Silvia De Tommaso, President, A ITAARTE: To Be A Great Leader, One Must be a Great Student

Silvia de Tommaso is the President of A ITAARTE, a stone, interior décor and jewellery company in São Paolo.

Silvia’s involvement with the company began when she was 19 and working as a teacher. Her childhood sweetheart owned the stone company Itaarte, as it was known then, and, after they got married and the business temporarily relocated to California, she went with her husband and became a salesperson for his company. It was then that her flair for business became apparent.

On their return to Brazil after a year abroad, Silvia became the sales manager of the Itaarte shop in São Paolo, masterminding its complete transformation. Later, when Silvia’s husband Mario bought out his two partners, Silvia became a Director of the company and Mario’s only business partner. Together they revolutionised the company, starting by implementing the Total Quality Administration system, which took two and a half years. They invested in cutting edge manufacturing technology and created a new export process. From that point, exports became a great part of Itaarte’s revenue

In 2006, with her second child on the way, Silvia dramatically changed the direction of the company in order to spend more time with her family, moving away from construction into the interior décor market. She designed a 350m2 house out of stone and attracted architects and designers by running weekly courses there.

Three years later, when Silvia and Mario decided they were ready to target the luxury market, they opened a new showroom, changed the company name and logo and completely redesigned the company brand, choosing Onyx as their signature stone. The showroom was designed as part luxury home, part jewellery shop, giving clients a whole new experience in stone. Silvia was the visionary behind every aspect of this experience, from the scents in the rooms and the sweets served with coffee, to the launch of the brand new jewellery collection.

In 2009 the company took another new direction when Silvia designed a campaign intended to democratise interior décor. Aimed at the low income class, the campaign carried the message that interior décor is for everybody.

Today she works as a volunteer in a huge project in Favela do Jaguaré in São Paulo, in association with the Congregação de Santa Cruz. As part of this project, at the end of last year ten interior décor projects were completed in the homes of poor families in the favela by students at the Interior Design of Belas Artes University. Silvia’s next step, together with the Congregação and sponsored by Coca Cola, is to develop a training centre for youths looking for their first job. The programme will offer participating youths 2 months of sales training and help them to find employment in reputable companies afterwards.

We spoke to Silvia about the pros and cons of having her husband as her business partner; how they survived their company's toughest moments; and her current work in a São Paolo favela.

TNW: How important is technology to the success of A ITAARTE?

SdT: Technology gives us the opportunity to reach an infinite number of people in a very short time.

Technology spreads information inside the company and helps the company to be present in the world, with no frontiers. Technology also helps the company to keep secret information safe.

TNW: What is next for A ITAARTE? How do you see technology as a key growth driver?

SdT: Our next step is to be part of the new Brazil. We developed a new production system for use in low income residential buildings that are being built in Brazil. Technology is a key point for us to control the projects’ production, material delivery and installation. As the production for these jobs is high we really need good ways of controlling every step. Here the prices are low and we produce many pieces; we cannot make any mistakes.

For the store we are launching a new product for our new Brazilian clientele: "the ready to pick up stone floor.” We are launching a TV campaign to sell 5000 square meter of stone floor per month for the lowest price possible, keeping A ITAARTE ´s quality.

Brazil has changed and so have its consumers. We have prepared our people to attend to the new B and C class. Again, technology helps us inform people about our new products and to control the sales system.

TNW: What are the pros and cons of having your husband as your business partner?

SdT: The good part is that we have grown together since the beginning and have developed a strong sense of companionship. When one thinks of something, the other knows how to complete the thought. The bad part is that it is very hard to take time out of the company together. We are the only owners and the company needs one of us. And as we have kids, I dream of taking a 30 day vacation with the whole family, but we can only be away together for short periods of time. And sometimes it is difficult to avoid talking about the company´s problems at home. But, on the other hand, our 2 kids participate by listening to what we say. Last week, our 9 year old boy took a business trip to Spain with my husband. We need to have newcomers!

TNW: What was the most difficult period in your company’s history and how did you manage it?

The worst period was between 2006 and 2008 when our exportation fell to zero and, simultaneously, the wealthy class in Brazil lost a lot of money. We had 90% of the company´s business in these two areas.

We almost closed the doors. After suffering a lot, selling properties, we prayed to God and He sent us new ways out. The most important was to recognize that we were capable of surviving by using our inner strength. Both my husband and I believe God is the only way out. We have an enormous faith on Jesus and Saint Mary. I can tell you it took us 3 to 4 months of depression to realize our inner strength. And we succeeded because we are together.

Today it’s 2012 and the company is about to enter a brand new phase. I am sure we are getting back everything we lost but we are different people, much stronger. During this crisis I decided to give low income people ways to become wealthy. And working with these people and giving them what I know was the best way to get strong and find out new ways of reinventing our business.

TNW: Looking back at all the innovations and reinventions in A ITAARTE’s history, which was of most benefit to the company and why?

SdT: Technology has helped us to be leaders in ideas. First the CNC Machine made a mark on our history. Design is always a hit. My husband is the best stone designer in Brazil for me and his products enchant architects and designers. Art is a complement for technology. I believe this is a perfect combination: art and technology. We need technology but we also need people and feelings.

TNW: You have said that learning is a key word in your development as an entrepreneur. Which key learnings would you pass on to women who are at the start of their entrepreneurial journey?

SdT: I would say we have to study a lot about anything we want to do. Studying means: reading magazines, participating in events and workshops, visiting places, talking to people and developing new ideas. I also believe writing helps us putting good ideas in order.

I suggest we have to be great observers and researchers. We have always to behave as students to be great leaders.

TNW: How does it feel to be Director of a successful company in Brazil at such an exciting time of economic growth?  

SdT: It is really difficult. Today we have to pay attention to each and every change in taxes, laws, people, systems, products, clients. Brazil presents a great opportunity of growth but has no infrastructure to grow now. On the other hand,the country needs to grow to avoid economic and financial problems. Corruption and bureaucracy are our worst problems. This the high Brazilian cost that is lethal for every Brazilian company. If it weren’t for corruption, I am sure the country would be free of poverty, with great health and school systems. As the owner of a company I feel all the responsibility for helping low income people to get wealthier and I also feel an enormous responsibility to lead my kids to be better entrepreneurs. 

TNW: What is your top tip for balancing motherhood with a career?

SdT: People are our best and most expensive value. Time goes by quickly and we do not live twice the same story.

Do not miss your kids’ important moments for money or work. These moments are like diamonds: they are exclusive and rare!

TNW: How has Dell or the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network enabled you to grow your business? What do you see as the benefits of all-women networks such as DWEN?

At Dell´s event I met people and talked for minutes or hours and those people changed my life. I heard things I will never forget. I met people from all over the world who have lived the same problems I have and who were looking for questions which I had the answers to, and vice versa.

It was an incredible researching and learning experience. I congratulate Dell for that and I thank the group that found me and gave me this chance to participate. I was delighted to hear about some experiences in India with low income women and e-business experience in Australia. Things so different, but wonderful things to listen to. I put in practice lots of things I learned.

TNW: You have been involved with several projects for social good. Which of these makes you most proud and why?

SdT: I feel great for having the opportunity to give back all the knowledge I have gained.

When I am at the favela and give people the opportunity to experience another way of living, I get very happy and I learn a lot from their way of living too.

At this Christmas time on the little square in front of my store, I installed the Nativity Scene made out of recycled bottles by the children and youths of the favela.  It was a way of showing something that came from “do lixo para o luxo”- from garbage to luxury. Everybody commented and stopped to see it. People from the favela took cars to go and see the art and people from the city sent us messages thanking us for reminding them of real, good values in life.

TNW: Do you have a motto which sums up your approach to business, and to life?

Yes, Do it with Love from your Heart!

No matter what you do, be happy doing it. The real happiness is in Love.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our community?

SdT: Women are powerful because we have a great sense of loving others. Our magic in transforming things and going through difficulties comes from this sense of love and the sense of caring. I have become better at loving and taking care of others by following Jesus’ steps. Be of good service and love each other; that has been the best lesson I have learned.

The Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) celebrates the wonderful accomplishments of women in business, whilst looking forward at how we can progress and learn from each other. Natural networkers and relationship builders, women have innate flair for entrepreneurship. With DWEN, Dell is helping women in business to expand their networks while offering technology capabilities designed to help them innovate and grow their businesses.

The NextWomen is in partnership with DWEN to bring you a series of 40 interviews with the world's most influential female founders, investors and decision makers: The NextWomen DWEN Interview Series.

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