Mauro Battocchi (Italian Consul General in San Francisco)

Un pezzo d'Italia nella Silicon Valley

Apr 12, 2013 4507 ITA ENG

San Francisco is the Italian capital of the West Coast. The destination of a significant part of Italian immigration, it is the symbol of the American “frontier”, that kept moving to the West, and a place of innovation: the city and the entire Northern California area represent a lot for Italy in the United States. Consul General Mauro Batocchi, who has a solid and successful background in economic diplomacy, has been working there since 2013. He is the dynamic and attentive Consul that both a city such as San Francisco and a country of production, innovation and excellence such as Italy, deserve.

Mauro – in your area Italian innovation is often talked of and celebrated. Aside from thanking you for believing in us more than we do ourselves this side of the Ocean, we would like to know: are we Italians really so innovative, seen from over there?

Italy’s strength in the field of Information Technology is something rooted in our excellence in the field of engineering. We have top universities that have formed and continue to form many engineers who – as Federico Faggin (the father of the first microprocessor, and the symbol Italian excellence and great skill here in Silicon Valley), guarantee a solid knowledge base, the ability to think creatively and out of the box and great flexibility. I would add a fourth and extremely important factor, which is that of cost: paying for four engineers here in San Francisco probably costs double what it would in Italy.

I will also say that in the past few years we have witnessed a real boom in Italian startups: there is a new generation of young people who are willing to take entrepreneurial risks. This of course is also determined by the economic condition in Italy today, but the result is that on top of a consolidated skill base, there exists also a new willingness to take risks. In this situation, Silicon Valley becomes useful because this is the place where entrepreneurial ideas can be tested, organized and realized. Here we have a consolidated infrastructure that evaluates ideas, and if these are good, provides the tools – both real (such as mentorship, assistance with drawing up a business plan) and financial – to help the ideas go global. I’m not talking about brain drain: on the contrary, it is a matter of taking the entrepreneurial ideas born in Italy, transform them into real businesses for the global market, in such as way that they can then work (also) in Italy. Besides, there are cost-related reasons for which it is more convenient that their back offices remain in Italy.

In 1989, the State of California declared the garage where Hewlett and Packard created HP “the birthplace of Silicon Valley”, and made it into a California Historical Landmark. The two pioneers made their first money thanks to a banker-visionary called Amadeo Giannini, originally from Genoa, who was the founder of the Bank of America and its director until after the economic depression. But Giannini was not the only Italian to leave a mark on the history of San Francisco and Silicon Valley…  

The whole of San Francisco was built by the Italians together with the Irish. North Beach and the whole Marina were real Italian cities, populated by a very strong community of merchants and fishermen, out of which a successful financial élite grew. In the beginning of the century, the community had no less than four newspapers in Italian and worked thanks to its members’ astonishing willpower, which, personally, makes me feel proud.  

In San Francisco today, Italy is seen as a consolidated environment, which is perceived as being important and successful. In the last thirty/forty years, many innovative and successful people have arrived from there. Logitech, world leader in the sale of computer accessories, was founded by a Swiss together with two Italians, Pierluigi Zappacosta and Giacomo Marini. Federico Faggin, who I mentioned earlier, not only created the microchip: he is a Nobel Prize candidate, and worked also on the touchpad technology. Also Roberto Crea, the inventor of synthetic insulin. And many others. Clearly, if there is a strong identity and a solid continuity, starting with the first Italian immigrants in San Francisco, this is carried on by this community of technological pioneers, into the present.

Giannini played a fundamental role in helping the Italian community and the whole of San Francisco in general, in particular after the 1906 earthquake. Another important Italian banker here in San Francisco at that time was John Fugazi. In this too, the Italians were innovators and had a lot of merits and great success, just like our contemporaries and no doubt those of the future.

Wine is another great resource of the Northern California area, and today it is our key product in terms of the wine and food industry. What kind of relations are there between Italian wine producers and Californian wine producers? Is there scope for a greater expansion of our exports?

First of all I want to mention that the culture of winemaking too was essentially brought to California by the Italian immigrants, many of whom then settled here. This was facilitated also by the fact that Northern California has a similar climate to Italy. The big names in Californian wine production are almost all of Italian descent. Today, Italian wine is the first export product to the United States, and there is still great potential to grow. Californian producers adopt a very industrial approach to the entire process of wine production: large quantities, and the use of technological innovation. Our approach is more traditional and there are a few differences. A bridge should be built between the two methods, that would allow the competition – which is healthy and palpable – to expand the market t0 mutual satisfaction.

San Francisco too has its own Little Italy. How many Italian-Americans are there in the areas covered by your Consulate?

The data we have refers to Northern California and dates back to the year 2000. That was the last census in which marking one’s origin as Italian was an option. From 2010 on, Americans of Italian ancestry no longer found “Italy” as a place of origin to tic, because they were assimilated with other Americans of other descents. In 2000, 700.000 American citizens declared themselves of Italian ancestry in the 48 counties of Northern California. There are more in the other States, but not quite as many as here in California. Today, as I’ve already said, there are Italians in all the top roles of all sectors of American society: from culture to economics and politics and so on.

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