(A)head of her times. The world needs women’s talent to shape a better future

By Annalisa Primi, Head, Economic Transformation and Development Division, OECD Development Centre

She is passionate. She sees opportunities where others don’t see them. She has the strength to pursue her visions against all odds. She experiments. She builds alliances. She sets up and manages a factory putting staff well-being at the core. She becomes a successful entrepreneur. She has basic education, born in 1877 into a poor family in Umbria, Italy

It’s 1907. Women do not have patrimonial autonomy and cannot register a business in their name (the law will remain in place until 1919). Luisa Spagnoli has an intuition. She recognises that she needs support from an established market leader. She understands the importance of the distribution and market outreach strategy. She partners (using her husband’s name) with one of the leading food firms in her region (Buitoni) and she founds an artisanal laboratory that in 1909 will become the “Perugina”.  The journey of a leading multinational starts.

She experiments. She faces World War I. To continue producing, she employs and trains the wives of employees recruited for the war. In 1917 she registers the Perugina Choccolate trademark and in 1919 she opens the first distribution mono-brand store in Italy. In 1939 she opens the first one abroad, in New York. Her experimentations lead to innovations. When the war ends, she keeps her female workforce. She continues innovating.

“Women’s creative and entrepreneurial talent could, and, should, make a tremendous contribution to shape the pathway for a better future.” #DevMatters

In 1921 she registers (and here at last her name appears) the “Luisa Tablet” trademark. In 1922, she experiments with the leftovers of the production and she invents “Bacio”, the chocolate which lovers across Italy still exchange for Valentine’s day a century later. And the innovations continue to unfold (Rossana Candy, Banana chocolate, etc.). She is not only at the front line in the production and quality control of the factory, she is also a pioneer of setting up staff services in the factory. In 1923, she opens up a nursery in the firm, the first of its kind in Italy, she introduces paid maternity leave and recognises breast-feeding rights. She is a creative mind in motion. She is curious. Having received an angora rabbit as a present, she experiments and pioneers the introduction of angora yarn for knitwear, under the Angora Spagnoli trademark in 1928.

She worked, with her son, to set up a modern, workers-centred factory, with housing solutions, a pool and sport facilities for the workers of her prêt-à-porter firm “Luisa Spagnoli”. She died prematurely in 1935. The Luisa Spagnoli brand went on to be among the largest and most modern firms in the sector in Europe by the early1940s under the guidance of her son. The firm still exists today, managed by her descendants.

“Wide-ranging reforms are needed, starting from addressing the “insidious effects of patriarchal power dynamics”.” #DevMatters

The world today is facing an unprecedented and pervasive crisis that requires massive experimentation and innovation. We need effective solutions to control the COVID-19 pandemic and to be prepared for the next ones. We also urgently need thoughtful strategies to steer and manage the transition of our societies to new, improved and more people and environmentally-friendly consumption, production and service delivery models. We need more visionary innovators and entrepreneurs, in government and businesses, to shape an economic and societal transformation that values fairness, people’s rights and the common good.

We cannot afford to bypass women’s talents. Women represent around 35% of students enrolled in STEM-related disciplines in higher education, 33% of world researchers and 10% of innovators in OECD member countries. 10% of the female adult working-age population (18–64) are either nascent or new entrepreneurs. This is too little! Women’s creative and entrepreneurial talent could, and, should, make a tremendous contribution to shape the pathway for a better future. To do so, wide-ranging reforms are needed, starting from addressing the “insidious effects of patriarchal power dynamics”, communication strategies and stereotypes, educational and unconscious biases that stem from societal and primary educational practices, to rules and laws that still in many places inhibit women’s autonomy, freedom as well as access to finance and investment. Despite the progress of the last decades, there is still much work to do. Improving availability and access to data on women’s talent and progress, including transparency on gender wage gaps is also an essential step forward. Unleashing women’s potential and entrepreneurial capabilities is in everybody’s interest. And it should not only be in the headlines on International Women’s Day.