Italian activist and businessman Ivan Scalfarotto was elected as a member of Rome’s parliament in March 2013, having been a HR Director with Citigroup for eleven years and working across Europe.
In 2011, he set up Parks, a non-profit, with the aim of bringing together businesses to create an environment of inclusivity for their LGBT workers.
Scalfarotto spoke to 429Magazine about politics, business and his first-hand experience of working in Russia as an out gay man.
429Magazine: What caused you to run for political office and what do you aspire to achieve?
Ivan Scalfarotto: I started being active in the political arena in 2005. At the time, representing a group of young Italian professionals who had moved to London in search of opportunities hard to find at home, I challenged Romano Prodi in the primary elections that designated him as the candidate for Prime Minister.
We thought politics in Italy mirrored the same issues the country has historically faced more in general: a sense of narrow-mindedness, a parochial approach in a world turned global, a power system designed to suit insiders and to exclude newcomers, a place where who you know counts much more than what you know.
These were the values that inspired me as a “surprise candidate” at those primary elections, and for those values I am still fighting today. My goal is to make Italy a country to be proud of.
429Mag: What are your thoughts on the current controversy with Russia, having worked there and undertaken diversity initiatives?
Scalfarotto: I worked in Russia for three full years and at the time I didn’t face major problems. Everyone knew I was a gay man, but I think I was hugely helped by my role as the HR Director. Russians are quite hierarchical and, gay or straight, I was still the boss.
Apart from that, I must say that at the time of my stay there (2005-2008) at Citi we were able to do extensive diversity training, inclusive of LGBT issues, and the feedback from employees was superb. Just once someone from the trainees reminded me that ‘gay parades’ were not allowed in Moscow. When I answered that we were not discussing parading but working and living in a work community, my reply was taken on board by the group. Again, it may have been because I was the boss, but it seemed to me that everyone got the point.
Things have apparently worsened since I left and I am very concerned for those who remained there. I think we need to have the Russian government feel the pressure from Western countries: I have asked the Italian Foreign Minister, Emma Bonino, to be an active part within the International community in this direction. All means should be considered, including the boycott of the Games in Sochi 2014.
429Mag: As someone with extensive experience in a large corporation, how do you feel workplace advocacy in Europe has progressed?
Scalfarotto: Slowly. Apart from the UK, especially in the London area, there is not much discussion about LGBT issues in the workplace. Many people struggle to understand why this is relevant for business and why it makes sense to understand and fix those issues.
429Mag: Explain how your nonprofit, Parks, has developed since it launched in 2011?
Scalfarotto: Parks is a visionary idea, extremely advanced for our environment and, as such, it requires a lot of work but gives us incredible pride and hope for the future. Parks is made of a group of businesses that gathered together to build inclusive and respectful workplaces for their LGBT employees.
We built Parks based on my previous professional experience—I’ve been a HR Director at Citi for eleven years working in Milan, London and Moscow—and we support our member companies in the implementation of international best HR practices. The goal for us is to help them become employers of choice for their LGBT employees and external candidates.
At this moment we have significant international brands on board such as IBM, Johnson & Johnson, IKEA, Eli Lilly, Linklaters and a few Italian companies such as Telecom Italia, the biggest telecom operator in Italy and one of the largest in Europe.
429Mag: What is your view on how LGBT rights in Italy will progress in the coming years?
Scalfarotto: Things are moving slowly, too slowly. Italy is the only western European country where the LGBT community has no rights or recognition whatsoever. No legislation protecting couples: neither civil partnerships, nor marriage.
There is a lack of courage within the political leadership: no leaders brave enough to run the risk that people like Cameron and Hollande did in deciding to run in the UK and France respectively, in the name of equality and of a fairer and more open society. We are now working in Parliament on a bill against homophobic hate crimes, but we are finding huge resistance from those more conservative Catholic groups that are still very powerful in the Italian political arena. Moreover, even the LGBT movement tends to refuse any form of negotiations in order to move the needle.
The [tagline]is: “no law is much better than a ‘bad’ law”, so we ended up having no laws while our neighbouring countries are moving ahead quite rapidly and dramatically.
429Mag: The stories of gay men confined to the Tremiti islands [in the 1930s]have been documented—has this legacy lived on, regarding anti-gay sentiment from the Italian public?
Scalfarotto: The Italian press ignored the small celebration the LGBT community organised in the Islands in the spring, and only BBC—the UK broadcasting company—reported on the gathering. I would say that Italians don’t know anything about the persecutions of homosexuals during fascism.
429Mag: Having become an MP, what are your next challenges—personally and professionally?
Scalfarotto: Well, my new life is quite different from my old one. As such, I still find it quite exciting and new. It is an incredibly rich journey of learning and development: I am exposed to the most interesting people and experiences, and I had to expand my toolbox very quickly with a wealth of new skills I would not need as a Senior HR professional.
However, at times, I miss the structure, the focus and the result-oriented attitude you’d find in a large corporate. Also, I definitely miss the international flavour and the cross-cultural implications which I had to deal with when working for a global institution such as Citi.
I look at this experience as a Member of Parliament as a time of my life devoted to the honour of serving my country. But I would not be surprised if, sooner or later, I go back to business.