Regeneration of the family mission

AMELIA VICINI

With a prestigious portfolio of cover shoots and projects to her name, she was preparing to take the next step by going freelance. But then one day in late 2007, she gave it all up.

I was trying to decide on which agency might best represent me in my freelance career when my elder brother and cousin flew in from the Dominican Republic, recalls Amelia.

They wanted to have a serious discussion with me about the future of our family business back home. It was a time of transition in the family, as many of the generation before us were now in their eighties.

Founded almost a century and a half previously, Grupo Vicini was a great Dominican success story. Having begun its existence in agriculture and commerce, it had subsequently diversified into multiple sectors, including financial services, energy, real estate and tourism.

Over the years, this venerable organization had also withstood colonial conflicts, military uprisings, occupation, and a thirty-year period of authoritarian rule.

With a prestigious portfolio of cover shoots and projects to her name, she was preparing to take the next step by going freelance. But then one day in late 2007, she gave it all up.

I was trying to decide on which agency might best represent me in my freelance career when my elder brother and cousin flew in from the Dominican Republic, recalls Amelia.

They wanted to have a serious discussion with me about the future of our family business back home. It was a time of transition in the family, as many of the generation before us were now in their eighties.

Founded almost a century and a half previously, Grupo Vicini was a great Dominican success story. Having begun its existence in agriculture and commerce, it had subsequently diversified into multiple sectors, including financial services, energy, real estate and tourism.

Over the years, this venerable organization had also withstood colonial conflicts, military uprisings, occupation, and a thirty-year period of authoritarian rule.


Transformation

As the family members pondered the possibilities, their vision began to take shape. Grupo Vicini could continue its evolution, they thought, by becoming a private asset management firm. The organization would seed other managers who would invest the capital in longterm projects focused upon the Northern Latin America region, a part of the world often overlooked by global investors.

I felt really engaged in the whole process, explains Amelia. I suddenly started to get very excited about the prospect of being a fourth-generation family member helping to transform our company. We had this great sense of responsibility and stewardship, and about striking a path into the future. And we were definitely thinking long-term, asking ourselves where we saw the business in, say, sixty years’ time.

 
 
But while it was a new beginning, we didn’t want to abandon our history.
 

Seeking impact

Central to this long-term vision was the impact on society at large. Especially in our region of the world, it can be harder for companies to succeed owing to all the structural problems relating to health, education and poverty, says Amelia. I passionately believe that as a business, you have to be intimately involved in wider society, positively impacting the communities that you are a part of. Generating jobs, improving the quality of jobs, and raising skill levels are critical to eradicating poverty.

At the time, sustainability was still something of a niche concept in the investment world.

However, Amelia immersed herself in the subject, devouring research papers and attending conferences. It struck me that this was a natural approach for our organization, she says. Many companies had a really short time horizon, focused upon the next quarter’s earnings. But because we were already thinking years and decades ahead, we were convinced that we would find it easier to implement strategies linked to sustainable development.

Having reinvented the company’s mission, Amelia and her family decided that a fresh identity was also in order. We felt strongly that we should dissociate the new asset management company from our family name because it wasn’t fair to all our partners simply to represent ourselves as a family holdings group, she recalls.

But while it was a new beginning, we didn’t want to abandon our history. By flipping ‘Vicini’ around, the name became ‘Inicia,’ which comes from ‘iniciar’ in Spanish, meaning ‘to start.’

Measuring up

Through its investments, Inicia targets a broad range of positive societal changes. Among its holdings, for example, is a bank that seeks to extend banking coverage by making loans to small and micro businesses in the Dominican Republic. Another is a joint venture with a Brazilian steelmaker that has a presence across the Caribbean and Colombia. To assess the social impact that these businesses’ activities have, Inicia tracks a wide variety of performance metrics.

With impact-based projects, you need really robust measurement systems, says Amelia. You can’t manage what you can’t measure, whether it’s to do with the environment, gender equity inclusion or whatever. So, a company can engage in reforesting, for example, but without proper tracking and monitoring, it risks wasting money and falling short of its environmental goals.

In the case of its steelmaking investment, Inicia looks not only at the more obvious metrics around occupational safety and ecological friendliness, but also the make-up of its workforce.

Given the nature of the business, it has traditionally been a very male-dominated organization, says Amelia. However, in 2020 the company signed a government-sponsored commitment to improve equality and it has since begun integrating female workers in its operations.


The gift of education

Evolving the business was only part of reinventing the Vicini family mission. The older generation had a longstanding commitment to providing educational opportunities in the Dominican Republic. In their discussions, Amelia and the other successors agreed that they wished to continue with this. However, they also felt they ought to refresh what they did and how they did it.

My father’s generation was very active over many decades in helping others to get an education, says Amelia. However, they never formalized their activities within a foundation or other structure. Having grown up during the period of authoritarian rule, they had preferred to maintain a low profile. Basically, they were running an unnamed, unstructured scholarship fund for talented individuals from deprived backgrounds.

To this day, I get people coming up to me and telling me that they or a relative of theirs was able to attend university thanks to my father or my uncle.

 
 
The ultimate ambition is to achieve a degree of self-sufficiency.
 

Public schooling

Amelia and her generation decided that they would refocus their efforts instead on the public education system. Public education has a critical role in the long-term development of nations, she says. Without robust institutions, you get poor outcomes. So rather than spreading our resources across multiple sectors, we opted to concentrate on education from early years right through to senior high school.

To pursue their updated goals, the Vicinis created a nonprofit organization, Inicia Educación. This body works in close partnership with the Dominican education authorities. We provide funding to help build institutional capacity in the system. Having good school administrators can make a huge difference, for example.

Among our goals are to help raise learning outcomes and reduce the dropout rate in high schools, which is a really big problem in our country. While initial funding came from the family and external donors, the ultimate ambition is to achieve a degree of self-sufficiency.

To reduce dependence on gifts, Inicia Educación is making or-profit investments, which also focus on the education sector, explains Amelia. A lot of these are venture-style investments, particularly in the education technology or ‘ed tech’ sector. We also invest in for-profit schools.

Aside from the potential for returns, a more immediate benefit of this set-up is the transfer of knowledge between Inicia Educación’s for-profit investments and nonprofit projects. Amelia cites an ed tech investment in Colombia, whose online learning platform provides training for employees of private employers. We paid them to create a free version of the platform for Dominican students. It helps pupils in their last two years prepare for the major exam they sit before leaving school. The platform assesses them and then generates a personalized study plan. We plan to roll it out to Colombian students next.


Gauging impact

As with investment, the Vicinis’ new approach to education stresses impact. “We follow the official metrics of the education system,” explains Amelia. “Are kids graduating? What were their results in the final exams that they sat? We also track process-based indicators, covering things like teacher training and manager training.

We apportion funding according to how it might impact specific indicators. But our view is ultimately long term: some of the benefits to society could take twenty years to become fully apparent.”

Throughout the transformation of our family mission, we have had a clear vision about where we wanted to go, says Amelia. This was never a mere change of name, but about driving progress around us. To survive and thrive, we know that we have to play our part in the development of our region. You really can’t separate the two.

 
 
Global citizenship is a very important concept.
 

Amelia Vicini: My life

I am from the Dominican Republic, but my family was originally from Italy. Back in the mid- 19th century, an ancestor of mine came to this island to serve as apprentice to a merchant who was originally from the same town near Genoa.

He was only around 12 years old when he began his apprenticeship. Eventually, he became the merchant’s business partner, and then a landowner and sugar producer, in what was still predominantly an agrarian society.

When we were growing up, there was never a sense that we must all get involved in the family business. We were simply encouraged to study hard and take whatever educational and professional path we wanted. I chose to study humanities in the US. After college, I pursued an editorial career in magazines for about ten years. My original passion was writing. Then one day in the late 1990s, the fashion editor of the magazine I was working at took me on a shoot as her assistant.

That experience made me fall in love with the idea of storytelling through images. Conceptualizing a story, be it for a cover shoot or a fashion spread, felt amazing. I resigned from my job in New York in 2008 and moved back to the Dominican Republic to join the family business. At first, I had naively thought that I could have the best of both worlds, freelancing in New York and attending board meetings back home. However, during a long strategic planning meeting, I realized that I would have to be all-in. I saw that the others around the table would all be dedicating themselves to the transformation and I would have to do the same.

Not long after joining, I mentioned to one of our partners that I thought I should go and do an MBA. He immediately replied that I’d learn more in the next six months of working than I would in two years of studying.

Having come from a creative career, it kind of blew my mind to be surrounded by all these analytical ‘left-brainers.’ The way they approached problems and strategized was totally different to what I had seen before. I was learning so much every day.

Our educational activities seek to help all pupils in the Dominican Republic. On a personal level, though, I’m also seeking to bring about better conditions for girls in my country. Female pupils drop out of school all the time when they get pregnant. Reducing rates of teenage pregnancy is a major priority for me. Sex education is currently lacking in schools and female reproductive rights are severely constrained.

Global citizenship is a very important concept. I think we all need to think beyond our nationalities and see ourselves as belonging to this world, with responsibilities to each other and to the planet. For me, a global citizen is someone whose identity transcends nationality and who has developed empathy for humanity. Emotional intelligence is a hugely important skill and it’s something that we all need to work on.

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