The last time we spoke together was 11 December 2013: he had just sold his technology and team to Amazon, while his startup was bought by DoubleBeam. It was quite a success for the 33-year-old Italian, Vincenzo Di Nicola, from GoPago. Today, he was a guest at the Make in Italy event by Working Capital in Rome and for the startup world he was the most important American present. His name reappeared in Italian newspapers because, after having conquered his long coveted American citizenship, Vincenzo has now returned to Italy. And like every respectable startupper he did not come with hands in pocket, but immediately jumped into many initiatives. Along with continuing to bestow scholarships to talented students from his old high school (something he considers “normal” to do), he has also become a “professor”, which he announced to the crowds during the event setting off a round of applause. He is teaching IT to high schoolers, the Ruby On Rails programming language (same one he used to develop GoPago) and he assigns tough homework taken directly from the best IT universities in the U.S. The surprise is that the youngsters can complete them without any difficulty. “We have fantastic schools in Italy. We are really prepared, but we don’t have faith in ourselves. It’s funny, but I am re-watching Fantozzi films to better understand this aspect of ours. My high school gave me so much, and now I want to do something for it. When I proposed a 1000-euro scholarship, some injudicious people thought I was trying to launder money. But this is not so. I’ll tell you this: this year the kids who were successful at the math Olympics did not have enough money to make it to the nationals. I gave the funds they needed and they took thirteenth place. I was so happy”. When he talks about Italy and Italians his eyes light up and he smiles. He does not seem like the usual Italian xenophile with culture shock towards his own country. To the contrary, he has hope and he believes that we should all have hope. Yes we can, was Obama’s motto in the U.S., but he thinks it could also be Italy’s motto as well.
“For me, going to America represented a moment of growth. When was Italy founded? When Garibaldi believed in it. He also went to America, he battled there, learned there, and then he came back, more charged than ever. Of course, he did fail once and possibly the same fate awaits me. But then he tried again and was successful”. You could say that the U.S. was his training camp, but he wants to play the championship in Italy, with an international participation. “I did not want to do something big in the United States”. Just think if he had aimed at creating a billion Dollar company what would have happened. Watch out, though, because now that is what he wants to do. And he wants to do it in Italy. Crazy? That’s to be seen. “Italy had a moment of exponential growth. When? Just after the Second World War. Ferrari was founded, and then a virtuous circle began to involve the entire economy. Making comparisons like this is very risky, but I really believe it”. He smiles and then asks me another riddle (he enjoys asking questions and then providing surprising answers): “What do you think is the country with the most mobile payment transactions? Kenya. And do you know why? Because it has had a very fast transition to mobile phones, but nobody would have ever expected it”.
A young Asian looking man (with Brazilian nationality) arrives and Vincenzo greets him in Chinese. He was also in China for six months, sent by Microsoft: “It was a real cultural shock, the only one in my life. When I arrived everything, I mean everything, was written in Chinese. You’d get on the bus and have no idea where it was taking you. Almost no one spoke English. You did not even know what you were eating. So Microsoft decided to give me Chinese lessons, one hour a day, because ‘otherwise this kid will die here’, they thought”. Some time has passed since then and his Chinese is no longer fluent. But the memories of that experience are stuck in Vincenzo’s head. “I will never forget my first day at Microsoft in Beijing. I arrived at the meeting and began to talk, saying sorry for my horrible accent, authorizing anyone to stop and ask to clarify anything they didn’t understand. I started to talk and I see everyone nodding their heads. I finished and was happy about how it went, that they had understood me. At that point, the only American in the room crushed me by saying, ‘You know they didn’t understand a thing’. ‘But how?’ I responded. ‘They were all nodding their heads!’. ‘They do that to be polite, trust me.’ At that point, unable to believe it, I went to the boss’s office and I challenged him with a direct question, he began to stutter, beat around the bush, change the subject. But do you know what I had asked him? If he wanted some tea”. He has so many anecdotes like these about living abroad. Some are funny, some a little bit less so.
There is the story about the developers: “Italians are really prepared, Americans not as much, but they really believe in it. And they change companies every 6 months, at an insane speed, like they were underwear”. He tells of a bad experience he had with three young Americans who had asked him for help. He helped them, he taught them the basics of the programming language and then… “They asked me for a stipend of 90,000 Dollars because that was the market wage for a developer. I was shocked. I had taught them everything. You know how it ended? They went to work for other companies earning 90,000, 100,000, and 120,000 Dollars. That was really a let down, but this is how it works, there is no affection for a mother company”.
Vincenzo, on the other hand, declared that it was like a parent separating from a child when he sold GoPago. “Take good care Amazon”, he wrote on Facebook when he announced the sale (whose final agreement sum is still a secret to this day). It appears he is still believes in more antique and romantic ideas about attachment. He can’t wait, in fact, to go back home to his house in the small town of Sant’Atto in the Abruzzi region. “I come from a humble family: my parents are farmers, my grandfather was a miner. I want to do something for Italy’s leading sector: agriculture”. And, he confesses, he is also looking at the two Italian cities that are the leaders of innovation: Rome and Milan. He asks where I am from and I tell him that I was born in Benevento. He tells me a story about my city of birth: “The story is important, it helps to understand a lot of things. You cannot look ahead if you don’t know what was behind you. Another thing I have in mind is an integration between technology and history”. He has thousands of ideas in his head, he nominates a lot of people, he has a world of things to tell and it seems that he can never tell enough. Every input causes a succession of facts from life experiences and projects to be created. He is a whirlwind of energy and hope that sucks up anyone who is present and he is always showered with compliments. He is a true star in the Italian startupper world. But Vincenzo is already looking ahead, with infinite joy at having returned to his homeland, a country that will grow immensely thanks to the folly of those like him.