Layla Pavone is a pioneer and veteran of Italy’s digital revolution. In the late 1980s, when Palo Alto was still a fairly anonymous town in Northern California, Pavone attained one of the first Italian MBAs and soon after joined the vanguard of this brand new and exciting world, known then as information technology. With her keen sense of creativity and timing, Layla has since stayed at the forefront of this revolution, and today is the managing director of Italy’s foremost business incubator, Industry Innovation Digital Magics. Under her leadership, the company recruits top tech talent and start-up geniuses, and also helps develop digital strategies for many iconic “Made in Italy” brands such as Furla. Fold spoke to Layla Pavone about staying ahead of the tech curve, Italy’s current position in the digital world, and how she connects small artisanal businesses and start-ups.
You’ve been on the cutting edge of Italy’s digital revolution since the early days. How did you harness that early growth period and manage to stay on the forefront of it until now?
When the internet first came along – in Italy, it happened in the early ‘90s – I immediately felt curious about it and soon turned this passion into my job. I was working in marketing and communication at the time. In those fields, I immediately recognized that its ability to shorten the time and the distance between the advertisement of a product and its purchase could become a fundamental feature of this new technology. To me, this was the Eureka moment. All these years allowed me to accumulate a huge amount of expertise and knowledge in the field, which is why I’m now the managing director of the most important Italian business incubator.
Italy has long been regarded as a little bit behind in terms of digital advancement, but recently there’s been a sense of catching up. How do you see Italy’s changing role in the tech revolution?
Things have been getting better over the past two years, also thanks to the government. The ministry of economic development has been giving tax breaks to manufacturing companies that invest in digital transformation. This is drastically changing the situation in Italy. It’s a bit like 50 years ago when the American government started to invest in Silicon Valley. The private sector tends to follow. Investing in digital transformation is a cultural issue — it’s a mindset. And I see Italy really changing its mindset. This coincides with a changing of the guard with many of our top managers. Many of them are younger now, around 40, they speak English. The millennials are coming. The situation is hopeful. Sadly, however, as in many other fields of the Italian economy and culture, we are lagging behind collectively when it comes to laws and infrastructure that a country needs to spawn innovation. On the other hand, we can boast many individuals who are on the forefront of digital innovation.
Your company Digital Magic helps bridge the divide between the old and new world. You develop strategies for many iconic “Made in Italy” brands, in the fashion and design industry especially. How is it to work with companies that in so many ways are still very artisanal, that are still more focused on the product than on the communication of it? How do you help them expand from the local to the global stage?
We’ve been very keen on helping small and mid-sized companies with “Made in Italy” product lines better understand and confront the challenges of globalization. Our main activity in this regard is to act as cultural mediators between traditional companies and the startup world. We help them integrate digital innovation, its speed and deep transformative impact, into their traditional business model. We teach them how to create a flexible team and infrastructure. We help them talk to each other, which isn’t always easy because they speak two different languages. Startups have a lean strategy, they are agile. Traditional companies don’t understand how to be so fast, don’t understand, in most cases, that failing is essential to making things better. It’s a different mindset.
What inspires you most about this process?
Working with young people! They are ambitious, passionate, and energetic. I consider my work as a mentor one of my main responsibilities, and I love it. Every day I work with creative people whose minds are completely free. This freedom is the key to being disruptive.
How do you discern between projects that will thrive and those that won’t? How important is it in your field to have an instinct for creativity?
It’s crucial. Whether you work in fashion, design or food, technology is just a commodity. What matters is the content, and content always depends on creativity. So both creativity and soft skills – another essential trait of creative people – are fundamental for people in creative businesses. When I talk about soft skills, I mean emotional intelligence, curiosity, hunger for the new, for life, for the world. It may sound romantic but these traits are all in the DNA of any innovation, any disruptive idea.
Translated from the Italian and edited for clarity.