One of my favorite and most memorable experiences while studying in Florence was when I and Maria, another volunteer with La Pietra Dialogues, were privileged enough to interview Wanda Ferragamo, the current CEO of the Ferragamo company and the wife of the late Salvatore Ferragamo. When I was told that I would be interviewing Mrs. Ferragamo, I immediately started doing research on questions I could ask her. Through my research, I learned two very important things: one, that Mrs. Ferragamo has been running the company almost single handedly for 40 plus years since her husband died and that she helped transform and expand it to become the company that it is today - and, two, that Mrs. Ferragamo has kept the company a family run business, with almost all of the top positions going to daughters, sons, nieces and nephews.
Heading into the interview Maria and I knew that we wanted to discuss these two aspects of her life since we believed that she would be most interested and passionate about them. When we were waiting in the lounge of the Ferragamo world headquarters, we were so nervous that we went over what we were going to ask and our talking points about twenty times. However, right when Mrs. Ferragamo walked into the room we knew we had nothing to be nervous about. She immediately made us feel at ease. In fact, Maria and I realized we didn´t need to ask any of our questions as Mrs. Ferragamo was answering all of them with her compelling stories. Mrs. Ferragamo started off the interview by telling us about how she grew up in a small little town in the south of Italy and how, when she was 18 years old, she met Salvatore Ferragamo who was by then already a well established shoe maker.
I found it interesting that Mrs. Ferragamo didn’t just tell us about her early years, she also described in great detail Mr. Ferragamo´s life and how he was able to grow his small business into one of the most famous and respected companies in the world. This was true throughout the whole interview. She spoke about Mr. Ferragamo with great respect and admiration. She also repeatedly told Maria and I that, even though men have traditionally be seen as the head of the family and businesses, women play an equally important role. It was clear that Mrs. Ferragamo supports a strong role for women in both the workplace and at home. Her daughters played an important role in the development and growth of the company. She also said it had been a dream when she found out she would be sitting next to Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Prize winning economist who developed the concept of microcredit, at a dinner she hosted following the Vital Voices International Town Hall on the Status of Women in Fall 2009. Mrs. Ferragamo had recently read his book about microcredit and was impressed with how his new financial policies could positively impact women. She was excited to finally meet the author in person.
Family was another aspect of Mrs. Ferragamo´s life that she made clear was very important to her. As I mentioned, almost all of the head positions in the Ferragamo company are held by family members close to Mrs. Ferragamo which indicates a strong bond among this very public family. Mrs. Ferragamo could not stop shining when she spoke about her sons and daughters, grandchildren and nieces and nephews, emphasizing that family members can still work within a global company and maintain excellent relations with each other. In fact, directly after our interview, Mrs. Ferragamo was having her weekly lunch with her grandson. She told us that each week she writes a lesson for her grandson, not a homework assignment, but more of a life lesson, that she thinks her grandson would find valuable and learn from. These lessons usually consisted in what she believed were good moral values and one could clearly see a connection between her advice and smart business policies. By keeping strong ties and close familial connections, like this lunch with her grandson, Mrs. Ferragamo has been able to maintain a cohesive and successful family business since 1927.
Unfortunately the interview had to end and after speaking with Mrs. Ferragamo for a little over an hour the butler informed us that Mrs. Ferragamo´s grandson was here and that it was time for lunch. With that, Maria and I thanked Mrs. Ferragamo for spending her time with two lowly college students, and in her typical humble and genuine voice she said “No, thank you. It has been a pleasure”. We then departed but not before receiving an autobiography of Salvatore Ferragmo personally signed by Mrs. Ferragamo. It is now proudly on display in my room as a reminder of one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had.