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The most successful women in Italy

The 2015 Forbes list of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World shows a new entry: Federica Mogherini, high representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Mogherini, who was not in the list last year, joins (at number 36) two icons of Made in Italy intelligence and talent,  Miuccia Prada, leader of the iconic Italian fashion house bearing her own name (at number 79, loosing 4 positions since last year), and Fabiola Gianotti (number 83), scientist of the CERN.

Popular culture has always portrayed Italian women as charming and beautiful but, as it often happens, it neglected to emphasize how strong and capable they are. From science to economy, from literature to the above mentioned world of fashion, Italian women have been successful and, at times, pioneering.

Let’s get to know some of the Italian women who, during these first 15 years of the new millenium, have become successful, powerful and a true symbol of dedication, skills and professionality.

Powerful Women of Italy: Miuccia Prada

Of course, we couldn’t start with anyone but Miuccia Prada.

If you say Prada everyone knows, no matter where you are, what you are talking about. The label is famous all over the world and Miuccia, born Maria Prada in Milan in 1949, is largely responsible for the Milanese maison’s success.

most successful women in italy
Miuccia Prada (in the middle), one of the most successful women in Italy Ph. flickr/Cory M. Grenier

When young, Miuccia’s world didn’t revolve around fashion: she studied Political Sciences in University and followed theatre courses in her city of Milan. It was only after a while she took the decision to join the family business. Her grandfather had started a successful company specialized in the production of leather handbags and suitcases; the market segment was that of the famous and wealthy. It was Miuccia who decided to revolutionize the company and introduce new elements to its collections in 1985, by introducing a new line of black, lightweight backpacks. Some years later, she entered the market of womenswear. 

In the 1993, Miuccia created a Prada second fashion line, aimed at younger, less traditional women: the line, called Miu Miu, is named after her and has helped the company’s profit to grow exponentially during the 1990s. In the same decade, Prada began producing menswear, too.

most successful women in italy
This dress was sketched by Miuccia Prada, one of the most powerful women in Italy, and it was worn by Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby Movie Ph. flickr/Itenney1225

In 1995, she founded, in cooperation with her husband, Fondazione Prada to present “the most radical intellectual challenges in contemporary art and culture.”

Miuccia Prada entered the Olympus of the most influential people of the  20th century in 2005. Since then, several galas were held in her honor, such as those at the  LA’s Hammer Museum Gala.  With Fondazione Prada, she became an influential figure in the world of art recognition, as embodied by her presentation of the Turner Prize (one of the most exclusive fine arts prizes in the world, awarded to artists for their  sense of innovation and creativity) to Susan Phillips at the Tate in London.

Her social engagements have certainly helped to make her a household name, but it’s her capability as a businesswoman and the ever increasing financial power of her company that has sealed her success. According to Forbes, she is worth (as of early 2015) a net of 4.8 billion USD. Her creativity and fashion sense are, however, without a price.

Powerful Women of Italy: Federica Mogherini

most successful women in italy
Federica Mogherini (wikimedia)

Mogherini was born in Rome in 1973 and graduated from the Università La Sapienza with a thesis on “The Relationship between Religion and Politics in Islam.” She was Italy’s Foreign Affairs Minister from February to October 2014, when she was appointed high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Always a follower of left wing ideologies, Mogherini joined the Partito Democratico (the same as Prime Minister of the time Matteo Renzi) in 2007. She was a member of the Italian Parliament from 2008 to 2014 and served as vice-president of the Italy-USA Foundation in 2009. Her parliamentary career always saw her working on foreign politics and security, and included presences on the Italian Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly for NATO, of which she became president in 2013. She is also a Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She was only the third woman to be Minister for Foreign Affairs, following in the steps of Susanna Agnelli and Emma Bonino.

In her EU parliamentary position, Mogherini works on behalf of 500 million European citizens.

She is married with two children.

Powerful Women of Italy: Fabiola Gianotti

successful women of italy
Successful Women of Italy: Fabiola Gianotti

Her name may not be as popular around the streets and on the media as that of Miuccia Prada, but Fabiola Giannotti has been making history also in name of Italy as a particle physicist within the ranks of world renowned and emblazoned CERN. 

She has become famous all over the world for having led one of the experiments that led to the discovery of the Higgs boson, which was only theorised in the 60s. As said, Fabiola Giannotti works at CERN, which she joined in 1987, and holds a Ph.D in experimental sub-nuclear physics from the University of Milan. She worked on several experiments, including those associated to the  ATLAS  project.

She was awarded the Ambrogino d’Oro, the highest recognition given by the city of Milan to people who have made a difference in their field, in November 2012. Gianotti is also part of the Physics Advisory Committee at Fermilab, a particle physics laboratory based in Illinois and she was also awarded the 2012 Fundamental Physics Prize. Her name has marked a chapter of physics history.  A curiosity: Fabiola is not only an accomplished scientist, keeping the name of the country high in the world, but also an accomplished musician: she graduated from the Conservatorio di Milano. Her instrument: the piano.

Successful women of Italy: Elena Cattaneo

most successful women of italy
Elena Cattaneo, one of the most successful women of Italy, received by then-Italian President Giorgio Napolitano (Presidenza della Repubblica/wikimedia)

Elena Cattaneo, just as Fabiola Gianotti, may not be an household name, but her work for science and medicine is known worldwide. She has graduated in Italy, where she also got her doctorate in the 1980s, but spent many years in the US training and working. It’s at the Massachussets Institute of Technology that she started working on stem cells, under the supervision of prof. Ron McKay. Upon her return to Italy, she joined the Università Statale di Milano’s research team, where she continued her work on Huntington Disease.

Today, Cattaneo is a leading figure in the Stemcell Biology and Pharmacology of Neurodegenerative Disease laboratory, which is also part of the pan European Neurostemcell project, of which she is main coordinator. She is co-founder and director of UniStem, the Università degli Studi di Milano’s own centre on stem cells research, as well as co-ordinator of a new European organization, the Neurostemcellrepair.  Cattaneo, it’s evident, is one of the world’s leading figures on neurodegenerative diseases and stem cells research, but she’s also often offered her voice to make this topic more widely understood by the public. Her divulgative lectures on stem cells research, as well as the ethical issues associated to it, are well known.

Cattaneo has more than 100 publication at her name, all focusing on her decades-long experience as a researcher in the field of neurodegenerative diseases and stem cell research. For her unvaluable contribution to the field and her effort, through her work, to keep the name of Italian scientific research up with those of countries such as the US, Cattaneo was nominated Senatore a Vita in 2006, by the Presidente della Repubblica Giorgio Napolitano. Only three women have, so far, obtained the appointment, Rita Levi Montalcini being one of them. Beside former Presidents of the Republic, who are appointed Senatori a Vita once their terms ends, only 32 people have obtained the title since the birth of the Italian Republic, in 1946. Some other Senatori a Vita? Orchestra directors Arturo Toscanini and Claudio Abbado, Gianni Agnelli, poets Trilussa and Eugenio Montale, actor and writer Eduardo De Filippo.

Successful Women of Italy: Samantha Cristoforetti

most successful women of italy
Samantha Cristoforetti, a young and successful Italian woman (NASA/Robert Markowitz/Wikimedia)

She may not be as “powerful” and well known as the other women in this short list, but Samantha Cristoforetti has recently become the first Italian woman to get into space. Very young by any means (Cristoforetti was born in 1977), she has shown strength and volition throughout her academic and professional career. At the age of 18, she travelled to the US and attended Space Camp. Back in Europe, she studied in Bolzano and Trento, but graduated at the Technical University of Munich (Germany) with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. She then attended the École Nationale Supérieure de l’Aéronautique et de l’Éspace in Toulouse, as well as the Mendeelev Russian University of Chemistry and Technology.  She is a member of the Italian Aviation, with the rank of Captain: she graduated in Aeronautic Sciences at the prestigious Accademia Aeronautica in Pozzuoli and was one of the first women in Italy to become a lieutenant and a fighter pilot in the Italian Army.

Cristoforetti became a household name when, at the end of 2014, she was sent into space with the ISS. Before Christmas 2014, she received heartfelt wishes from former Presidente della Repubblica Napolitano, who underlined her capabilities and great skills, as well as how important her work is in order to give hope and strength to the country. He concluded, visibly moved, by saying ” I shall not call you Captain Cristoforetti: you are Samatha for all of us Italians.”

Five lives, five names, five women who have been excelling in their field for years, who have achieved the highest recognitions within their field. They stand for all women in the country who have followed similar paths.

Italy is a country where, often and unfortunately, only starlets and WAGs represent womanhood in the eye of many: it’s even more essential, then, not to forget about the relentless work and continuous achievements of the truly powerful women of Italy who help keeping the name of the country high in the world not only through their charme, but also and foremostly through their strength and intelligence.

Francesca Bezzone

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