Emerging leaders

The 20-second pitch that disrupted the Financial Times

Virginia Stagni is a 25-year-old entrepreneur from Italy, currently working for the Financial Times. She joined the news giant in 2017 and, while in a junior role, came up with the idea of FT Talent Challenge, where young participants from different countries and backgrounds would compete in teams to solve real business and strategic cases related to the digital and media world. Stagni pitched the project to the CEO of the media company, John Ridding, and the chief commercial officer, Jon Slade. A year later, 50 participants selected from a pool of more than 450 candidates from all over the world, met at the FT headquarters in London. The FT Talent Challenge, Stagni says, turned out to be one of the most disruptive and successful 2018 FT initiatives. 

It has received positive feedback both within the organization and in the market. The news organization has already decided to make it cyclical and part of its core strategy towards younger generations. 

Full disclosure: Joanna Socha, the editor-in-chief of W Insight, was one of the participants in the inaugural edition. Having experienced the project herself and impressed by it, she decided to interview Virginia Stagni and ask about tips for executing a disruptive project at a big corporation. 

Where does your passion for entrepreneurship come from?

Entrepreneurship is an attitude, it is a way people approach their work. For me it’s about being able to think ahead, being ready to embrace change and to challenge yourself. I’ve always been interested in opportunities where I could push the boundaries and build a new thing from scratch.

I was certainly inspired by my parents: my dad, a self-made man, and journalist founded his communications and marketing company when he was 21, and my mom, his right hand and challenging thinker (now a self-made chef and cultural tours entrepreneur). 

They both taught me what it means to work hard towards a vision: dealing with newspapers, my family never had a weekend off. However, we shared everything: my father let me sit in his office or in the backstage of events since I was a child, having me collaborate on some small tasks. I learned a lot by watching my parents working together with their team and I can say I was basically born with the ink smell in my nose: I always had papers around – I was the one in charge to take the papers from the newsstand every morning, before going to school. This then makes me emotionally connected to the news world.

Keeping in mind that you like to do so many things, how did you find yourself working full-time for the Financial Times?

I wrote my LSE dissertation about how to save quality journalism in the age of digital disruption. I looked at different publications but I always wanted to investigate the FT, because of its very successful subscription model and quality content-driven mindset and values. 

I got an interview time with Jon Slade, chief commercial officer of the FT, by simply sending him a message via LinkedIn: that one hour chat ended up being a great conversation about the future of things, the role of younger generations in media: it was pivotal for my research – and my future. When I finished the thesis and I sent it to him, he suggested that I look at the FT as a place to be for my career. I went through applications (also rejections!) and interviews and… here I am. I started with a very junior role (program coordinator) in a small educational division of the FT and after a year, I landed in my current role as business development manager. 

This is an example of what it means to me to be entrepreneurial: having a vision, a nice step by step plan – with some audacious moves – and a good amount of energy and passionate vibes to transmit. In this scenario, audentes fortuna iuvat (fortune favors the bold) — but remember: you’ll never get anything if you don’t ask and go for it.

v tlent
Virginia Stagni during the FT Talent Challenge 2018

Weren’t you concerned that entering such a big, structured organization could prevent you from accomplishing your own initiatives?

I didn’t think about it at all. I treated it as a new challenge and a great learning experience. But the first year here was, in fact, difficult: my tasks weren’t exciting or making an ‘impact’ all the time, but I had time to think and observe. As I said before, I like watching how organizations and people work together: I find it very insightful for my daily job. So I made different plans on what’s next for the FT, mainly watching some internal dynamics and our current presence in the market. This is when I came up with the idea of the FT Talent Challenge: the FT is doing so many great things and bringing exciting innovations to the media ecosystem, but young people are not very engaged and connected to the FT – mainly because of a wrong pre-concept picture of the FT ecosystem (formal, old and institutional). On the contrary, once inside, the FT is an incredible place where new ideas are welcomed and young professionals have a great impact. The idea was simply about opening the gate of our organization to the next generation of readers and changing their perception. 

The project was positively welcomed by the business: I got a budget, an incredibly driven team (without which FT Talent would have never been real) and we made it happen. 

What were some of the challenges you faced while implementing the idea? 

Any innovation takes more time in a global organization, especially if it has a 131-year heritage: because of its big structure – certainly bigger than the one of any startup – holistic initiatives, such as the FT Talent Challenge, take longer to be organized and coordinated. These kinds of projects need great interdepartmental collaboration (and, per nature, big organizations tend to be siloed): breaking the departments’ boundaries and putting different and the right people in the same room, working towards the same goal, this takes time. 

Moreover, it is very hard to make people understand what you are trying to achieve, what your goals are for the initiative: at the end of the day, only you have the clear bigger picture of the project. It is then the key to be able to quickly explain to each person the overall aim but, as well, the direct impact on that person and their time commitment (busy bees!).

Also, you can’t please everyone. Although most of the people I approached were enthusiastic about the idea, there were people skeptical about the whole thing – also because it was putting our brand on the spot, as well as it could have been risky for our business – sharing some key information and real business challenges we are facing (and asking students to ‘hack the FT’).

I then learned, again, how important it is to listen. There are some dynamics and processes that take time to be seen – this is why it is better to ask people about their opinions before asking for help. So for example, instead of saying: “look, this is a project I am doing, I need your help,” it’s better to start with: “here is the idea, what do you think about it? Would you be open to developing it?” It is a very small narrative dynamic that can, however, be game-changing. 

Also, it’s good to sound very enthusiastic. If people see that you are very passionate about something, they will at least be curious about why you have such an energetic attitude towards this idea. So, don’t be shy!

Another challenge was approaching people I’ve never worked with before – as a no-one, junior professional with a zero ‘results list’. So, prepare to pitch yourself via email or face to face in less than 20 seconds so that it is fun to meet with you for coffee and it is not just ‘another meeting’. 

Finally, always be curious and go for the extra mile and be the owner of the ‘bigger picture’: connect the dots: who knows who, who can be a great person to work with (from whom you can learn) and how does this fit in the organization structure, strategy and vision: study the company that employed you and the people around you. For example, I ended up mapping the whole organization and meeting with over 100 people in the company just to familiarize myself with the world around me – and understand if my idea made sense or it was just a flight of fancy. 

Have you received any feedback after this project?

Participants loved it. We had a Net Promoter Score of 9.6, out of 10. From the business side, it was perceived as a success not only by the people involved and the management board, but by the overall company. 

I think a little revolution happened: people felt great energy in the building during the three-day event, they saw the FT people really passionate about it and everyone was amazed by the ideas the participants developed. The perception towards our brand completely changed in the participant feedback. After a month, people from the other FT offices in New York and Hong Kong contacted me to learn how to get involved – and make it happen overseas. More surprisingly, we also received questions from other international companies about it.
What would be your advice to people looking to disrupt or do something innovative in a big corporation?

A few things. It takes time, but it’s worthwhile. Be very passionate and never underestimate your value to the company. Even if you are a very junior person, try to put your foot in the right door and pitch it with the right energy, and only in 20 seconds – this is exactly how much time you have to grab someone’s attention.

Always have the bigger picture: make it clear what is this disruption causing to the ecosystem.

Be an entrepreneur, care as if it was your own startup. If it’s a small project for a huge corporation, let it have the deserved impact – but do not expect to necessarily get credit for it. Use it as your training, your gym, your test. 

Finally but more importantly: always ask and listen to others’ opinions. Be prepared to fail, to be challenged – and to change your mind if needed. “I know that I know nothing”, someone said.

What is a source of inspiration for you in life?

I like this poem, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley, where the last verses are: 

“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”

What it says to me is that what is in your head, can be in your hands if you really believe in it, if you are able to gently but audaciously push the boundaries. To me, it is all about attitude, the border between the possible and impossible. 

Virginia Stagni, Quilotoa

Virginia Stagni is a business development manager at the Financial Times and the founder of Logos, a smartphone battery device with a rewarding cryptocurrency system that gives coins for each minute OFF your phone.   

Interview by Joanna Socha

Edited by Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka


1 comment

  1. Joanno, what a great idea to interview Virginia Stagni. She is an inspiration to many of us. The subject of intrapreneurship is central in the corporate world. A great way to promote passionate, young people, especially women who still do not get deserved recognition as much as men do. But thanks to you it is changing. Congratulations on your idea and action! Many thanks.


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