Social Impact Authors: How and Why Author Mauro Porcini is Helping to Change Our World

Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine
Published in
17 min readSep 6, 2022

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Kindness will help you achieve your dreams. — I wish I knew this from day one, so that I could have leveraged kindness in a more strategic and systematic way since it was already an instinctual personal value taught to me by my parents. I wish I knew this so that in the moments of doubt — when I was led to believe that kindness might be perceived as a weakness — I would know instead that it represents an incredible strength in this hyper-accelerated, hyper-connected, and hyper-tech society that we live in.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mauro Porcini.

Mauro Porcini is PepsiCo’s Chief Design Officer (first ever) and SVP. In the past eight years, he and his design team have won more than 1,100 design and innovation awards and in 2018 PepsiCo was recognized by Fortune in its Driven by Design list. He was previously 3M’s first Chief Design Officer. Porcini has been recognized with several personal awards, including Fortune’s “40 under 40”, GQ Italia’s “30 Best Dressed Men”, and Fast Company’s “50 Most Influential Designers” in the United States. In 2018 Porcini was awarded with a knighthood (cavaliere) by the president of the Italian Republic. He lives in New York City.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

During my first years of university in the mid-90s, a friend gifted me the Italian translation of a book written a few years earlier by the American scientist Don Norman. The English title of this book is “The Psychology of Everyday Things,” but the Italian version’s title is completely different, and somewhat more intriguing. It’s called “La caffettiera del masochista.” In English, it translates to “the masochist’s coffee pot.”

In this book, Norman describes a series of objects that are a part of our everyday life and points out how some of them are very user-friendly, while others are much more difficult to understand and use. He then goes on to share a very interesting insight about this latter group of products: when a person fails to figure out how to use an object — like a coffee pot, a door, or a stove — even the smartest among us will end up feeling embarrassed and inept. And yet, Norman argues, the person that should feel inept or embarrassed shouldn’t be the individual using the object, but the one who designed it. Because a good product shouldn’t be difficult to understand and operate. Through its shape and design, through its “affordance,” it should intuitively communicate how it should be used. If you are in front of a door and you can’t figure out whether to push it, pull it, or slide it, it’s not your fault! It’s the fault of the designer.

That book made me look at the world in a completely different way and made me realize, for the first time ever, how we were surrounded by hundreds, even thousands, of badly designed products. Products that pollute our existence, our planet, and our society — materially and intellectually — without adding much value to us. After reading Norman’s book, my mission became much clearer: I wanted to become an innovator, somebody who could design meaningful products, services, and experiences, and add some form of value to other people’s lives. That value could take different shapes. It could be joy, convenience, safety, style, pleasure, etc. I wanted to help change the status quo, by entering the system and steering it from within. That’s why I have been always attracted to big corporations — because they could give me access to billions of people. Through their scale, even incremental changes could generate a huge positive impact in the world. That’s the opportunity that companies like PepsiCo, 3M and Philips have given me over the past 25 years.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I am not sure if this was a funny mistake, but it became an important lesson in my life. I was 27 and I had just started to work for 3M in Italy. One day I had a meeting with some very senior leaders, and at the end of that meeting I sent an email to recap what was discussed, with a series of tasks that I decided to assign to everybody involved. In the email I wrote something like, “Dr. Marco, you should do this and this,” and “Dr. Sandra, you should do this and this.” And so on and so forth. Now imagine this kid assigning tasks via email to these high-level executives and veterans of the company — nobody ever answered that email.

A couple of days later, one of the marketing managers explained that it wasn’t the norm for a junior employee to assign tasks to (much) more senior leaders. That was a big “aha” moment for me. Let’s be clear, the content of my communication wasn’t wrong. In order to advance the project, the company needed those leaders to do what I was describing in that email. And it was great that I wasn’t intimidated by them. I was thinking like a leader despite my very few years of experience. I applaud any young leader that thinks that way today. But what I totally failed to understand and properly manage were the norms and variables that make the difference between a successful way of communicating, and an ineffective one. According to the linguist Roman Jakobson, there are six “ingredients” that define an act of communication: the sender, the receiver, the message, the code, the media, and the context. That day, with that email, I failed to understand the profile of the receiver, the appropriate linguistic code, and the nature of the cultural context.

After that episode, I started to study the fine art of communication, with its nuances and subtleties, by analyzing the way people spoke and the way they were spoken to, their codes and their languages, and by dissecting the cultural environment. In the context of that day, I should have found a different way to speak to those people. That realization helped me become a more effective communicator and storyteller. And a better designer too.

I didn’t forget that incident in the years that followed, when I started to be on the other side of the fence, and I was the more senior executive in the communication exchange. When I receive any kind of naïve email that asks me to do something that adds value to a project, I never make the mistake of not answering as those executives did back then — no matter how the email is written. After I answer, I then take the time to coach the person in order to protect them from any future mistake regarding communication norms.

I also need to thank the manager that helped me realize my own mistake back then, for her generosity and courage. I have tried to be that person for others in my own life. Make sure to appreciate when somebody calls you out for a mistake. Never take it for granted. And most importantly, don’t get mad about it. It’s one of the best gifts you can receive.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

I want to inspire a better world, a happier world — a world that is more kind, respectful, fun, joyful — one product at a time, one person at the time. No matter who we are–a sales rep or the President of the United States, a handyman or a teacher, a singer or a factory worker–everything we touch every day, unless created by Mother Nature, is designed and produced by somebody. These “somebodies” are the innovators, entrepreneurs, designers, scientists, engineers, and business leaders of the world. The products, services, brands, and experiences they create everyday can add value to our lives, making them easier, simpler, and more joyful. Either that, or they can make life more difficult by making things needlessly complex, annoying, and frustrating. They can be good for us, or they can even be harmful — in a variety of ways, some more obvious than others.

You may think: “of course every company will want to create truly valuable products that can improve our lives.” The truth is, that this is not the case. It is enough to just look around us, right now, as you read these words, to realize that. For a long time, too many companies have been able to succeed in the market with products that were average at best.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is their myopic and outdated focus on their bottom lines, which led them to produce the most profitable products instead of the best ones for people. The second is their scale. For too long, many organizations all around the world have been able to protect the mediocrity of their products through huge barriers to entry made by the scale of production, distribution, and communication.

Today, under the pressures of globalization, new technologies, and the digital world, this kind of mediocrity is not an option anymore. Anybody out there — including you, reading this article right now — can easily come up with an idea and get access to funding through platforms like Kickstarter.com, or through the plethora of investment funds in search for the next big idea. With that kind of funding available today, you can produce your idea at a much lower cost than in the past. And last but not least, you can reach your end-users directly, selling them your product and promoting your idea through e-commerce and social media platforms, therefore bypassing traditional distribution and media.

In this scenario, companies big and small are left with just one possible solution if they want to succeed: they need to design extraordinary products, brands, services, and experiences that are authentically focused on people’s needs and wants. Human-centricity becomes the most powerful barrier to entry! Either you create real value for people, or somebody else will do it in your place. These new ideas may arrive from your biggest competitor or from the next startup. Business value aligns with human value. To win in the market, you need to win the hearts and minds of people by creating great solutions. The good news is that if we are all united by this philosophy and approach, we will progressively begin to imagine, design, and create more meaningful products, brands and experiences. And all of this will generate, in the end, a better world to live in — for us and for the generations to come.

But making this happen is no simple matter. You can’t simply rely on your traditional tools, processes, and ways of working. To do all of this, you need the right people — the right innovators. I call them unicorns. They are visionaries and executors. They are optimistic, curious, kind and respectful. They have high empathy and resilience, and are generous and humble. They are risk-takers and change-agents. They are courageous and they know how to work with others. They are people in love with people. To design a better world, a happier world, your company needs good people — people in love with people. This is what my book, The Human Side of Innovation: The Power of People in Love with People is about: the people we innovate for, with a human-centered approach, and the people who are doing the innovating, the unicorns. It’s about who they are, how can you find them, how can you become one, and how you can all work together to build a better world.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

The Human Side of Innovation: The Power of People in Love with People is full of stories, but I will try to talk about one. It’s the story of the ideal metamentor. The metamentor is an extraordinary mentor that can teach and inspire you to become a unicorn. The metamentor doesn’t exist as one person, instead it’s the combination of multiple people that have at least one unique and formidable characteristic that belongs to a unicorn.

Think about all the people you know. Who is the kindest person amongst your friends? Who is the most visionary? Or the most courageous? Who is the most analytical? The most stylish? Or the most curious or optimistic? Or the one with the highest empathy or resilience? Every time you want to leverage one of the unicorn’s traits (and you want to push that trait to the extreme), think of that specific person who manifests that trait in the best possible way. Talk to them and be inspired by them. When you try to be more curious, think of the most curious friend you have — how she acts, how she thinks. You may not be the most curious person in the world (although you are perfectly aware of how important curiosity is to feeding your imagination and creativity), but thinking of that super curious friend inspires you to be more curious every day. Thinking of this person helps you figure out ways to exercise your curiosity and nurture it at every opportunity. Do this every time you face a difficult situation where you need to be more resilient, every time you need to write an email and you need to be more analytical, every time you don’t have enough courage, but you need to act. Ask yourself — or ask the person directly — how they would behave if they were in your shoes. You may not be lucky enough to have a unicorn in your life to mentor you, but each of us can find several people that have at least one of the unicorn’s characteristics. By combining them all, we can build our ideal metamentor.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

When I realized that too many companies out there, big and small, did not yet understand that the generation of real and authentic value for people was also a driver of business value and growth. I saw that this human-centric approach to innovation and branding was really working at PepsiCo and was delivering tangible results. I realized that among the companies that were trying to embrace this human-centricity, too many were focusing on processes and tools exclusively, neglecting the importance of people’s mindsets, values, and behaviors. All of these observations and realizations helped me craft my message, which became my book. Through the platform of this book, I can inspire other entrepreneurs, business leaders and innovators to generate better products for a better society, and ultimately a better world.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

This book talks about “people in love with people.” The first group of people, the people in love, are the innovators of the world. When I think about my specific story and cause, the people that have been impacted the most by my vision and dream are the designers on my team and any business leader that has decided to embrace that approach as well. The executives that have supported me and sponsored my ideas have enabled me to give unique opportunities to my designers, empowering them to express themselves and to do work that had a positive impact in the world, at scale. Some of them have then left PepsiCo and 3M to become Chief Design Officers and design leaders at other companies, spreading the concept of human-centricity beyond the boundaries of just a handful of companies.

The second group of people impacted by my “cause” are the ones that we love as “people in love with people.” They are the users of our products, services, brands, and experiences. They are the most important ones because, collectively, they represent all of humanity. Through the thousands of projects that we’ve led over the years with this approach in mind, we’ve contributed to creating a broader social happiness, one product or experience at the time. Products like the SodaStream Professional, that I describe in the book, are an example of that.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Our society needs more human-centricity. And it needs more meaningful innovation. Human-centered innovation can benefit society in any sector or field, from designing products to drafting new laws. To achieve this, you need people with a specific mindset. We need to inspire future generations to embody the traits and values of the unicorns.

We need to teach our children the idea that success is not a financial achievement or a material goal, empty of other meanings. Instead, success should be the creation of value for society. We should learn to link, in an indistinguishable way, any form of financial and material success to the creation of human value. We should celebrate the people that generate their wealth by creating value for people, instead of celebrating the mere generation of wealth and power for its own sake. We need to connect the idea of success to the creation of ideas, solutions, products, services, brands, and experiences that benefit the world. We need schools, governments, and media to promote those ideas, and to amplify the mindset and approach that can lead people to generate those solutions.

I want a future where we no longer celebrate leaders just for generating business growth and financial value, even if they are unkind, disrespectful, misogynistic, racist, or egocentric. Those individuals are a threat to companies and society. Sometimes, they can be disguised as saviors in the short-term, because they deliver business or political results, but they are always lethal viruses in the long-run. Instead, what our society needs is people in love with people. That’s what our society desperately requires if it wants to survive, and grow in the next hundred or more years, without destroying itself and our planet.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the uncommon ability to dream of an idea, define the vision, translate that vision into a plan, and then execute it by inspiring others to join you so that you can achieve your goals together. Leadership, however, is not a positive concept in a vacuum. It can be used positively, or with negative intentions. We’ve all seen how leadership has compelled some of the worst acts in history, and even more mundanely in our daily lives.

Therefore, the leadership that I envision is focused on positivity. That is the leadership style of the unicorns. These leaders view the creation of business and economic value as something completely aligned with the creation of human value. They possess traits such as kindness, respect, and empathy which have not always been associated with great leaders in the past but are fundamental to the leaders of today.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Kindness will help you achieve your dreams.

I wish I knew this from day one, so that I could have leveraged kindness in a more strategic and systematic way since it was already an instinctual personal value taught to me by my parents. I wish I knew this so that in the moments of doubt — when I was led to believe that kindness might be perceived as a weakness — I would know instead that it represents an incredible strength in this hyper-accelerated, hyper-connected, and hyper-tech society that we live in.

Never forget to balance work and life.

Too often in the past, I sacrificed my personal life to work. Doing that doesn’t make you a better leader. Sooner or later, it just makes you a more miserable person. Your company, sponsors, and teams need a satisfied, happy, and fulfilled leader to succeed. A good work-life balance is not just a human need, it is also good for business!

Curiosity makes you grow and makes you better.

I wish somebody would have told me this right away so that I could have invested in my curiosity in a much more conscious way and extracted value from it in a much more efficient manner. I would know so much more if my curiosity had been more strategic and less random at the beginning of my journey.

You cannot innovate if you are not an optimist.

I have come across so many roadblocks and closed doors over the years. I wish I understood right away that this was part of the game. I certainly would have suffered less. If we don’t come across those roadblocks, then it means that we are not truly innovating. We need optimism to push past these obstacles and move forward.

People will betray you and they will hurt you. Try to understand why. Then forget and forgive.

Understanding why somebody is hurting you will help you put things in perspective. Identifying the root causes of any behavior, like the philosopher does, will make you realize, often, that what you perceived as a personal attack was just the result of the other person’s personal struggles, insecurities, lack of confidence, or goals and ambitions. All of this will enable you to forget and forgive in a much easier way. And forgetting and forgiving will make you feel better. Hate, grudges, and other negative feelings are destructive for yourself and for others. They are absolutely not worth your time or energy.

I have a sixth one. Can I add a sixth one? Kindness drives efficiency and productivity.

I wish I had known this from the start, so that I could have inspired many others to be kind, even those who might not be kind by nature, by sharing with them the tangible value that kindness can generate for any organization. A concrete value that anyone can appreciate, no matter their nature.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have extracted a series of quotes from my book, and then had them printed in a series of full color pages, spread across the book. One of my favorites is:

“Don’t be afraid to dream big, you should always dream! Because if you don’t have a dream, you’ll never be able to make it come true! Dream, and then act!”

This idea has been so relevant in my life because I would have never become the first Chief Design Officer of two multinational corporations if I hadn’t dreamt that it was even possible, especially for someone who came from a humble family, grew up in a small town in the north of Italy, and had no connections or wealth of any kind. And to be clear, my dream was not about the role or the position. My dream was about changing the world through my ideas and my projects, through products and brands. I had this dream when I created my agency at the age of 24, when I joined 3M at 27, and when I joined PepsiCo at 37. I never thought that my dreams were naïve, even though I am sure many people around me thought so. I was too focused on figuring out how to make them happen.

Many things have happened throughout the years, many of my ideas have reached the market and have generated value for billions of people. And many other ideas are still in my mind, which will someday get into the hands of billions of other people and hopefully generate some form of value for them. That is my dream, and I intend to keep dreaming.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

There are a few, but I will pick one — and that is Richard Branson. I picked him because I believe he is a unicorn that understands that the generation of business value coincides with the generation of value for people. He has been practicing this mantra his entire life, and he’s having a lot of fun doing it.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn and Instagram. And on mauro-porcini.com.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator