenci, Precious Okoyomon, Alexandra Pirici and Aki Sasamoto. Infusing each cup with the flair of their art, these six artists have created a unique collection that brings together different approaches, from sculpture to painting, via poetry, photography and choreography.

‘Art and culture must be within everyone’s reach,’ says Scocchia. Just like a cup of coffee.

VENICE, ITALY – APRIL 19: A general view of the illycaffè Art Collection 30th Anniversary event at Giardini Reali on April 19, 2022, in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Giorgio Perottino/Getty Images for Illy)

Dr Cristina Scocchia, from reading your biography, it is apparent that you had very clear ideas from the very beginning. Your experience at Procter & Gamble was important (1997- 2012), because of the company climate, the experience and career opportunities, and the international mentality. How has cultural diversity influenced how you have grown?

It has influenced me so much. I was lucky enough to encounter Procter & Gamble at university, during a career day. I fell in love with the company at exactly that moment: I heard about diversity, inclusion, valuing the uniqueness of the individual, values that still had no place in Italy at the time. So I wrote a curriculum in which I underlined my experience, which at the age of 20 was obviously not yet extensive. I wrote about Girl Scout activities, volunteering for the Red Cross. I talked about the young woman I was, and something must have struck the recruiters. After my first three-month internship at P&G, I had the good fortune – which you also need in life – to present the budget to the managing director. I thought: ‘This is an opportunity that will never come again.’ I knew English very badly. I learned the presentation off by heart and in the end, they hired me as if I had already graduated. It’s been 16 years since then. The first few years were very hard: I worked for over 12 hours a day and studied for my last few exams at night. It was intense but wonderful. Then when I kept my promise to graduate with honours I was sent to Geneva, the European Headquarters, the heart of diversity. There were people from all over the world in that building: there was cultural diversity, religious diversity, language diversity, gender diversity. This diversity enriched me as a manager and, above all, as a person.

After a few years in Geneva, your career took a different turn.
I thought I was immersed in a different world and then Procter gave me a gift I don’t often talk about: after four years I was promoted to associate director and appointed trend marketing manager for CEMEA (Centre and East Europe Middle East and Africa). I was the only woman in a leadership team of over 20 men. Although Procter was an American company, the team in this region was made up only of men, so the challenge of Eastern Europe and the Middle East was not only gender-based but also cultural. It was a wonderful two years in the field. Here I discovered the true value of diversity, which one must embrace and value. This experience made me realise that assertive leadership gets you nowhere. Leadership influences others when you put yourself on the line, put yourself in the other person’s place, try to understand what the other person is thinking when they see you and hear you speak. That moment, on a managerial and personal growth level, made all the difference.

VENICE, ITALY – APRIL 19: A general view of the illycaffè Art Collection 30th Anniversary event at Giardini Reali on April 19, 2022 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Giorgio Perottino/Getty Images for illy)

Were there occasions when you yourself had to find value in your diversity, during those two years, which you’ve described as wonderful?

They were wonderful precisely because there was so much diversity that it was experienced by everyone as a positive value. I never felt like I was treated differently. On the contrary, I felt like I was treated with great respect. Of course, at times I made and experienced good-natured cultural gaffes. But everything that was said to me was meant to highlight my unique position as a woman. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about when I returned to Italy after many years working abroad. In July 2013, I left Procter & Gamble to become managing director of L’Oréal Italia. I was certainly happy to return to Italy; with my work I was contributing to improving my country, as well. But I could never have imagined that I would feel different, for the first time, right at home. Because I was a woman and because I was young (I was appointed CEO at the age of 39), something that was often emphasised in Italy. Not at L’Oréal, which like P&G is a company that has always respected diversity in all its forms. I noticed it when I went to congresses or conferences, because of the sexist jokes, and the situations where all the men are ‘Dr’ while I was ‘Mrs’.

Could you give us another example?
I remember one situation. Some directors and I were waiting for guests at L’Oréal. The guests, once they arrived, greeted the directors, saying: ‘Good morning, doctors.’ Then they turned to me and said, ‘Madam, do you mind if I give you my coat?’ I politely took the coat and then I introduced myself as the managing director of L’Oréal Italia. Nothing like that had ever happened to me abroad.

After your experience at Procter, you returned to Italy with a new and very important role: CEO of L’Oréal Italia. Is it still exceptional, in Italy, for a woman to become CEO?

Unfortunately, yes. In Italy it often happens to me – and this also happened to me at Kiko – that when I am in meetings with all men, they think that they are the decisionmakers. In Italy it still weighs heavily on us that only 3% of CEOs are women. The gender bias in our society is undeniable when the ratio is 97% against 3%. The numbers speak. But I want to be optimistic: I am convinced that the pandemic has taught us the value of merit. If you field the best team, regardless of gender, religion or language, it is easier to win, not only for the company but also for the entire country. What better time, if not now, a time defined by the pandemic and war, to do this?

The problem with career plans does not relate only to top positions but is much more widespread in middle management positions. Where does our country stand in that regard?
In Italy we are starting to see female country managers, but that is different from being a CEO. The next step will be to see women who then make the leap, who become heads of companies and who have the opportunity to manage an organisation globally, from marketing to human resources to the supply chain. I think it will still take some time. From this point of view, I have never liked playing the victim. I believe that reaching top positions is very difficult for everyone. But for women it is undoubtedly more difficult. Seneca said that luck does not exist, there is the moment when talent meets opportunity. Until proven otherwise, no one has ever proved that women are less talented than men, but if talent is equally distributed, the same cannot be said of the opportunity to prove that one has talent. We should all strive culturally to make it clear that men and women have the same right to professional fulfilment. This is still not the case. For example, if a young boy says he wants to do a certain job at a certain level, we say ‘Wow he has leadership skills!’ If a girl says the same thing, she becomes ‘a bit ambitious’. There is a significant difference, culturally, between ‘leader’ and ‘a bit ambitious’. Also, everyone should cooperate in families, because as long as women are in charge of 70% of the work that needs to be done in the home and family, there will be no gender equality. And institutions must play their part. The number of kindergartens I have seen in Switzerland is not comparable to the numbers found here. I would like to see more talk about gender equality in schools, too, so girls see STEM careers as a real career opportunity. Today only 16 out of a hundred female graduates graduate with a degree in a science subject.

This issue of DiverCity is dedicated to the theme of inclusive cities. Illy has always been committed to supporting cultural initiatives (in Mantua the festival, in Turin Artissima, in Venice Guggenheim, etc.). Today it is at the Biennale to present the new ‘Illy Art Collection’ project. How decisive is the relationship between companies and cities for development and innovation?
I believe that more and more people are realising that companies play a social role. Organisations cannot be focused only on generating profit but must create value for all stakeholders. For shareholders, for employees, for suppliers, for the cities and communities they operate in, for the environment. How can we have a positive social impact? Illy has always been committed to this. It’s a concern that starts with the green coffee farmers. We help to build local schools for the community where the coffee is grown, to spread knowledge about regenerative cultivation. We want to have the same commitment for our ‘outlet’ communities and for Italy. One of the sectors we are committed to is art because knowledge must always be shared. What I love about the ‘Illy Art Collection’ is that it allows a small, everyday object to become the blank canvas on which an artist can express his or her creativity without limitations. In this way, a small object becomes a contemporary work of art that is accessible to everyone. We must also keep in mind the diversity of means, which affects our ability to express our talent. I was reading a report that stated that in Italy, if you are born to parents who do not have a university degree, you have a 92% chance of not graduating from university either. The social elevator should be the cornerstone of a democratic country. An object of art, simple and usable, like a cup, opens up many possibilities: drinking coffee makes you want to get to know other works of art, to google the name of the artist, to discover a world that will fascinate and shape you for a lifetime. This is what I appreciate about ‘Illy Art Café’: the link with culture, creativity and accessibility.

It is now well established that DE&I, on a global level, is spurring and directing big companies to do more and better: gender equality, LGBT+ rights, exchanges between generations, valuing different abilities, multiculturalism, etc. How will Illy pursue this path towards change?

We start with a corporate culture that has always been based on respect for and appreciation of diversity. Even before such issues became fashionable. Illy became a benefit company and then one of the first B Corps in Italy. For us, having a strong moral compass is part of our DNA. The value of diversity, inclusion and respect for social and environmental sustainability is part of our roots. We want to continue to grow. Being a B Corp allows you to be assessed by others – we underwent an objective, third-party audit, which assessed our company culture, our way of being and doing business. This is not an end point, but a starting point: for each of the areas where we were assessed we have an action plan. My goal as managing director is to help the company to do better and better in all these areas.