Can beauty save the world? An interview with Carlo Mazzi, former Chairman of Prada

In one of his final interviews as Chairman of Prada, Carlo Mazzi joined AMBA & BGA’s Global Conference in May, for a panel discussion with AMBA’s CEO Andrew Main Wilson and Antonella Moretto, Associate Dean of Open Programs at MIP Graduate School of Business, Politecnico di Milano, to discuss how the partnership between School and corporation has supported both organisations in terms of sustainability, strategy and diversity

Business Schools understand the imperative to strike the balance between theoretical and practical approaches in contemporary learning paths – both for students and employers. 

A catalyst for this has been the emergence of models in which Business Schools are not only able to offer high-quality content to students, but also a set of additional services that provide students with a valuable 360° experience. 

During a session in May at the AMBA & BGA Global Conference 2021, Andrew Main Wilson, CEO of AMBA & BGA, spoke to Carlo Mazzi the then Chairman of Prada, just days before Mazzi completed his mandate on the board of the world-renowned luxury Italian fashion house.

Mazzi and Main Wilson were joined by Antonella Moretto, Associate Dean for Open Programs at MIP Graduate School of Business, Politecnico di Milano, to highlight the necessity of building joint activities between Schools and the corporate world, in which a clear mutual interest is pursued to achieve win-win goals for both parties. 

They discussed the long-standing partnership between Prada and MIP, specifically discussing how Prada is developing its sustainability values by working with MIP, and how it has worked with MIP’s students to understand a new type of consumer – while giving business students first-hand experience of the brand’s corporate communications and internal mechanisms 

The conversation served to highlight that numerous stakeholders may have their future needs met, and even be empowered, when common interests are clearly stated and achieved. Here, we share some highlights from this exclusive interview. 

Andrew Main Wilson (AMW): Carlo, I’d like to start with you if I may. You’ve built a brand based on exceptional quality standards. Can you tell me what you’re looking for in a bright MBA, who you deem – in this 21st-century environment – good enough to join Prada? What are the skills you’re looking for? 

Carlo Mazzi (CM): The past decade and the future decade will always mean the difference for a corporation in terms of competitiveness to meet the market need. Reality is constantly changing, and everyone knows that the pace of change is accelerating. 

Today’s demand is changing constantly. For example, consumers often know competitors’ products better than the corporations know them, thanks to technology that enables free and unrestricted access to information. As a consequence, it is necessary to establish a more transparent relationship with clients. Likewise, in production and product development, true humility is required to watch the world outside the gates of our factories – or better: we need to break down old gates. 

But this is not enough. When it comes to choosing the new teams of managers and collaborators, we also have to look inside our company. Companies need to grow culturally on the inside. Companies have a lifecycle, and over a span of 20 years, it’s almost certain that we will shift from one phase to the next. From startup to development, through growth to acquisition. 

The competencies needed to tackle the future are those required by the market, but also those by the evolution of our own companies. 

AMW: Antonella, if I could turn to you. There are many specialised MBAs, and my understanding is that you are sold out [in terms of student recruitment] for your luxury master’s and there is huge demand for it. Can you tell me how this relationship came about? 

Antonella Moretto (AM): This master’s is a tremendous example of a collaboration between a company and a university, and we started expanding this opportunity to MBA classes. We developed it because business education can no longer relate only to theory – it cannot just relate to content. If a student needs content, there are several high-level opportunities for them to [find it] and to learn. 

If you decide to attend an MBA, you will need experience and corporate connections to be ready to help you [address] the challenges managers will face. In this sense, the collaboration between university and industry is fundamental, because companies will bring the practical approach and the connections. 

They bring [insight into] competencies today and also an overview of the trends they’re expecting for the future. Our students will be in charge of managing these competencies. 

The university should bring the mindset of a Business School as well as research – focusing on today but looking to the future. 

This collaboration, which we try to achieve in all our programmes, has the goal of combining these different views. We cite the skills companies are looking for, but also the trends that our students will be required to cope with in the near future. It’s the perfect combination. 

AMW: If I look at the programme, it’s one of the most attractive MBAs in the world. You’ve created it in association with Prada, NEOMA Business School and [Champagne house] Taittinger. What are the minimum numbers, in terms of cohort size, that you need to make a programme like this viable? 

AM: A lot of the skills and competencies we have depend on the bigger networks of opportunity that we have at  Business School level. We have activities specific to this course, but we take advantage of the community level and exploit all the opportunities. 

The minimum number to make this viable is not high. The typical dimension is 60 people, and we want to keep it there to ensure a profitable programme, good networking opportunities, and good interaction within the class – but keep the ethos similar to a luxury market. To be sustainable, 30-35 students is enough. 

AMW: Carlo, everyone admires luxury goods but there is sometimes some envy, and you come under great scrutiny in terms of sustainability. You have proudly put forward a sustainable strategy for Prada. Can you tell us how you are making Prada products genuinely sustainable? 

CM: Regarding sustainability and the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, I don’t think there are 17 scopes of sustainability, but rather values and aspects of the same principle. 

Allow me to make a comparison, which I think is very compelling. When we speak about ethics, no one thinks it’s possible to split the aspects of morals. In other words, if I had to draw the sustainability described by the UN on a sheet of paper, I would sketch a polygon with 17 sides and 17 triangles, converging towards the centre, and one or more of these triangles could not be removed, without destroying the whole figure. 

In order to answer your question, I would say education must clarify the principles on which sustainability is based, breaking down the description into the 17 points defined by the UN. Maybe it’s better to start with the three rules of life stated by [Roman Emperor] Marcus Aurelius [which comprise judgement, desire, and impulse]. Then, in the business world, we can find ourselves operating in one or two of these triangles, knowing they are all touching the same shape. 

In other words, we have to consider all aspects of our work: the value chain’s impact on pollution, or process of production, or the destinies of the products we’re selling to our customers. This is a very complex goal, but if Schools explain what sustainability means, then in the workplace, we can [develop] people who can manage all the aspects and principles of sustainability, in order to build the right products for the future. 

AMW: Antonella, many of our Schools will think that a specialist MBA should be much more than classroom teaching and company visits, and I know you’re much closer to Prada in terms of some of the things that you’re asking students to do. Could you tell me a bit more about this? 

AM: As an introduction, what we decided to do was much more than teaching and visits; we wanted a real experience for students. The collaboration with Prada allowed us to manage this with a challenge and allow students to work on projects around real problems. 

This works by the company introducing a challenge it is facing in real life, and students splitting into groups to act as advisors in order to solve these problems. Students are supported by faculty, and they have regular meetings with the company over time. They gain feedback and advice. 

At the end there is a formal presentation when they can present their final idea in front of the board of the company. They offer the assumption, suggest a solution, and outline a roadmap for implementation. 

Students can get feedback and share suggestions. The winners are advised to share their CV with the company. 

They can work on real projects, looking to the future, and are encouraged to think independently to find solutions. 

AMW: The percentage of women taking an MBA across all AMBA’s Schools is 38%. This has increased from 32% in 2013. But Carlo, what are you doing within Prada to make sure there is a good balance of senior leaders?

CM: This topic is defined in Italy by the (not very politically correct ) expression ‘pink percentage’. It is the subject of many debates, but I find that the arguments put forward don’t respect the principle of justice toward women. The prerequisite to address this is intellectual equality between men and women. This might seem obvious but is not. 

Then we need to analyse why, in so many fields, there is a cultural deficit. This is about to be overcome in developed markets, but there is still a long way to go, because the evolution of culture is slow and has little to do with the development of technology.

Imposing ‘pink quotas’ on boards is an emergency law, with a temporary
use to address the problem. 

I don’t think a woman’s dignity would be satisfied by her getting a role thanks to an obligation. Women should, quite rightly, get the role based onmintellectual and professional skills. 

For Prada, the problem is easier because, in our sector, women are more skilled than men. In Prada, we have more women than men in every [area of the business]. The problem is more general across [business]. In mechanics, for example, the percentage of women is 7%, but in Prada it is more than 50-60%. We have women on the board and directing many subsidiaries. 

We feel the problem has been solved for us by a natural situation, but across the rest of global industry, it is still a very big issue, and a potential opportunity for the future. 

AMW: Antonella, what are your thoughts on the mix of male and female students on MBA programmes? 

AM: We’re noticing an increase in women in our classes. We benchmarked against other Business Schools and are noticing that incentives to encourage women to enrol are usually through dedicated scholarships or dedicated courses focused on female leadership. 

I don’t like this approach, because the capabilities will ultimately be the same, and the problem is one of culture. Before joining an MBA, there is too limited a number of women taking engineering or economics courses,
which is typically the background from which we would recruit students. 

Something has to start at high-school level to communicate how this career
and learning journey is appropriate for women. 

We try to work with managers having a great career to a female target audience. 

AMW: Carlo, you have completed an MBA from an AMBA-accredited
Business School. 

Could you tell us the one thing you wish you’d learned during the programme that would have made a difference to your career trajectory? 

CM: [Laughs] This is too big a question! Considering this in terms of sustainability alone… the problem is huge.  At the moment, we have no accounting rules for sustainability, so there needs to be a study to develop a universal method in order to ‘measure’ sustainability. I don’t know how to do this, but it is the starting point in order to change the approach
to sustainability. This will then translate to the daily behaviour of people.  

AMW: Carlo, if we look at the luxury goods sector, in recent years it has grown significantly in Japan and now China. How optimistic are you about the growth of the luxury goods market beyond Covid-19, in a world of inequality? 

CM: I like to speak about high-quality products for people [rather than ‘luxury’ products]. In this direction, I think the prospect for this kind of product is very wide. Throughout the history of humanity, we can see that beauty has always been a natural aspiration. 

Beauty will save the world [laughs]. The point is to create beautiful products of high quality. If this is the task of the industry, it will continue to develop and be successful. 

Carlo Mazzi has been the Chairman of the Board of Prada since 2014, having been appointed to the board in 2004. He has served a number or roles at the company, including Vice Chairman before becoming Chairman.

His previous roles include Managing Director of the large corporate department of IMI and San Paolo IMI Bank from 1994 to 2000.

Mazzi obtained a degree cum laude in mechanical engineering from the Bologna University of Italy in 1971, and a master’s degree in business administration from Bocconi University of Milan in 1976.

Antonella Moretto is Associate Dean for Open Programmes at MIP Graduate School of Business. She is Senior Assistant Professor at the School of Management of Politecnico di Milano, and has been an Associate Professor at the School since 2017. She teaches supplier relationship management at the MSc of management engineering and is part of the core faculty at the School in the area of purchasing and supply management.

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