Paola Innocenti, With and Within, Woman Entrepreneur

ImagesPaola has been a long time commenter on this blog straight out of Italy.  When she came to NYC awhile ago I had the pleasure of meeting her face to face.  She continues to comment and shoot me emails and ask questions mostly surrounding her start-up that she recently launched called With and Within.  With and Within is a global social network for women to enrich their lives by creating communities around similar ventures and adventures. 

Paola grew up in Florence and began traveling when she was quite young.  Her mother was an entrepreneur and back in the 60s, particularly in Italy, that was rare.  Her mother had a ceramic business that was well known in the US so she went back and forth often.  She was also a single mother as her parents got divorced when Paolo was young.

She stayed in Florence for college studying architecture.  Her first job out of school was teaching the history of the Renaissance gardens to students at the American school in Florence.  She had a close mentor who was much older than her, 58, who became very ill with cancer.  This woman was in charge of production development and sourcing for an importer of home/gift and tablewares.  Paola basically took over while her friend was slowly dying.  Once her friend passed the company asked Paolo to take over the job.  She said no because it wasn't her field but should would help them find someone.  Time passed and before she knew it she was not only donig the job but enjoying the job and making really good money. She stayed with it for about 3/4 years.

Since she had now herself been exposed to the American market, she started working with her mother who was servicing large clients such as Target, Crate and Barrel and Starbucks.  It was an entrepreneur family.  Her mother realized what a good negotiator Paola was and let her begin to take over the company.  What is interesting is at that time everything was made in Italy and literally over night, it was 1998, everything moved to China.  She told her Mom that she had to go to China because you have to go where the customer has gone.  Instead, Paola went.

In China she had to train the Chinese to create the same type of product as they had been making over in Italy.  There was a time when you could easily detect where ceramics were being made either Italy, China or Portugal.  She had to take her Moms style of Italian ceramics to China. 

Paola literally parked herself in the Dowyan province which is about two hours outside of Hong Kong.  A totally different world.  She felt like she was watching a revolution take place.  The streets were full of prostitutes and workers, that was it.  It was like a military compound.  People were living in the factories as they have come from the north to make money.  The first year she trained them to create an Italian product and the second year she began to sell it.  The people were very smart and skilled and they picked it up quickly.

The hardest part about selling the products was the distribution.  Bed, Bath and Beyond and Pottery Barn would have to figure out how to get the products into the country.  She knew the biggest distributor in the US and connected them together to make the shift more seamless.  This was way before bringing in articles from China was just every day stuff. 

She began to consult for many American companies going all over the place from Eastern Europe and other parts of China as their product development person.  Then the market shifted again.  The Chinese market became so skilled that the higher end market only wanted goods from Italy.  She shifted her sourcing structure and moved back to Italy.  It was then that she finally had a child.  She had complications because of medial malpractice and lost her first.  It was devastating and she was 40 years old.  She got pregnant again and had another child at 41 and 42.  After that she fired herself.

Mentally the movement between China and Italy was overwhelming and to lose a baby and finally became a mother at 41 was the perfect time to take a break.  She originally thought she would just take off a year but before she knew it one year turned into four. 

After four years she realized that she couldn't sit at home anymore, it was time to get a job again.  As much as she enjoyed being with the kids, Paola had such high expectations for herself that she was feeling lost.  She returned to the market that she knew but after the economy had dramatically changed, the job that she had before would pay her 25% less.  So here she was trying to re-eneter the market place with the opportunity to make 25% less and then travel to China for two months at a time.  It just didn't sound right. 

She began to think about other women who were in the same position as her.  Women who wanted to use their brains, be good mothers and make money.  She was a single Mom too.  A friend of hers in Berlin said, why don't we put together a group of 4 women and do something.  Let's see if we can network together and just come up with something.  She began to think about women getting together, over a cup of virtual coffee, and socializing around their professional goals.  That is how WIth and Within started.

She was lucky to find a group of coders who lived in her town that happened to be some of the top coders in Italy.  They loved what she was doing and helped her create the site.  It was her background in architecture that helped her organize the wireframes.  It was her production background and skills of organization that really moved the idea forward.

Currently they are doing about 450,000 page views a month.  There are 4000 subscribers and the number continues to grow.  Most of the women on the site have done something before and are now trying to figure out the next thing.  Reorganizing your life after kids can be a tough process.  There are women who are VP's of large telecom companies on the site to women who have been collecting random items for years wondering what to do with that.  Women create professional groups around specific topics. 

In essence, she has built a linked in for where there are tools to promote your small business and get a mentor to help you, or a group.  Many women do not know how to monetize their soft skills and she is hoping through community, conversation and mentoring we can help each other figure it out.  The stories that Paola tells about many of the women who have had success with the site are inspiring.  The mother who loved cleaning and did it at her own home for 15 years and then took those skills and turned it into a business where she manages the cleaning staff of a castle in Umbria.  Another woman who has been collecting random teacups for years and has now built a store and site to sell her collectibles.  Her feeling is many women do not think what they do is worthwhile but it is and she is providing a space for them to realize how valuable they are.

I am impressed with Paolas get up and go.  She is driven and figuring it out as she goes along.  It is not easy to grow a community but so far, so good.  I am seeing a variety of singular women sites with different niches.  There is a place for many.  Paolas skills as an entrepreneur from the day she left college has allowed her to build on a set of skills that she was born with….pretty amazing at 45 to start on a brand new journey of building an internet start-up.