Socially Minded Entrepreneurship - Professor Silvia Pulino

Silvia Pulino is Assistant Professor of Business Administration and Director of the JCU Institute for Entrepreneurship. After earning a B.A. and M.A. at Oxford University, she obtained her M.B.A. degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Business. Half Italian and half Argentinian, Professor Pulino has over 20 years’ experience in international business, with a focus on entrepreneurial companies and technology.

Professor Silvia Pulino

Professor Silvia Pulino

With so many liberal arts colleges in the US, why should one choose JCU?
Perhaps the first obvious reason is that here students can gain a liberal arts education and an international experience at the same time. However, I feel that John Cabot is much more than that: it is a physical, emotional, and learning place where boundaries are less structured, less normative than elsewhere. At JCU, commonly held values and beliefs are constantly challenged and turned on their head. The variety in backgrounds, nationalities, experiences, and personal histories means that blanket statements about identity and worth turn into questions – why, where, under what circumstances, what would it take to, etc. This sort of constant inquiry shapes our students into unique professionals that have a much wider breadth of tools with which to interpret reality than the average person.

Tell us a bit about IFE. How did it start? Where do you see it going in the future?
It started with a mandate from the President and the Dean, and a personal mission to expose as many students as possible to the concept of entrepreneurship. In its broader sense, this meant being able to identify opportunity and put together the resources necessary to implement a project, as well as to develop a high degree of resilience and the ability to deal with uncertainty. Over time it has become a center that encourages and facilitates entrepreneurship through a wide variety of initiatives. The Institute supports current students and alumni. It is now deeply connected with the Roman entrepreneurial fabric and contributes to the community with programs like Italy Pitches, designed expressly for high-school students. Our aspiration for the future is to help bring more innovation and technology into John Cabot, for instance through the creation of a FabLab, and to have many more startups launched from JCU.

What is the most common mistake aspiring entrepreneurs make?
Hard to identify a single one, but perhaps thinking that the idea is all important and not sharing it for fear it will be “stolen.” In today’s world, ideas come 19 to the dozen. Establishing a working business model and an excellent team are the top priorities.

Some say that today, we commercialize everything: knowledge, skills, talent. We think about people and things in terms of economic value and “usefulness,” and if we cannot profit from them in the short term, we disregard them. What is your take on this?
My experience is different. I am seeing a new generation of socially minded entrepreneurs who have a very different set of values, who believe in human interaction and trust, and who will go out of their way to help others – either on a personal level or through their startups. So we have social businesses like Pedius, long-standing friends of the Institute, who have designed a telephone that helps deaf people communicate, and other entrepreneurs who make time in their crazy schedule to organize nonprofit events like Startup Weekends in order to share their knowledge with others.

Please tell us about a challenge you encountered in your professional career. How were you able to overcome it?
One of my darkest professional moments came from my experience as an entrepreneur in the United States. I had a telephone business that relied on provision of telephone services from one of the top three players in the US. They had a total disconnect between their sales and their finance departments, so that the discounted rates we had negotiated were not being applied to our invoices. This meant that, while we were trying to get to the bottom of it, more than a million dollars in perceived debt accumulated (i.e. the amount they over-billed). The whole situation was so dysfunctional that they ended up cutting their service… the very same day that we closed our negotiations with another carrier! We were proven right in court, but had we not managed to transfer our business to the other carrier, we would have gone bankrupt overnight.

Why should someone study entrepreneurship?
Not everyone thrives in an entrepreneurial environment, but having taught the subject for many years now I am convinced that everyone can benefit from being exposed to it at least once. The energy released by creating something new and overcoming problems that appear impossible is not only “addictive,” but also extremely educational.