Donatella Caggiano was born in Buonalbergo, a small town in the south of Italy, grew up in the North, and went to college at Luigi Bocconi university in Milan. She started working in the corporate world right after graduating from University. In 2009 she moved to New York, then Paris and California, embarking on an international career leading public relations for global brands for more than a decade.
A couple of years ago, “things started to change. Even though I loved the core of what I was doing, my ideas were tired.” Donatella felt like she had lost her appetite for her job and was having to force herself to do creative work of which she was proud. She began to think about what kind of impact she really wanted to have, beyond what she was so competent doing. Donatella heard of design thinking from a friend, and did some research. She applied for and attended certification programs at IDEO San Francisco. “As soon as I started learning about Design Thinking, I knew I had found a new creative methodology and also a new way of approaching life.”
Donatella decided to make a change. She quit her job and hit pause on the corporate world. She attended the Design Your Life for Women workshop in November 2017, which was instrumental in designing her year long creative sabbatical in Italy. Returning home was not easy, but felt necessary. One of her goals was to get to know her country again after a long absence, and initially “to live life with no agenda, which is a job in itself.”
Donatella spent the first three months trying to do nothing, or at least only doing things that could break familiar patterns and refuel her creative tank.
She spent time at the Juliet club in Verona where people can answer letters from all over the world as Juliet, which gave her a new way of learning about love, country, and state of women in the world (www.julietclub.com).
She spent a week shadowing a plant doctor in Puglia learning everything about grape and cherry trees, gathering teachings from nature.
She applied to an Italian writing school for fiction writing in Turin after almost a decade speaking, writing and even dreaming in English and French.
Her biggest takeaway from participating in the Designing Your Life for Women workshop was the lack of judgment in decision making. “Design thinking takes fear away from the planning. I am saved by the idea of planning small, then testing, and if it doesn’t work, I can iterate. Spend more time defining the problem, rather than jumping to solutions, in a place where everyone is freaking out around you. When they hear of a yearlong sabbatical, people say “you are so lucky” and don’t immediately realize that the planning for, jumping into and facing the complete unknown was actually designed. It is a matter of doing the life work instead of the job work,” she says. “All while I have no idea if this process is going to fail.”
As she felt the need for more structure, Donatella used her design chops further and framed the prototype question: “How do I keep my international mindset as I go back to being Italian?” She returned to her birth town to dig into her roots, investigate her family tree, and speak to anyone who might have relevant stories to share. She found Buonalbergo facing depopulation and struggling to find ways to stay alive and relevant as a community. She also met a handful of inspired youngsters who wanted to do something to change the trajectory of the town. “I saw there were a lot of thoughts and ideas about community renewal but not a clear town identity or a roadmap to support innovation and long-lasting results. I felt the responsibility to bring my international perspective and my new tools to these challenging problems.”
Donatella has now created The Ithaca Project, focused on youth coming back home and re-investing in Buonalbergo and the surrounding Campania region. The project is using design thinking based ethnographic research (interviews, workshop, observation, stories collections) to gather data to fuel an ideation workshop around ways to reinvigorate these disappearing communities. In Spring of 2019, Donatella hopes to launch a pilot project based on the ideas generated in the workshop.
Donatella says that diving into this project took personal courage. “Waking up with passion and testing myself with things I never did” constitutes her sabbatical income for now – it is a significant change from her corporate income. And as she reintegrated “being Italian” into her mindset again, she found the concept of a “sabbatical” is not yet socially accepted in Italy, at least not broadly. She says few understand why she left the relative comfort of a corporate work life. Luckily, she is also surrounded by family and love that “make it easier to swim upstream.’
The project challenges have also been very real. Donatella describes the community-led design process as quite different from her corporate work: “It is a different story when real people, and not only data, are involved!” There are unknown factors, including funding, politics, transportation and cultural barriers. The stakes are high, as the risk is not only a loss of profit but actual loss of cultural identity. Donatella says, “This is out of the box for me, but in the box of what I want to do next and where I believe building culture is going in the future – for both people, organizations and even cities. I come from product, brand and big corporations. I am willing to test my expertise in another context and to grow and learn in order to contribute to a new school of doing things.”
The Ithaca Project is in its early stages so as she is designing her way through these projects, Donatella is looking for like-minded partners. She is currently prototyping and testing in Italy, and may stay there or transport and use this model internationally.