People 14 May 2018
Cristina Chiomenti lives a life that sounds like the perfect movie plot—New York City lawyer who moved to Tuscany to run her family's century-old winery. But following in the footsteps of a family history brimming with so much success and history isn't all glamorous.
With her roots planted in both Italy and New York City, Chiomenti began her career as a lawyer in New York City—at the very same firm founded by her grandfather. Today, she practices law in Tuscany while operating Fattoria del Teso, the 50-hectare Vineyard her great-grandparents bought over 100 years ago. Taking over the family business is not without its share of learning curves and obstacles to overcome. Here, Chiomenti describes in her own words, why she chose this path and what being the first woman to run the family business has taught her—and can teach you too . . .
“I'm a fourth-generation lawyer. My great grandfather (Filippo Vassalli, 1885 –1955) is considered in Italy the founder of modern civil law, having drafted in 1942 the Italian Civil Code. This was a monumental task as it required mastering ancient Roman empire laws and modern laws such as the Code Napoléon issued by Napoleon in France in 1804 and the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch published in Germany in 1900. Whilst fully absorbed by his profession, my great grandfather Filippo was always reminiscent of his origins from Tuscany and never lost contact with his beloved land. Finally, in the 1930s – after a long search – he bought a 50 hectares farm called “Fattoria del Teso." It lays at the feet of Montecarlo a village (borgo) ideally located one mile above sea level, 40 miles west of Florence and 30 miles east of the beautiful coast of Tuscany (Viareggio, Forte dei Marmi).
"Montecarlo position has always kept an important place in history. The land surrounding it is devoted to the cultivation of high-quality olive oil and wines."
Montecarlo position has always kept an important place in history. The land surrounding it is devoted to the cultivation of high-quality olive oil and wines (Montecarlo Rosso and White, both produced with a certified process and with Denominazione Origine Controllata). In the 14thcenturies armies from Pisa, Lucca and Florence contended this territory through bloody battles. The very name of the city Montecarlo is a tribute to Charles IV of Luxembourg who had a decisive role in a battle against Lucca. Following the purchase of Fattoria del Teso by my great-grandfather in 1930, the history of my family and the history of Fattoria del Teso intertwined inextricably for generations to this day. My great-grandfather loved the farm and the land per se and took every opportunity to travel from Rome to Tuscany to enjoy the fantastic hills and scenery surrounding the Fattoria del Teso.
In 1979, my grandfather Pasquale initiated the production of wine and built the structure where the cellar is now located. As a founder of one of the top international law firms in Italy, Chiomenti Studio Legale, he meticulously designed every detail of the winery. From vineyards, to grapes to the selection of the ancient barrels to be put in the cellar (the barrels used for the production of Vinsanto came from a scotch whiskey distillery and are still in use). I would say that to this day, Fattoria del Teso and its products reflect the drive of my grandfather: a very modern man with a bright business vision whose achievements speak for themselves. After the Second World War in 1948, he founded an associated law firm inspired by the big Anglo-Saxon international law firms. This firm is today one of the biggest firms in Italy, with offices in London, Bruxelles, New York and China. It's the firm where I work today—in New York Cty we have an office in Rockefeller Center and it's probably the biggest Italian law firm in the United States. Our firm works in close collaboration with the most important American law firms, assisting US clients in their investments in Italy and Italian clients in their business activities in the US.
After the passing of my grandfather, my father took over the law firm and the farm, preserving and continuing the tradition of “Law and Montecarlo" initiated half a century before by Filippo.
"As a founder of one of the top international law firms in Italy, Chiomenti Studio Legale, he meticulously designed every detail of the winery."
Today, I have the privilege and honor to continue such a tradition and follow in the steps of my family.
I graduated in law school and focused on building my career as an international business lawyer within the international firm that bears my family name. I spent several years in New York City where I graduated from NYU in 2005 in International Legal Studies. At the same time, Montecarlo has always been a fundamental part of my life and the most important memories of my life have its beautiful hills and scenario as background. When I was a kid, I played between the numerous trees in the farm, learning to drive the bicycle between the vineyards and spending hours laying in the grass looking to the sky. During my teens, I spent hours studying on the porch and walking through the fields.
My grandfather was my first mentor. Although he died in 1990 I have a lot of memories about him. His devotion and passion in handling the firm. His courage in being one of the first Italian lawyers studying abroad (he also studied in the United States). The way he loved Fattoria del Teso and the way he was proud of every single vineyard he planted and barrel he bought. It is definitely very important to find mentors during life. Stories of personal and business success are fundamental examples to follow. Today, like my great-grandfather in the 30's, I travel to Montecarlo from Rome whenever possible and it is my favorite place to spend holidays and vacations. I decided to put all my energies and focus on the Fattoria del Teso and the Montecarlo wine. Even though law still fascinates me, I feel that my destiny is in the farm. I apply to farming the same values of quality of service and pursuit of excellence that I put in the law is my mission.
My family instilled in me the same work ethic and values which allowed my predecessors to establish themselves as leaders in their respective fields.
My grandfather Pasquale managed to establish an international law firm in the difficult post-WWII years. He has been and still is a model for the generations of lawyers who continue to practice in the firm that still carries his name. Entrepreneurship, vision, and dedication are values that my family taught me and that I still apply to Montecarlo.
I moved back to Italy in 2008, after four years in New York City. Like my great grandfather Filippo, I never severed my ties with Italy and Montecarlo and feel that my place in the world is closer to my land. I'm the first woman in the family practicing law and managing the Fattoria. Both activities present challenges which – in my opinion – are bigger compared to my male peers. Gender equality is slowly getting the attention of the public in Italy but, nevertheless, numbers show a lower number of women in leading positions. I take particular pride in proving that I'm up to the task and capable of keeping up with three generations of great, brilliant male lawyers and farm owners. And, I 'm most protective of our tradition which is to only make wine using our grapes, use our traditional bottles and labels and keep our cellar as it was at the time of my grandfather—with the obvious innovations necessary to keep the products up to date. I'm protective of the land and of the ancient Villa built in 1800. Keeping vineyards, meadows, trees, and structure in order requires constant care and love. Our ancient cellar can host about 120 people for wine tastings and meals and it's my job to constantly increase the number of tourists coming to visit us from all over the world.
There's no greater satisfaction than having success and overcoming many obstacles and - sometimes - some prejudice, in a context that is not predominantly female. Those around us see these results and understand them and appreciate even more. I believe in the absolute need to be able to relate to everyone and in the infinite school of knowing how to get the best out of people. These are goals that I set myself every day. My models of leaders, in the family and outside, are the line with these values and then I inspire myself."
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.