Lorella Zanardo grew up in Italy and studied English and German literature abroad. She wanted to travel the world, and work as an actress. But circumstances suggested a different direction. After graduation, she visited a friend in New York who was studying for an MBA and found herself fascinated by business.
Inspired, she returned to Italy and eventually entered an MBA program in Milan at the SDA Bocconi School of Management. “At the time, there were so few women,” she recalls. “Maybe 10% of the students were women. And I was the first literature major to enter the MBA program. The other students had degrees in engineering, or economics. It was very difficult, but in the end, I did it by studying very hard.”
Lorella set out to find a position in marketing at a large multinational company that would enable her to travel the world. Unfortunately, the companies she targeted didn’t hire women at that time (the mid-1980s). She held out for a position with Unilever, despite their discouraging response to her initial inquiry. “They said, we understand that you really want to work here, and we don’t have anything against you, but we don’t hire women.”
Undeterred, she resolved to phone them once a month until they relented. “One day, they brought in a new marketing director from Copenhagen. The first thing he did was to ask why they did not have any women working in the firm. He urged them to hire some women right away, and of course, my name was at hand!” Her illustrious career at Unilever, and later with the Mondadori group and eventually her own consulting firm, grew out of that initial persistence. “Without becoming too aggressive, you can insist on what you want and in the end you will achieve it. Life is 70% determination and 30% luck.”
She moved up quickly at Unilever to the head of the research department, and then to the role of brand manager. She became the first female manager at Unilever and one of the few female managers in Italy. Eventually the company offered her a role as head of the fabric softener business for all of Europe. The promotion required a move to Paris. It opened a world of opportunity, and brought with it significant challenges as well.
At first she felt overwhelmed. Working in a predominantly male environment resulted in some strain, though she didn’t realize the full extent of it at the time. “I was working very hard and I felt very tired. It was difficult for me to understand that part of this fatigue came from trying to adapt myself to a business world that did not include women. Now I understand that at the time, I was ignoring a lot of problems.”
“I chose to have a very charming apartment a bit away from the company. Sometimes I felt very lonely when I was working in France, but at the end of the day, I was very happy when I returned to my apartment. Our life is not only working, working, working. The first months living in a new country are difficult. One has to consider this. If you go home and your home is dull and cold, it’s terrible. “
Directing the fabric softener business allowed her to break new ground in terms of environmental responsibility. “We were polluting a lot and at that time, nobody cared. But a movement started in Germany to demand a more environmentally friendly product.” She headed a group responsible for studying environmentally friendly formulations and reintroducing the revamped product across Europe.
Recently, Lorella changed direction. She had been working as an entrepreneur when the dip in the economy led to a decline in business that Lorella recognized as an opportunity. “I suddenly had time to do something new and I realized that my priorities had changed. “ She had a growing interest in addressing “the depressing and humiliating way that women’s bodies are presented on television” and a friend urged her to make something of her passionate engagement with the issue.
She watched Italian television for 20 days, 12 hours a day, and logged what she saw. “With some friends, we created a 25 minute documentary, using images recorded from television and a script that I wrote myself.” The project is called Il Corpo Delle Donne. Already more than 1 million people have viewed the documentary. “In the last six months, my life has changed completely,” she says. “I’m showing the video, I’m involved in public debates and related projects. We have translated the documentary into several languages, and we are working with schools now.”
Her MBA continues to inform much of Lorella’s approach. . “Even though I developed the documentary with friends, I approached it the way I did the detergent business at Unilever. I made a business plan. I established a structure and established six clear goals, rather than just living day by day. In business, you learn how to make things function, and you can apply that skill in other environments.”
Currently, Lorella is raising funds for her next documentary, about the disappearance of adult women’s faces from television and movies. “What happens in society if the faces of real women disappear, to be replaced by those modified by plastic surgery?” she asks. Her focus is on publicizing the project, recruiting partners and organizing a team of volunteers. Lorella advises, “If you have something in your heart, don’t postpone it too much. There are times in life when you feel your inner guide directing you. Don’t delay.”
Lorella sees an opportunity for women as the business community shifts to address new economic circumstances. “In order to face our collective situation, we have to put new energy into new ways of thinking in the business environment. Women can have an advantage, but we have to be courageous and build a career using our deep qualities. I was in India and I met a woman who is president of a state there. She said that as women we must be responsible for the development of the planet. I agree with that. We have to take care of the world. It’s high time for women to lead in that way.”