I think that the first and biggest challenge is defining what the American dream means to you. My American dream, at first, was having a chance to see the same singers and musicians I used to listen to in my dad’s Hi-Fi store. That’s literally all I was excited about as I was emigrating. I never dreamt about striking it rich by becoming an entrepreneur or being a part of a tech IPO. I always knew I wanted to build something that’s fundamentally good for the world; I didn’t know what, but I naively never saw any geographical boundaries to where that could have taken place. It turns out that America was the best place in the world for all of that to happen. I ended up working the longest hours, soaking up new skills and experiences like a sponge, observing people, adapting, punching above my weight whenever I could. I constantly felt like I didn’t belong anywhere — and often I actually didn’t — but it didn’t matter because I felt like I was here on just an extended exchange program. That somehow gave me the license to fall and get up a hundred times, and ultimately understand what I was here to do. The American dream, for me, is more like an American journey that’s still unfolding. My piece of advice to all immigrants would be to make the most of this sense of impermanence, and in doing so you’ll gain that lightheartedness and resolve you sometimes need to find your place in a country of opportunities.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Elisa Rossi. Elisa is the founder and CEO of Milaner, where she and the company enable world’s top luxury artisans to sell direct-to-consumer for the first time. Rossi previously held senior leadership roles at Apple, Eventbrite, and Square.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a beach town in the Marche region of central Italy, which happens to be one of the most renowned luxury shoe manufacturing districts in Italy. To this day, the biggest luxury brands still manufacture their shoes, hats, and handbags there, and generations of local entrepreneurs have made a fortune selling their products all over the world.
While I was growing up there, my sister and I would spend hours every day in my dad’s hi-fi stereo store, which was his biggest passion in life. We would frequently join audiophiles and musicians listening to sophisticated stereo systems, and I was in awe of how meticulously crafted these sound systems were, and how certain components could be combined to create a certain type of sound. There was always music playing while I was growing up like jazz, soul, R&B, as well as classical music. I loved learning the lyrics to my favorite songs, and that’s how I learned English by age 10. By the time I was 12, my dad would take me to hi-fi trade shows in Paris and London to help him with English translations. Music, craftsmanship and a desire to connect with the rest of the world have always been a fil rouge in my life.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
While I was in college I learned Russian and Spanish, and trained to become a professional conference interpreter. My dream was to either help manufacturers in my home town do business abroad, or work at the European Parliament as an interpreter. When I decided to apply for a UC Berkeley scholarship, I didn’t have any plans other than being an exchange student for a year, perfecting my English, finishing my thesis and then returning to Europe. I knew it could be a life-changing experience, but little did I know that this trip would turn into a 15-year exchange program.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
When I was accepted for the Berkeley scholarship, my family was going through a tough time financially, and didn’t have enough money to pay for the flight and expensive American rent. My dad’s side of the family was wealthy, but they had been suing each other over my grandfather’s inheritance for decades and there was very little wealth we had access to. That year, my mom’s dad who was a fisherman, retired and the money he made selling his fishing boat was the money that got me to the States.
That was probably one of the most profound teaching moments about the value of money, and I was so lucky to learn it at such a young age before starting my career. Since I was not allowed to work legally in the US, I worked three jobs in Italy to make sure I had enough cash to last me through the end of the year. When I finally landed in my off-campus room in a rough neighborhood near Oakland, I was severely underweight and exhausted, but I felt like a princess whose dreams had finally come true. I felt like I could finally start breathing.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
Living in the United States always felt easy to me compared to the life I had when I studied in Italy, Spain and Russia. Here, I was constantly bewildered by the access to opportunities, services, infrastructures and trusting, encouraging people. In Berkeley, I found a very special tribe of folks from all walks of life and geographies who were mostly quirky, intellectual, down-to-earth, fiery, cynical optimists.
In what was supposed to be my last month in the USA, Apple posted a job opening for an NLP engineer who spoke several languages and could write Unix and Perl scripts, something I had never even fathomed I could do.
A group of Italian physicists who were at Cal with me encouraged me to apply, and one of them actually gave me his Mac so I could learn how to use it and get a crash course in scripting. I got the job, and that catapulted me into an exhilarating Silicon Valley career.
From the cradle of the Renaissance to the cradle of high-tech. It all happened so fast, carried by the love and support of so many people, that I barely had any time to decide if I was ok with this complete directional change in my life.
So how are things going today?
Fifteen years have passed. I spent thirteen years between Apple, Square, Eventbrite and Yik Yak. Some of these companies were wildly successful, one shut down. I started my career in engineering, then moved to operations and product marketing positions where I was usually responsible for international business units. I was part of teams that had to weather such intense business expansion that making sense out of chaos and people-related challenges quickly became a specialty of mine.
At Apple, I ended up working on high-profile, time-sensitive international projects which turned my twenties into a blur of war rooms, highly confidential emails, weekends in windowless locked down rooms, and a constant sense of panic among my managers that I had to pour my heart and soul into quelching every day. That was my very first corporate job, and how I got my Green Card. When I left Apple to venture into the startup world, my biggest hope was that after such seemingly aimless whirlwind experience I could finally figure out what I was here to do.
Sure enough, upon joining Square I saw how well-designed software tools can be an unstoppable engine of economic empowerment for small and medium-sized businesses. That experience is where the dots started connecting for me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The dots connected all the way back to my hometown, where the situation for luxury manufacturers has changed dramatically since the year I left Italy. Offshoring practices by the biggest luxury brands have created excess capacity and unemployment in European manufacturing, but most importantly, opportunities to start doing things differently.
Growing up in Italy, I used to buy custom boots straight from the source, a local artisan who let me pick the leather and customize the style to my personal taste. After emigrating to the US, I could never replicate that incredible luxury experience. I believe that there’s a huge opportunity in disrupting the luxury value chain today, as more and more people are seeking luxury experiences similar to those I was lucky enough to have in my hometown.
I started MILANER two years ago to enable Europe’s top luxury good manufacturers to sell directly to consumers for the first time. We built a network of over fifty incredible makers, the same ones manufacturing for the biggest luxury names, and we asked them: “What do you love making?”. This simple question allows us to bring to our customers the world’s most treasured luxury goods, those that our partners have perfected throughout their entire life.
Our thesis is that introducing technology and direct-to-consumer business models to this industry is the most powerful way to take traditional craftsmanship into the future, guaranteeing a more fair distribution of profits between manufacturers and brands while offering more accessible pricing to the end consumer.
Founding MILANER has felt like an inevitable destiny to me, something that I have been preparing to do my whole life, and that I’m uniquely positioned to do thanks to my cross-border work experience and outlook. Finding a mission that resonates so deeply has been one of the biggest gifts I’ve received from emigrating.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
This is a very challenging topic for me to discuss because, unfortunately, it’s unnecessarily tied up in all sorts of political considerations, but at a high level I’ll say that I believe that the focus on meritocracy and humanity should continue to be upheld relentlessly, and it should be impossible for politicians to make any changes to the immigration system without data-backed evidence.
Immigration should be treated as a natural phenomenon and a driver of innovation that needs to be addressed through dialogue and inclusion.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
I think that the first and biggest challenge is defining what the American dream means to you. My American dream, at first, was having a chance to see the same singers and musicians I used to listen to in my dad’s Hi-Fi store. That’s literally all I was excited about as I was emigrating. I never dreamt about striking it rich by becoming an entrepreneur or being a part of a tech IPO. I always knew I wanted to build something that’s fundamentally good for the world; I didn’t know what, but I naively never saw any geographical boundaries to where that could have taken place.
It turns out that America was the best place in the world for all of that to happen. I ended up working the longest hours, soaking up new skills and experiences like a sponge, observing people, adapting, punching above my weight whenever I could. I constantly felt like I didn’t belong anywhere — and often I actually didn’t — but it didn’t matter because I felt like I was here on just an extended exchange program. That somehow gave me the license to fall and get up a hundred times, and ultimately understand what I was here to do.
The American dream, for me, is more like an American journey that’s still unfolding. My piece of advice to all immigrants would be to make the most of this sense of impermanence, and in doing so you’ll gain that lightheartedness and resolve you sometimes need to find your place in a country of opportunities.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
While I find it absurd that in 2019 women still aren’t perceived as having the same value creation abilities as men do, immigrants are constantly showing up at the table and killing it, founding over 50% of billion-dollar companies in this country. These folks were, for the most part, international students who made it here thanks to their abilities and despite their funny accents, unidiomatic talk, and misunderstanding of cultural references, they were given the opportunity to dream big and make it happen. Immigration laws may have changed and made it harder for international students to stay, but America will never fail to recognize that there’s something powerful about the unique insight of an ambitious immigrant.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Every time I hear this 15-year old speak, I see an unflinching faith in her values, and a complete lack of hesitation in pursuing something that the entire world should be clamoring every day for: the health of our planet. And yet Greta, with her own words, at 15, was able to start a conversation that created a movement.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Follow @bymilaner on Instagram and @elisir on Twitter.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!