Paola Bonomo launched her career as an advisor on new markets, alliances and acquisitions. Based on her unique approach to strategic positioning and growth, her extraordinary skills made her a great contender for leadership roles in the digital industry. She served as Member of eBay’s European leadership team, Commercial Operations at Vodafone Italia, led the online business of Italy’s largest financial newspaper, and worked as Marketing Solutions Director at Facebook.
Her journey as an Angel Investor in technology Startup started in 2009, with Italian Angels for Growth, where she made a massive contribution the digital space; AdEspresso , Hootsuite are some of her most successful brands.
Recognized as one of the Inspiring Fifty (the fifty most inspiring women in European Technology) Paola became the Business Angel of the year award in Italy and received the Golden Aurora award for the best woman business angel in Europe.
Entrepreneurs are known for their desire to lead a meaningful life. Finding the spark of ikigai is key to entrepreneurial fulfilment. What drives you, keeps you motivated and focused when times are tough?
I was at the Stanford Graduate School of Business getting my MBA in the mid-‘90s, at the dawn of the consumer Internet. I realized back then that a global web of communication and interaction had the potential to connect distant corners of the world, spread knowledge and learning, empower people, and unleash massive economic impact. Over the last 25 years, we’ve seen the beauty as well as the unintended consequences that that vision allowed to occur. What drives me is the conviction that we can use the tools of technology, from the Internet to machine learning algorithms to perhaps one day quantum computing, to improve our lives, allow talents to flourish, increase agency for underprivileged people, and build a better world. That’s also the mindset I bring to companies where I sit on the Board of Directors: digital transformation is not optional, and it’s not just the price of corporate survival, it’s also an opportunity to have positive impact in the world.
What ideas come most naturally to you?
I’m a connector: because I know people in many different networks, and I’ve come across professionals from different walks of life, I’m often the one who says “well, you should talk about your idea to So-and-so”, or “if you’d like to learn more about X, I can put you in touch with the right person.” When connections are successful, because a result is generated or simply because people hit it off with each other, it brings me true satisfaction.
How is your mind hard-wired to deliver a dream, from internal clarity to reality?
It took me a long professional career to realize that I’m an introvert. I’m hard-wired for concentration, intense effort, and mindful productivity; I’d much rather spend half an hour in intense conversation with one person than go to a party with 100 people and all small talk. I’ve learned to be out in the world, speak on a stage in front of an audience of 1000, lead teams, and play the extrovert on a daily basis; to make dreams happen, though, I need to alternate between engaging people – even just one at a time – and recharging my batteries on my own. Nothing happens if I only do one or the other.
What are the top challenges you had to overcome?
With the benefit of hindsight, I realize that mentorship was an unfulfilled need for much of my career. I had one or two senior partners I considered mentors while I was a consultant at McKinsey. But when I left the Firm, I decided to dive deep into the guts of the digital economy, and I soon realized that what I was doing was too new and disruptive for experienced mentors to even understand: I really had to start charting my own course. I ended up being mentor-less for quite some time. Now, years later, I realize that I’m learning from younger people: my mentees are a source of inspiration, more than my mentors ever were.
What can’t you get tired of?
I never tire of spending time with young entrepreneurs. Angel investors like me can offer one advantage: pattern recognition. It’s not a virtue and it shouldn’t be a mental trap, it’s simply a result of having been around the block more than a few times and therefore knowing what is likely to be a mistake before going out and proving it by burning cash. There is a very special energy that’s generated when the right mentor and investor meets the right startup. In 2020, I want to find and invest in more tech startups started by women entrepreneurs or at least gender-balanced teams.
What is your best project so far?
How many people live the life they want? A few years ago, I realized I no longer fit into a traditional corporate career and I needed to design my life to fit my strengths, my capabilities, and the things for which I felt a sense of urgency. “Best fit” of a portfolio of projects is, for me, a more useful concept than “best” project. The portfolio that is my life today is something I’ve deliberately pursued. Being a Board member at large organizations as well as an angel investor in early-stage startups has given me the latitude, the mental flexibility, to bring my digital transformations skills to play in companies at a strategic level, and at the same time keep renewing my outlook on technology by being plugged into the early stage investing scene.
What are three top tips for Entrepreneurs who dream big?
Build a global business from day one. Know when to pivot. Never run out of cash.
Would you do what you do without being paid for it?
Many of the things I do today are volunteer engagements. I spend quite a bit of time as a mentor for Endeavor (https://endeavor.org/), a global movement to help high-impact entrepreneurs scale up their businesses that is also a fantastic community around the world. Also, I have now served for over seven years as the president of Stanford Club Italia, the local alumni chapter of Stanford University.
More recently, I have volunteered as the local ambassador for Inspiring Fifty (https://inspiringfifty.org), a fabulous initiative to recognize and showcase women in technology, which started in the Netherlands a few years ago and came to Italy in 2018. Finally, I helped start Angels for Women (https://angels4women.com/), a community of early-stage investors committed to supporting women entrepreneurs.
What is your wildest dream? What would you do if you had a magic wand?
A magic wand? Fix the Internet, of course. It certainly hasn’t turned out the way we imagined it twenty years ago. But since it’s not going away, we must fix the underlying features that have caused damaging unintended consequences, and amplify those that empower people and allow their talents to benefit the world. This is a monumental task, and it may require no less than a magic wand, or the consensus and sustained effort of many good people.
You are known for your business mastery. How often do you travel in business? What is your family saying about being away from home?
Sometimes I hardly travel for weeks, sometimes I travel a lot: recently I was in Edinburgh, Dubai, Istanbul, Tallinn and Rome in the space of a short few weeks. But each of us has their own commitments, and often they don’t overlap at all – our calendars are rarely in sync with each other. We treasure the time we have together.
How do you see your vision changing the future, and how do you see yourself creating that change?
My work in the corporate world, as a Board member, is to focus leaders’ minds on the fundamentals of the transformation we have now been navigating for over 20 years: for example, think about how dramatically supply chains and retail stores in the fashion industry have been reconfigured. Most management teams have by now adopted a wide range of tools to interpret this transformation in a way that fits their corporate DNA, and are making progress in both top-down and bottom-up transformation initiatives. The role of the Board is now twofold: first, to keep watching the horizon for signals of long-term changes that require a new strategic orientation; second, to put in place a robust risk framework, for example by asking the right questions about the company’s cybersecurity risk, which has become a major business, financial and reputational risk factor, and ensuring that both cultural readiness and appropriate risk mitigation procedures are in place. Sometimes, the strategic discussion has important sustainability implications: for example, if we determine that our company’s “human + machines” balance will shift in the direction of more machines and perhaps fewer humans, what is our corporate responsibility to retrain our people for this scenario? Will we be sustainable if we don’t? Are we making the right decisions for this company to be sustainable in 10, 20, 30 years? Or are we under the curse of short-termism? Of course, all major companies now report on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors, but we need a deeper dialogue with investors about their expectations. I believe things are moving in the right direction, at least in Europe, as European institutions are working on improving disclosure requirements on how institutional investors integrate ESG factors in their risk processes. My vision is a future that is both digital and sustainable, and I’m leading those around me to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
What brings you joy in life?
Trees, yoga, reading books, a cup of green tea on a cold day.
What is exciting and happening as we speak and is exciting either in your organisation, career or personal life? Can we help you break the news?
I have found myself in demand as a Board member over the past few years because the two skill sets, the foundation in strategy that I acquired in my long McKinsey years and the in-depth understanding of the digital landscape I matured later, are not often found together in one person. Therefore, I am able to take a broad perspective on strategic challenges and opportunities, and at the same time to easily drill into such topics as digital marketing performance or customer care metrics. Because my consulting and corporate careers were always fairly international, I’d like to make my Board portfolio more international as well.