I'm a bona fide third-culture kid (aka TCK). To give things a dramatic flare, I was born in the desert and grew up on a relatively small island in the Atlantic called Manhattan. I lived short periods abroad, following my parents to Iran, the Philippines, Brussels, Luxembourg, and Paris for a large part of my life, and now for the past two years, I've been in London. Of course, I lived in Rome after following my parents, who are both Italian, to that city. After a disastrous attempt at attending an Italian high school--because I had always attended international schools--I came to St. Stephen's and graduated from St. Stephen's.
They’re some of my best memories from my time in Rome. To give a better answer, looking back, the mid 90s were am absolutely pivotal moment in history where we transitioned into a clumsy digital age. My time at St. Stephens was firmly analog. It was a time when ‘meeting up’ meant spending half the day trying to get a hold of one another by phone, settle on a place to meet that you could both find how to get to with the ubiquitous “tutto città” map, and embark on an adventure where you’d give one another approximately 30 minutes of waiting time before eventually giving up on your pal or date.
Looking back, and comparing to current generations, we were also a lot stupider (or daring if you will) because there was less chance of being caught and less consequences for our actions. You could call it “carefree” if you will. It was a time where you didn’t have license plates on your motorino and helmets were still optional.
As for St. Stephens itself, I experienced it both as a day student and a boarder. In the latter time there, we used to sneak out and go to the Palatine or the Colosseum--when you still could--in the middle of the night, and we would have, obviously, non-alcoholic drinks and think about how those were the places where Caesar or a Roman emperor once walked. It was unique and magical, really; these monuments were our backyards.
We played a lot of pranks as well. We once rewired the main gate buzzer to ring the apartment of a faculty member who lived on premises. The amount of cursing starting from 7am was legendary. It was a real growing experience, and there was a lot of tough love, unlike what I see today, where things are stricter and more permanent, which on the one side brings more order and safety, but also stifles spontaneity because everything's recorded and tracked forever. An no, I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’ve worked in telecom for the last twenty years and know how things are. Literally every single bit and byte is being tracked and stored, whether it’s encrypted or not. Many may think what we see about China and their ‘point system’ is unthinkable and alien, but I assure you we’re slowly sliding into such a society just like a boiling frog.
Talking about frogs, one of my most vivid memories was the various dissections we’d do in biology class with Mr. Locilento. Do kids nowadays still do them or is not PC anymore? Also, I’d have to say that my absolute favorite time were the classes and trips with Mr. Ullman who I still believe to this day was the inspiration for Indiana Jones. What a legend.
What came next was the total unknown. I had no idea what I wanted to do. The only thing I knew was that I had to leave Rome, not because I didn't love Rome, au contraire. When I more recently saw “La Grande Bellezza” I felt like Sorrentino hit the nail on the head with managing to create a visual representation of how I always felt about “La citta’ eterna’. That last scene when they’re doing “il trenino” during the party just hit it home for me. As Romans we have this terrible thing, which is that the people of Rome still think it's the capital of an empire that has been gone for thousands of years, and it gets to you, even to me; you're like, "oh, I live in Rome, “Roma capoccia, Roma caput-mundi…” and you're fed this dream, this romantic lie that Rome is the center of the world. It was, once. It's not now. It's far from it. It's beautiful, it's fantastic, but it's a village. It's a big village with a delusion of grandeur where if you stay there, you will probably remain there for the rest of your life. Again, nothing against that, but I knew that I had to leave or I would’ve had massive regrets from not going abroad and seeing the world.
I did some university tours in New York, Paris, and London. I ended up going to Brussels because I found this fantastic university that was small but dynamic. Brussels was much more international city; the European Union was in total ferment, the wall had ‘just’ come down, and it felt like it was really the center of the world. I ended up staying there for almost 7 years. I went to Vesalius, a liberal arts college that was a love child between Boston College and the VUB (Vrije Universiteit Brussel). It gave me the time to understand what direction I wanted to go in. I eventually outgrew Brussels too and moved to Paris where I lived for almost 20 years, and now recently moved to London.
I’m actually leaving Eutelsat this month. Because of my recent transfer from Paris to London, it has become more complicated. Working in internal innovation involves working with people, and remote innovation is, Id say, impossible. To answer your question, at the end of the day, my role was accompanying colleagues with dreams and ideas. I would listen to them and determine if it had Value with a capital "v." Did it bring something to the bottom line? That was fantastic. I loved doing that and seeing the ideas that came from all different areas, from our engineers and directors to the stewards at the building entrance who would observe and say, "well, what if we did things like this? What if we did that?" I created guidelines; it was as if we had a suggestion box, and I gave the box structure. I helped accompany people from idea to design and execution and to do so you’d also need help finding internal and external sponsors or clients. I loved that because I love creating.
The good thing about working in something like that is that you have internal budgets, which are usually very meager, so you go and talk to the European Union, you speak to local ministries of telecommunication, to venture capitalists, to investors, and that's the unique part: you learn to cut through the bullshit in a way and see what makes the world tick. There are a lot of politics and behind-the-scenes dynamics that, from the outside, are hard to see. One of the most incredible projects involved some people who took a technology that was twenty years old and repurposed it. They took long-abandoned frequencies that no one else knew what to do with, and they came up with unique ideas. Unfortunately, it's an ongoing project, so I can't go into details.
I applaud Facebook for going all-in on a dream because you need that; you have commit. I don't know if you've ever seen the movie Existenz? It was from the nineties. It came out just before the Matrix, and to this day, it's a very geek culture reference to what I think is the dream of the Metaverse or all this stuff. Web3 could be interesting, but we're still not there yet. There are opportunities in everything, but it requires consistency and big companies to take risks. And unfortunately, many big companies, like Google or Microsoft, have tons of money, and they have shareholders they must respond to. Everyone's talking about getting on the Metaverse bandwagon, but a year or two later, these projects get abandoned. These companies will invest vast fortunes into these things and then let them die because no one behind them believes in the technology; they just did it to follow the bandwagon. Anyway, there's going to be a Matrix-style Metaverse--or whatever you want to call it--I'm just not sure it will happen in the next decade or so.
If you watch Existenz, I think the biotechnological model they propose is a better way forward, a better way into the Metaverse. Existenz envisions a biotechnological interface into the Metaverse, and there's a chemical that you could call a "hallucinogenic" component. I'm in London now and seeing vast investments into medically controlled hallucinogenic and what they call "microdosing." And I'm thinking out loud here; we could see a combination of biological and technological ways to control one's imagination and inhabit virtual worlds. So, I think, for now, Web3 and the Metaverse are gimmicks. They're the foundations of something that will probably not look like what is being proposed now. The Metaverse, alternative reality, and VR have been around for thirty, forty, and fifty years. 3D TV came out in the '50s, and people hyped it up to hell a few years ago, and it just flopped. It's a cycle. Everything is cyclical. What is hyped now will go away and come back in ten years when it's more mature. Second life, the website, has been around for decades. Virtual worlds aren't new. But, again, I applaud Zuckerberg for what he's doing, and despite all his shortcomings, he has the guts to do something like change the name of his company. I don't think it gets more serious than that.
What makes it unique is it's not only the most beautiful but also most exquisite gin in the world. A combination of factors led me to create Solaro gin. I had been a Co-Founder many times, but I was always joining other people, and at a certain point, I wanted to do my own thing and use the experience I had accumulated over my lifetime to create something unique. This is my passion project and is now being found in the highest-end establishments and locations around the world. We’ve recently gotten a few medals (including a double gold) and glowing reviews keep pouring in (pun intended).
In a strange way, Solaro was born of my frustration for Italy. I hate that it's one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with so much going for it, and yet we seem to squander our riches, cultural diversity, ingenuity, and the fantastic things we have going for us. I hate squandered potential. Italy has this constant problem of internal strife, of politics, of people going at each other's throats, a mentality of “mors tua vita mea”, so I wanted to prove myself wrong, in that sense, and create something in Italy. I wanted to create something with the best people I could find and ensure those people would get recognition. While living in France and working as a photographer, doing fashion shoots and other projects, I realized there was so much going on behind the scenes that no one saw. When people are recognized, you can create a great ecosystem. I wanted to be radically transparent with my company; I didn't want anything we did to be a secret. And our artisans at Solaro have gone above and beyond what was required of them and created something beautiful, from the distillers who gather the raw ingredients to the artisans who create the ceramic packaging.
To make a long thing short, part of my family is Neapolitan and Capri, and I've been visiting most of my life. While making limoncello in my uncle's garden, I had all these ideas going on in my head, the “shower thoughts” effect, and I thought, “why don't I make something from Capri?” I thought about making limoncello, and I thought about all the artisans here who make leather sandals, ceramists, painters, poets, etc. There is so much happening on such a small piece of land! So, this idea came to me four or five years ago and I let it brew. I have a Notes application on my phone where I have one note called "Strangeries and Ideas," Every time I have an idea, I dump it there, and this one stuck. I keep the ideas together because it allows me to read through them monthly and realize what's stupid and good.
So, I started to talk to people. I'm not a big drinker, and I don't come from the food and beverage industry, so this was a completely new, different life from my career in technology and satellites, but I found it fascinating.
For example, I don't know if you know the story of gin: it was first made in Italy in the 900s, with the creation of the Scuola Medica Salernitana, which is recognized as the foundation of modern medicine (basically the transition from alchemy to scientific-method). There were three big cultures of the time, the Byzantine, Western and Arab empires. The story goes that three scholars of these Cultures met and decided to combine knowledge. The Arab scholar brought something unknown at the time in the West, a little metal still, an alembic, that enabled one to distill things which was crucial (as it is still today) for medicine. This was a game changer because up until then you could only achieve about 15% alcohol through fermentation (mead, wine, beer…). These scholars took the wine and distilled it. Even back then, one thousand years ago, you could achieve 98% alcohol by distilling wine. These men took everything around them, plants, animals, and objects, and tried to distill them, and because juniper had been used since the beginning of time for medical purposes, they distilled that and made what we call today "gin." And today, at Solaro, our gin is produced in Salerno, the birthplace of gin.
I think photography and exploration came naturally because I come from a family of diplomats, so moving around and exploring is in my DNA. My mom was a photographer. I have a lot of family members who are artists, architects, painters, mosaicists, anything really, and it's one of these things where you say, "do what you love." And I love traveling, I love discovering new cultures. Anthony Bourdain was a hero of mine. I loved how he presented himself and his philosophy of getting to know cultures through food. The Outdoor Journal was a natural fit because a friend of mine started it, and I was involved from the beginning. It's a fantastic medium that allows me to meet the most exciting people from Cousteau to Mike Horn and visit insanely beautiful locations, up in the mountains or under the sea. And, traveling, you see these unique places, and being able to extract and distill those experiences is fun [laughs]. It seems distilling is a constant theme in my life!
I love building things and helping others succeed. I think that’s my main drive in entrepreneurship. Being constantly surrounded by ideas and dreams, and once you get into the groove, also find those who will back you financially and emotionally. Those two elements are the most important because trust me, being an entrepreneur sounds sexy but you realize very quickly what your limitations are and you better have the fortitude and persona to be able to be both humble and resilient. You will get your ass handed to you constantly. Look up "startup curve" and that gives you an idea of what you're going to go through. Personally, the thing that allows me to persevere, more than anything, is enough resources (i.e. money) until we get repeat sales and a steady flow of money. You'll find out quickly enough if you're cut out to be an entrepreneur. What really matters is having enough cash to get your company up and running and fumbling along the way.
With regards to the Outdoor Journal & Voyage, for example, we created a business model where we only work with the most sustainable, safe, and exciting travel operators (we vet each and every one of them) and we only take a small, fixed commission and give the lion's share of money back to the local trip leaders, which is the right thing to do (which most travel agencies don’t do that). So, we created this beautiful thing; we had more than two million in funding, and then COVID came and shut things down, so now we are resurrecting the project with new funding. That was a bit of a "force majeure", but you'll have to eventually deal with things like employees quitting point blank, stealing, insurance scams, customers being upset (ever notice the only feedback you get is complaints, hardly any praise?), or things like staying up at night not knowing how you're going to pay staff at the end of the month, taxes due, legal fees accruing, and that's just the beginning. It's hell and the thought of going back to a cushy corporate job isn't a bad thing, it's sanity and stability.
A great poet once said “you can’t always get what you want, you get what you need”. I think that’s truer than I ever thought it would be and a good thing to keep in mind. I’d also love to go back and remind myself of the adage ‘this too shall pass’. Not only for the bad, but also for the good. Savor and enjoy the wonderful moments and remember that just as the bad ones, they’ll go by.
On a deeper level, I heard a saying recently that goes something like this: “the worst day of your life is meeting the person you could’ve been”. It took a minute, but it made me think of when I was on an expedition (for The Outdoor Journal) with one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met, “super-explorer” Mike Horn. He’s a very “carpe diem” kind of person and has this parable that goes like this: you have around 30,000 good days to live (that’s around 82 years for those keeping count). By the time you’re 18 almost 7,000 have already gone by.
This is all to say that the most precious thing we squander so easily is time. Make the most of every moment you have because you will never, ever, get them back. Spend your time with the people who make you happy and try and make those around you happy as well. Forget the rest, or at least try to.
On a lighter note: When traveling anywhere learn to say “hello” and “thank you” in the local language. You’ll be surprised how just these two things will make a local happy and also make your experience that much better.
Thank you for attending my TED talk.
If you're interested in knowing more about Solaro Gin, visit solarogin.com and visit https://instagram.com/