Professor Silvia Pulino: Between Entrepreneurship, Social Innovation, and Female Leadership

JCU Professor Pulino discusses the unsung beauty of entrepreneurship and the importance of opening to new possibilities in the context of female leadership and women in business.

Community Spotlight

By Sara Segat / Matthew staff || Edited by Matilde Pozzato

Courtesy of Silvia Pulino

Professor Silvia Pulino is an Associate Professor of Business Administration and the founder of the Institute for Entrepreneurship (IFE) at John Cabot University. Recently, she became the first-ever Director of the Frank J. Guarini School of Business and the advisor for the JCU Women’s Leadership Initiative club. I had the pleasure to meet her for an interview to explore her background, her experience, and her entrepreneurial and academic philosophies, with a particular focus on female leadership and being a woman in business.

You have an outstanding curriculum, with a BA and an MA from Oxford, an MBA from Harvard, and over 20 years of experience in international business. Why did business attract you in the first place?

On one hand, I’ve always enjoyed doing things. I’m a builder, and I think I knew that even when I was quite little. On the other hand, I also had a special bond with my father, who was a businessman and an entrepreneur, and I admired him greatly. With him, there was that exposure, that proximity; we talked about business, he took me on some of his business trips, and, even though for my undergrad I chose to study modern languages and literature, I already had been exposed substantially to business issues and discussions, and I knew I enjoyed it. I think another aspect is the shared intellectual stimulus, the challenge, of something that can be studied – and has a lot of theory behind it – but that is also very human, and therefore you need to know how to deal with other human beings.

How did going global shape your background?

I’ve been global ever since I can remember because my mother is Argentine, my dad is Italian, and I’ve always had one foot in each culture. We kept going back and forth, so I went to school, made friends, and have relatives in both countries. Then, I went to the UK to study, and I never stopped. Again, I think in part there is an inner component, as I’d always have my suitcase ready. I was also exposed to travel a lot, and being in many different countries and experiencing them not as a tourist, but as a person living and working there, this really opens your mind up to different points of view and to the possibility that there may be a common ground with someone else, even if you don’t really understand them or fully share what their values are. Another important aspect is the knowledge of languages because, when you speak different languages, you’re entering the minds of different cultures; I’m fluent in three, and I speak decently another two, so I’ve had that as well.

You founded a company (Gammatel) and an association (KidsUP!) and established a career as a consultant for new entrepreneurs and start-ups. What made you become an entrepreneur?

What I love about entrepreneurship is the challenge of having to go from zero to one, and of creating rather than building a company. I’m really attracted by the process of going from zero to that first step, when “the baby’s born”. Going from just an idea, a state of uncertainty, where everybody says it’s not possible or hasn’t been done before, and devising that path towards that first step – I find extremely exciting because it brings together everything you have in terms of creativity, business skills, human skills, and that openness to what can happen. I love that stage, that sense of possibility, and it’s something that really touches a particular nerve with me. It has done so whether I was the one building the companies, or I was helping other people doing it, or even teaching the topic to students: it’s got that same soul to it.

When you founded Gammatel, a telecommunications start-up, examples of female leadership were much rarer than they are today. What has your experience been as a woman in the entrepreneurial, business, and tech worlds?

I’ve been privileged in having a father who didn’t have this sort of prejudice, who always thought his daughters could do anything they wanted. That has given me deep confidence in myself, maybe even a little bit of blindness to discrimination and other things that might have been going on in the background. So, I haven’t come up against any big walls. There have been some, but I’ve always pretended they weren’t there, and I’d just prove to people that what I had to say was valid. There is always that need to prove yourself stronger, smarter, more resilient than a male counterpart. Having said that, there was one occasion where I have seen a wall, in fact. When I finished business school, I really wanted to go into operations management. I wanted to work in a factory and see the cogs and wheels that moved and created products. At the time, in the late 1980s, I had to go back to Argentina where my family was. I did not have an engineering degree; the MBA was not particularly appreciated by anybody back then; I was a woman, and I was young. I knocked on every possible door and they all turned me down. I did encounter that wall then, and I couldn’t smash it. But I wouldn’t be here today if I had.

You later devoted your entrepreneurial skills to social innovation, founding KidsUP!, an association that teaches entrepreneurship to kids. How bright is the future for start-ups that focus on social innovation, especially those that focus on gender equality and female leadership?

It’s not easy for social entrepreneurs in general, because there is less of an economic stimulus, so it’s less recognized. However, we are far better today than we were twenty years ago. There are a lot of big organizations working in the social arena in an economically sustainable manner that have proven that it is possible and have also acted as incubators for high-level minds who want to dedicate their professional career to creating social good without having to do it on a volunteer basis. I think social enterprises could be a key player in creating value and wealth for the underprivileged, and that’s something that governments should really keep an eye on. There are quite a few associations that exist to help women overcome difficulties through mentoring programs, career buddies, and workshops. Think of the Professional Women’s Association, the Young Women Network; they have made a big impact in their communities. And I think women, in general, should be more aware that these associations exist. One limit that’s generally associated with women is that we don’t like to ask for help, perhaps because not asking for help, but just proving we are good enough, is part of who we are and part of our worth, in our own eyes. But recognizing that you can ask for help and that, if you do, you can achieve much more, much more quickly, is important.

In 2002, you became a JCU Professor. What made you get into teaching?

I think it was teaching that chose me, found me, and got me out of my hole. It was a chance encounter. At the time, I was doing some administrative consulting for the University of Tor Vergata; I met a professor who was married to a professor at John Cabot, and they had an urgent need for a finance professor. Teaching is something I’ve always had in my heart: even when I was little, I taught my younger sister how to read, skate, and do a lot of different things – even things that I didn’t know. I’ve always enjoyed explaining things and making things accessible, and I have great role models in teaching within my family. So, it was there, waiting, and I didn’t know it was waiting. For JCU, my investment banking experience came in handy. That first finance course I taught made me: I had great students who made me a professor and I realized that I loved it. That’s when it all started, and it went from one course to two, then to three, then to finally becoming full-time.

At JCU, you currently teach Early-Stage Entrepreneurship, Entrepreneurial Finance, and Strategic Management. You also notably founded JCU’s Institute for Entrepreneurship. Can you share some students’ successes you contributed to as their professor or through IFE?

I have lots of students who write back to me saying that I was influential (not sure how much it’s their own thing and how much it’s me). Certainly, the Institute has helped catalyze attention on certain types of skills. We have quite a few students who’ve gone on and done their own start-ups or started really interesting jobs. Enrico Barchiesi is the most recent example: he came to John Cabot because of the Institute for Entrepreneurship; he took all my classes and Professor Maiolini’s, and he developed his business idea into a real company that he then launched, I think also thanks to our encouragement and input. Another interesting thing we did with Maiolini as IFE was coaching a team that participated in Enactus and won the national competition; we then all flew to California for the international World Cup. Those are life-changing experiences that really give you a sense of how much potential you have and how you can have an impact in your immediate surroundings, without waiting to be richer, smarter, more experienced, older – you can start now. And that’s one of the big messages my colleagues and I put out there.

Last semester, you were appointed Director of the Frank J. Guarini School of Business at JCU – not just the first woman, but the first person to ever cover this role. Can you tell us more about that?

It’s interesting because it plays to my strengths in the sense that it’s a new position, so it becomes what I want it to become, just like the Institute. When I had the Institute, I was told, “create a center for entrepreneurship,” but I wasn’t given any direction. So, it is my baby, my creature; I decided what it was supposed to become. And the Institute – the way I thought it – is a place for everybody in John Cabot and beyond, as it’s also for alumni and people who are somehow part of our community. The role of the Director of the School of Business is different, obviously. A big part of it is ensuring we maintain accreditation; another part is the representation of the Business School, vis-a-vis the external world; but another big part is also building community. It’s about making sure that everybody finds a voice, and about capturing all the strengths we have within our community, which is not just within the School of Business. What I’ve been doing this semester is talking to faculty members of other departments, trying to find synergies, places in common, or even just areas of discussion. This role is much more people-oriented, and I really see it as being the glue that puts things together but also enables people to give the best of themselves – as teachers, as researchers, as role models, as human beings, whether you’re a professor or a student.

You are also the advisor for a JCU club that recently and successfully relaunched, the Women’s Leadership Initiative. Can you tell us more about that?

It’s an interesting club because you can give it a different coloring depending on what your own interests are. When it was first created, it was about gender issues, political agenda, and women in business. It then focused more on the ‘women in business’ side for a while. With this new board, we’re going back to discussing gender issues and being very involved with the community. What I like about them, apart from the fact that they have very clear ideas and that sacred fire – which you need whenever you’re doing something that’s going to change something around you – is that they’re trying to make a difference, and they’re planning for the future, giving the club structure so that it doesn’t die out after them. I think that’s very valuable and one of the most important lessons to learn because you can have great ideas, but if you don’t give continuity to whatever you’re creating, then it dies. But they’re working very well both on the organizational part of it and the content part of it. They’ve got so many initiatives, and a lot of them are about creating a healthy, constructive debate within the institution to bridge gaps. Frankly, I don’t think I am even helping them other than giving advice on the organizational aspects of it, throwing in ideas, and connecting them with other people.

How important do you think it is for women to have a community that supports their leadership efforts and gives them the opportunity to network?

I think it’s extremely important because, to me, being a woman is a lonely job. And it becomes even lonelier as you grow older, have family, kids, more responsibilities… It’s hard. It’s hard, sometimes, to reconcile everything to always be in your top game. Just being with other women and understanding that you’re not the only one who’s not always at the top of the game is extremely valuable. I think we tend to be very hard on ourselves, and when we can’t get that A, we flog ourselves instead of realizing that the conditions were such and that other people go through the same. Having a network means not only having this side of things that comforts you but also tapping into the strategies that other women have used, that have made them successful, that have worked. So, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel all by yourself.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring or young entrepreneurs – especially female ones?

For female entrepreneurs, I would say to work on your confidence and don’t let anyone tell you that it can’t be done. For all entrepreneurs, aspiring and young, I would say to learn as much as you can – you have to always be prepared – but also talk to people, go out there, try things out, experiment; that’s one of the hardest things to do, but fundamental.

You can connect with Prof. Pulino on LinkedIn and keep up with JCU’s Institute for Entrepreneurship on Facebook. Find out more about Prof. Pulino in previous publications on JCU News and JCU’s blog.