How I #MadeIt: Pia Stanchina

Finding your place in the competitive landscape of the fashion industry is no mean feat. Though many have the creativity, passion and unique vision required, often strategy, support and business acumen are lacking. But one woman who has circumnavigated the difficulties faced in both fashion business and tech, is Pia Stanchina, with senior roles at Google and Glossybox on her impressive CV.

Having recently left Google to focus on her own ventures, Stanchina has joined forces with close friend Sharmadean Reid to share her wealth of wisdom to the emerging vanguard of entrepreneurs, helping develop a roadmap and strategy for their business vision via Future Girl Corp. Taking place last Saturday, 15th October, the 12-hour free event invited 100 young women to be a part of seminars, talks and workshops led by female CEOs. "What I’m really passionate about and what I think about all the time is empowering women. I realised I wanted to have a more direct impact and that’s what I want to do now," Stanchina explains.

Future Girl Corp will now become a regular series of engaging, educational events and Sharmadean and Pia are also working on a printed book targeting high net worth women, with a central focus on cars. What did we say about Pia's skills being vast and varied...

We sat down with the wonder woman at home to discuss her career trajectory, the reality of inequality in fashion and tech, and to mine her for business advice.

You’ve covered a great deal in your career from design assistant at Oscar de la Renta to creative director at Glossybox UK as well an advisory role at the British Fashion Council and you most recently worked at Google. Can you talk us through your career to date?
I did a foundation diploma course at Chelsea College of Art & Design because I knew I wanted to study fashion at Saint Martins. My mother is Indian and I grew up spending a lot of time in India and travelling because my dad was a diplomat. I often saw that there was great poverty in areas that actually were traditionally very rich if you thought about the craftsmanship, heritage and the pure passion that people had and I never quite understood how they were so poor. They often didn’t have access to resources or they weren’t educated. When I was at school I learnt about fair trade and I thought that I’d like to do a fashion label which would basically be something quite similar to what Prada have done in recent years where they have collections made in different places. I would work with artisans like beautiful weaving, embroidery, printing etc, initially in India and then it would go global. I’d basically bridge the gap between the artisans and the market place.

When I was at Saint Martins I learned about marketing and the environmental impact of the fashion industry. I learned that things which seem like everyday commodities – a T-shirt that you buy for £15 – takes gallons of water to irrigate that cotton crop, huge amounts of pesticides to make it work and the sheer amount of wastage and pollution that comes from that. At every stage of the supply chain there were people working on these products who were experiencing very low labour standards.

I decided to show that there was another way possible, by creating a sustainable luxury collection for my final degree show. The whole collection was biodegradable, everything was organic and made and sourced in Europe. It got a lot of press – Susie Bubble reviewed it twice and Topshop even contacted me and wanted to do a collaboration. It was really exciting but I then realised I had no idea how to run this little fashion project as a business. Everything was completely overwhelming. To make matters worse I then got pregnant by surprise so I was there with this fledgling business, a baby on the way and breaking up with my boyfriend. I decided to take a step back.

Once I’d had the baby I did a Masters in International Business Management and it was there that I started learning very different frameworks on how the world works. I became really obsessed with start-ups and because my area of expertise is around fashion, beauty and luxury, I looked initially for something I could work on in that space. Rocket Internet who would copy or adapt business models from Silicon Valley and bring them to Europe – they famously sold their clone of eBay back to eBay for €30 million, within seven months of starting it. They were starting a clone of Birchbox, the beauty subscription company and I was recruited as one of the co-founders in the UK [of Glossybox]. I started out in marketing and then moved more into the content creation space and in the end I was creative director.

I was relatively young and still had so much to learn and realised how hard it actually is to manage people. Rocket Internet and any of their subsidiary companies give you a budget and they expect you to find a way to make it work. While that was incredibly empowering for me it was also not a company that fostered talent. I realised I’d love to work in a bigger company and be trained on these things and I was really obsessed with technology. I thought Google would be an amazing step, started looking for a role there and was really lucky that I found a role that was fashion at Google. I've worked there for the past two years and eight months and my role there was looking after some of their largest fashion and beauty clients.
Photographed by Jonny Cochrane.

Do you feel a lot of young designers and those starting out in fashion are set up to fail because they don’t have the business training or knowledge they need to succeed?
I think this certainly used to be the case and my first business is an example of how ill-equipped design graduates used to be upon leaving university. I graduated from what I believed to be the best college for success as a designer, consciously choosing the design and marketing course instead of the more famous womenswear course as it sounded more commercial and realising that I had no idea how to think about my designs in the context of business.

How would I cost my clothes, how would I do payroll, what legal structure should my business take and should I favour online over wholesale? There was nothing in my three-year course that ever addressed any of these strategic and legal questions of setting up and running a business. Essentially, we were being trained to play the part of the cog in a huge machine rather than being able to take any ownership of our output.

Today, the whole world has start-up and entrepreneur fever and future creatives are plugged into a world of educational content that is accessible to all, from Ted Talks to HBS case studies. It’s permeating courses that teach creative subjects too, which is wonderful and the latest generations of designers are far more commercially savvy than mine ever was, with many already having considered exit strategies when they first set up!

Both tech and fashion are notorious for being industries led by men. Have you encountered much sexism or are you frustrated by the predominance of men in these fields?
I found the same in the beauty industry actually, when I was at Glossybox. The people on the ground doing the work were mainly women while the people at the top where almost exclusively men – from a handful of schools and universities with very similar backgrounds, both ethnically and socio-economically.

However, it wouldn't be accurate to say that I have encountered a lot of sexism. There have been less than a handful of cases over the past decade when I’ve been treated at a disadvantage due to being a woman. What I definitely have noticed and continue to notice every day, is systemic conscious and unconscious bias against women. Whether it’s women themselves feeling that they are somehow not good enough or deserving of equal rights (examples I have come across recently are a woman who felt the need to let potential employers know that she’s expecting a child because she feel it’s “unfair” to put the employer at a disadvantage with maternity leave and cover and a woman suggesting a male expert instead of accepting an invitation to do a keynote on a topic at a big conference) or expectations from both men and women that women should behave differently than men when managing teams, voicing feedback or in terms of their presentation of self.

The proof really is in the pudding: take the U.S. as an example and women make up almost 60% of undergraduates, 40% of MBA graduates and 40% of managers. And yet, when it comes to the C-Suite and Board Level, women make up only 4.6% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies. How do we go from a more or less equal distribution to less than 5% at the top if they are as just as well qualified as the men?

There’s a huge amount to be done to mean women do not drop out of the labour force when they start families, in order to start families or because they just aren’t getting ahead or paid equally. And this has to be addressed both by the private sector and in those companies themselves (what can they do to keep women, to address their needs, to recognise their achievements etc) and the public sector in terms of childcare etc as well by the women themselves. Women like Arianna Huffington, Natalie Massenent, Sophia Amoruso, Marissa Mayer and Ursula Burns are all providing role models of what female leadership can look and sound like.

There’s also a lot of hope when you look at the quotas being set, the organisations fighting for equal board representation and also in the numbers: we know that firms with women in the C-Suite are more profitable and that the only 20 odd female CEOs in S&P's 500 earned on average $18.8m in 2015 vs $12.7m of the 455 male CEOs and to me, this provides a lot of motivation to create awareness for these issues, help to educate about barriers like unconscious bias, and inspire girls to recognise that they live at the most exciting time to be a woman in the history of mankind and to make the most of it.
Photographed by Jonny Cochrane.
Photographed by Jonny Cochrane.

How did you juggle your job with being a single mother?
I’d love to say that it’s easy but it’s not always been smooth sailing. The reality is that I took a pay cut at both Glossybox and Google in order to work four days a week and have an extra day to spend with my child, stay on top of our household admin and also take care of myself. It’s not a topic addressed enough, but in order to thrive rather than survive, to be a fully functioning adult who is contributing to society, their workplace, community and family requires being able to meet one's own physical and psychological needs.

However, our culture prizes the notion of the ideal worker. So often, people boast about how long their hours are, how little they sleep, how they “work hard and play hard” or “go big or go home”. It’s not considered sexy or a sign of success to boast about getting eight hours or more sleep and feeling emotionally balanced, or to talk about prioritising exercise, meditation and early nights over glamorous nights out.

At work, it’s often hard to not take on more work without risking looking like you “can’t handle the pressure.” To me, that’s capitalist / corporate propaganda. I see no value in trying to be more like a robot. I want robots to enable us to be more human (more free time to pursue cultural pursuits, self care and “real” human endeavours like peace and prosperity.)

I couldn’t have made it to where I am as a single mother without family in the same city, without having enough money to pay for high quality childcare. We all need to push our representatives and make personal choices that drive the world in the direction that creates equal rights and support structures for women and families, whether their family needs them to stay home or work or if their personal preference is to stay home or work.

What are your top tips for young entrepreneurs?
While there’s apparently an inverse correlation to pages in a business plan and the likelihood of business success (or indeed company formation!), I’m a big believer in preparation. I’ve seen people start businesses that really are passion projects, committing themselves to markets or business models that aren’t scalable or will never create the kind of profit that enables them to stop struggling. So my advice would be to choose your business wisely and be clear about why you’re starting the business, how you will fund it and yourself, and also what you’re willing to give up to get there.

I notice a lot of business owners underestimate the power of the technical and entrepreneurial revolution underway and do not capitalise on the new tools, technologies and tribes available to them today in terms of creating awareness and brand building, acquiring customers, automating processes, leveraging machine learning to constantly improve their businesses. A lot of people want to just outsource “digital” to someone else or hire a young intern and I don’t believe that their business will be able to maximise the potential of the time we live in if technology and innovation aren’t baked into the business culture, strategy and budgets i.e. are valued internally at the top of the company.
Photographed by Jonny Cochrane.
Photographed by Jonny Cochrane.
Finally, I’d urge entrepreneurs to think counter intuitively: a lot of people are into making consumer apps these days but it’s really the analogue world around us where there’s still a huge amount to disrupt and improve. And instead of only thinking of consumer businesses, what about thinking about business to business solutions? There’s way less innovation and competition for funding in that space.

In the same vein, some entrepreneurs think they need to focus 100% on working and keep their heads down but to grow your business, you need to network, meet people who will help you, mentor you, invest in you, buy your product or service, give you feedback and inspire you. So even if you think you’re too busy to take the time out, remember your business probably won’t implode if you’re at a conference or seminar for a few hours, taking an important step back to see the big picture, keep up to date on the latest technological, consumer and business trends and grow your network.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt since university and starting your career?
To keep learning. I’m pretty sure I’ll never feel like 'I’ve made it and I’m done now', because I believe there’s so much to be done. We are SO far from the world I envision for humanity. Of course, I feel excited and privileged to be able to pursue my personal and professional goals, to be able to raise my daughter to be a women today rather than in another era, and to create businesses that play even the tiniest part in the re-education of women and the redistribution of wealth in the world. In the long-term, I dream of helping to create a more peaceful, prosperous world in which we all thrive as a global community rather than just consumers of goods and citizens of countries.

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