Chat with Anne Benedicte Zanini
Anne Bénédicte Zanini was born in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Africa. Moving to Italy saved Anne’s life. As a toddler, she contracted malaria and was near death. However, while visiting the area and the orphanage where Anne lived, her now adoptive mother, Giuliana, acted quickly. Anne’s Mom soon brought her to Vicenza where she became part of the family. She was fully embraced by loving (yet strict) parents, two older brothers, Luciano and Maurizio, and a small community. We hope you enjoy reading (and watching on our YouTube channel) Anne’s story of struggles and triumphs.
I am proud to call Anne a dear friend. We’ve had many conversations before this interview. As so many people have told her, she is the sun shining upon you. Anne exudes an energy of hope, resilience, and desire to make an impactful difference in the world.
Where were you born? 1:13
I was born in 1984 in the Ivory Coast, the closest area to the capital called Abidjan. I was adopted at four years old and for health reasons. My adoptive Mom was traveling to Abidjan to visit a friend who asked her to come help at the orphanage. During her stay they told her that I was very sick with malaria and could have died in three days. So, I was rushed to the hospital which was 6 hours away. She returned to Vicenza and then arranged for me to move to Italy. They officially adopted me when I was 18.
What happened to your natural mother? 6:18
Actually, she died a few years ago.
Tell us about your siblings. 7:08
I have two brothers. Luciano who is 10 years older than me and Maurizio who is almost 15 years older than me. They are my best friends. When I got married, they were the witnesses.
Did you recuperate quickly once you moved to Italy? 8:00
It was a long process, physically and mentally and it still continues. It keeps me strong and positive. I have a lot of respect for doctors. You need to be patient. Look at yourself as just a little part of the earth. I think that I had a period of amnesia to find my comfort zone. Then I felt like Wonder Woman when I was in New York and learning so many things while living on 5th Avenue. Then after, I had a period of awareness and eventually I transferred all of this experience to form my own business. Now I am 38.
What was it like growing up in Italy with many health issues and being ‘different’? 10:10
Yes, very challenging. For a long time, I was not aware of my real problem. My only need was to play with my friends. We grew up in a super nice place with hills, a pool, tennis. I wanted to do it all and I didn’t want to think about taking care of my health. My Mom was very tough, but helpful. Honestly, as a teenager, I didn’t have a very good relationship with her, but she helped me to be tough and open minded. When you are ill, it’s better that you are not lazy. Having a tough mother sometimes annoyed me, but in the end, it really helped. Otherwise, I would have spent time feeling sorry for myself.
My parents are also very worldly. I had the opportunity to travel a lot. More than I would have done with my friends who weren’t so adventurous. Vicenza is a small place.
What were some of the challenges growing up in a conservative town? 14:58
Actually, when I was a child, it wasn’t so tough although there weren’t a lot of people of color. I don’t know how the situation is in the U.S., but back then and here, people didn’t care about those things. They weren’t mean or impolite. People were very respectful about adoption and health.
Twenty years ago, these things didn’t happen, but now people aren’t ashamed to yell in the street or insult you. It’s definitely more challenging now.
Were there any challenges for your parents? 18:26
I think they had some challenges, but I didn’t feel this because I was too young.
Where did you go to university? 20:41
In Florence. I remember that time with so much love. I spent almost four years there. It was then that I grew up socially. It opened my eyes because I didn’t see a lot growing up in Vicenza because it’s a small place. In Florence I studied photography and literature. It was challenging to me in a positive way. I used to love to draw fashion. So, when I was searching for courses, I saw photography, print, and fashion trends. I chose that. I met so many people in university. There’s a big world just in Florence.
When did you learn English? 23:35
I studied French because I was lazy about studying languages. My oldest brother used to be married to a girl who grew up in California but lived in Peru. We were there for one year after the wedding. So, there and at home I learned a bit of English. In Florence, you encounter people from around the world, so I had to improve my English.
Tell is about your time living in New York? 25:44
I was still studying in Florence working on photography and a family friend worked for a big company in the US. He told my Dad that if I wanted to work for them I could. But at this time, I had my first job. I was on my way to a shoot and my Dad called me to say that I received all the paperwork and to return to Vicenza to pick it up. He also convinced one of my best friends to travel with me. However, I didn’t want to go to New York!
I was not fascinated by this idea because my dream was to do photography in Paris.
When I first got there, I thought that it was too big. However, travel is always the first thing on the mind of a traveler. I realized after that it was the best idea. If I could have changed something, I would have gone when I was a little bit older. It was fantastic training, but so stressful.
What did you do in New York? 29:26
I was doing styling and portrait photography for a small modeling company.
Meeting Franca Sozzani (legendary editor-in-chief, Vogue Italia) 32:45
Once I didn’t want to go to a party. Normally I would just go out with my friends and I didn’t have to feel secure about my appearance. At that time, I couldn’t wear nice shoes, although I had fashionable dresses. I was very embarrassed and tried to hide in a corner. She told me to show the beauty in the room meaning that everyone owns beauty and I just didn’t see mine. After that, I felt more tranquil to go.
I learned that you can find beauty in a job unexpected. Everything is a small piece of the puzzle.
Also, the experience was a reaffirmation of what I learned in the hospital: you can do whatever you want.
How long did you live in New York? 39:02
Where did you live when you returned to Italy? 39:04
I refused to go to Milan because it seemed like a small New York. I tried to live in Bologna and then spent a few months in Geneva. After I moved to Verona.
How did you meet your husband? 40:40
I met my husband at a bar. It was a Monday evening during Happy Hour (aperitivo time). The bar was empty except for the bartender, me, and Marco. When I saw that there was no one else, I was happy because I knew that only him and I could talk. However, he was shy and at a certain point, it was like speaking to myself! He still jokes about this.
Is he from Verona? 42:43
Tell us about WOM | Services 44:13
WOM is short for “word of mouth”. If you see our logo, it applies that you are crossing a bridge: traveling. We want to be unique. I think it’s the best approach for us to have because we’ve received good feedback.
Is modernizing (Americanize) marketing small businesses in Italy a challenge? 46:13
Yes. I agree with you about American marketing. I believe that it’s the best way for any part of the world. Plus, I studied advertising and I’m very proud of this. I am more persistent because I surround myself with people (and not all are Italian) who have the same goals. We talk the same language and can bring results.
Often Italians will say, “we’ve always done it [marketing] like this.” There seems to be a tradition here that small businesses can’t do anything because they are small.
Tell us about socially conscious and sustainable marketing. 54:49
I really believe in giving more, learning more, and trying to make an impact. I try to find the right partners.
You aren’t an ‘expat’, but how would you define it? 55:30
It’s a good question although challenging. When young, I was not aware of it. I had as mentioned amnesia about coming to Italy. I felt totally Italian. I traveled back to the Ivory Coast for the first time five years ago and then when I got married, three years ago. I tried to visit the area where I grew up. It was an emotionally tough moment. When I returned, I realized for the first time this concept.
Now other people make me aware that I am from another country and remind me that I am of African descent. These times are very weird.
As mentioned, when I grew up adults taught you to respect others and although I was adopted, I was still Italian. Now, people tell me to go back to where I came from. I laugh, but it’s very hard.
Maybe I’m expat from the world because I’ve experienced many places. I’m used to different cultures.
I have told some Italians that I miss pasta in the same way that I miss a Margherita on the Rocks or Ceviche. It’s strange but, when you are used to move or travel in a deeper way, you miss each place.
What are your goals? Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years? 1:04
I want to grow in the green marketing area of business marketing development. We need to take care of our environment. One of my first goals is to educate in an easy and playful way, and be authentic. Another thing is health. There was a time that I had to live in a hospital and I couldn’t go out. I thought to study medicine although it wasn’t for me because I’ve been a creative person since age two. My Dad was very important because he understood my point. He told me, I’m an entrepreneur not an engineer or doctor, but I can support good causes.
He said, “you are our good cause.” That was the first time that I realized that I could do good in a different way.
Where will you live next? 1:08
I see myself in Venice. I left my heart there. It’s a challenge though because it’s hard for me to walk a lot, but I am allowed to have a small bicycle. It’s also difficult to find a long-term rental apartment. We want to find a nice place. If you travel in August, you will hate it because of the heat and tourists. However, there you will find people from around the world. It has an international vibe, but still there are still small businesses that close in the afternoon. Also, although we are always in a rush, in Venice you can’t fight nature. The high tide makes people slow down.
How to get in touch with Anne:
Thank U for this deeply moving and compassionate interview and portrait and all the very best to Anne.
Dear Jesper, thanks for finding and reading the interview with Anne. Comments like yours are the ultimate writer’s reward. Thank you.