The BeAtlas program: building community relations for collective financial success

Both Italy and the UK are shaped by intersecting histories of emigration and immigration, and are at the moment, facing similar realities of how to support the varied experiences of their new communities. One needs to look no further than the increasing numbers of Italians moving abroad, with Great Britain as one of the main destinations.

Inspired by her concurrent research project which explored the role of diversity amongst independent African women’s entrepreneurial projects in northern Italy, this month’s guest blogger, Candice Whitney, wrote this article based on research she conducted on how the Italian Bank group Banca Popolare dell’Emilia Romagna (BPER) incorporates diversity into building relations with local immigrant communities through their BeAtlas program. 

With many bank firms across the US and Western Europe addressing diversity within their own company cultures and with their clients, this article opens the discussion as to how one Italian bank has been fostering collaborative spaces with immigrant communities.

The BeAtlas program: building community relations for collective financial success

Associations often only need some support to realise their goals. (For example), someone to give them a space and help them be more faithful in their abilities,” says Giulio Arsenio, the Social Business Manager (SBM) for the Lombardy region of the BeAtlas program founded by the BPER. As one of the three SBM based across northern Italy, Arsenio connects with immigrant associations and entrepreneurs by listening to their needs, and helps them achieve financial success. Launched in 2015, BeAtlas has organised and supported events and initiatives with over 800 people, associations and businesses across the Emilia Romagna, Lombardy, and Veneto regions. The first of its kind in Italy, the program operates as a means to build new social and economic opportunities with local communities. Research by the Associazione Bancaria Italiana (Italian Banking Association) demonstrates that from 2010 to 2013 small to medium immigrant owned enterprises have increased by over 40%. BeAtlas aims to help increase the projected growth of immigrant run projects and businesses. Rather than assume or generalise the needs of immigrant communities, the Social Business Managers reach out and listen to associations to get a holistic understanding of what they need and map out which services and potential collaborations might be useful. As a program developed to support the diversity of needs across immigrant communities, the structure and amenities of the BeAtlas program enables the SBMs and community members involved to generate new collaborative, sustainable and reproducible opportunities.

The story and structure behind BeAtlas

Each one of us is a citizen, a consumer, or a parent, for example. If you take a look and notice, everything that you do in the world that has been changed by processes of immigration,” says Diego Rossi, the Director of Everyday Bank at BPER and one of the founders of the BeAtlas program. “Everybody here, whether you were born and raised here or moved here, needs a bank account. For anybody born and raised here, it’s relatively easy to figure out. However if you move here, without any prior knowledge of how Italian systems work, the process can be quite difficult.” Rossi was inspired to launch the BeAtlas program upon noticing that immigration and emigration have been impacting his local community of Modena and the nation of Italy. He applied the Blue Ocean strategy, a theory that identifies markets and value untouched by competitors, to situate the coordination of BeAtlas. Along with 30 colleagues, Rossi and his team designed a program that supports the needs and goals of immigrant communities, a market that had yet been addressed by Italian financial institutions.

Photo 1

The BeAtlas team accepting the honour by the Innovation by Italian Council of Ministry. L-R: Giulio Arsenio, Solange Taila, Gianluca Fermanton, Diego Rossi, Lorenzo Zannini, Michele Gennaccaro, Federica Ferrari. Photo Credit: BeAtlas of BPER.

Rossi endured a challenging process to gather a large team to coordinate and present BeAtlas to the bank. Throughout the early stages of developing BeAtlas, he encountered many colleagues that expressed little curiosity in the project. He had to convince his colleagues about the value of the program, such as how it allows the bank to have a critical role in supporting positive change in communities. To ensure that he would convince the administration of BPER, Rossi prepared a detailed proposal and business plan filled with statistics and sociological research. When reflecting on the experience, Rossi shared that he presented the project as if his audience were a venture capital firm. After overcoming the initial steps and obstacles, BeAtlas was approved by the bank in 2014 and ready to commence.

BeAtlas affirms that Italy’s new communities shaped by immigration are essential to the fabric of the country’s financial, social and cultural development. Over the course of nine months, the prototype and pilot period identified which approaches and elements were necessary to generate successful opportunities for the communities involved. During this period, the project also changed name from Nuovi Italiani to BeAtlas to communicate a stronger international approach. The three main key components to support the creation of new projects include a contact centre for accepting phone calls and listening to immediate interests, an online portal for users to communicate over forums and chat platforms, and the SBMs who wear a variety of hats to build social business opportunities.

The SBMs are flexible to co-create social innovation projects using an international approach. Prior to joining the BeAtlas program, each of the SBM already came from multicultural backgrounds and was looking for opportunities to combine their business and development experiences. To achieve the goal of building with the community, each SBM develops trustworthy relationships with associations founded by immigrants within their assigned areas of either the metropolitan area of Milan or regions Lombardy and the Emilia Romagna. These conversations, either in person or on the phone, can range from co-developing or reviewing a business plans, brainstorming events, or receiving updates about the progress of specific utilities. In addition to building connections with communities in person and through the contact center and online portal, they are experts in services such as crowdfunding, microcredit, social housing, work services, development projects, and support with grants. Solange Taila, the SBM for Emilia Romagna, shared that she can help develop products that better address the needs of certain communities based on the trends of their expressed needs. For example, BPER company surveys and interviews with African communities informed the development of the product “Mutuo Diaspora”, or house loans for the diaspora, which will be available to all immigrants who seek financial support to build a home in their country of origin. The SBMs are key co-developers of new initiatives and to sustain existing projects both in Italy and abroad.

As a relatively new project, BeAtlas has already been recognised for different awards both in Italy and abroad. In 2015 the Abi Forum Lab awarded the program for Social Innovation and in 2016, the program was honoured for Innovation by the Italian Council of Ministry.

Photo 2

The SBMs accepting the award by the Italian Council of Ministry in Rome. L-R: Giulio Assenio,
Solange Taila, and Michele Gennaccaro. Photo Credit: BeAtlas of BPER.

The program also participated at IBM’s ConnectEd in Orlando, Florida, USA, an international event dedicated to digital engagement and advocacy. Lastly, the Africa-Italy Excellence Awards recognised the project for supporting financial success of immigrant communities. The projects supported and organised by BeAtlas underlines how the channel supports bringing forth new, sustainable and reproducible projects across its affiliated regions.

Projects to support community growth

The events created through the BeAtlas program have generated a high social return on investments. Research conducted by Dr. Giulio Tagliavini at the Department of Economics at the University of Parma demonstrates that opportunities and programs through BeAtlas generate value both for both investors and communities. Since November 2016, the Sartoria Sociale (Social Dressmaking Shop) located in the center of Milan has employed immigrants of various dressmaking skills to work as tailors for private clients. To ensure that each of the eleven tailors occupy the same skills to carry out mass orders, they have undergone a series of training courses to improve their sewing and cutting techniques. The Milan based SBM Michele Mariano Gennaccaro was inspired to start this project after speaking with a local Arab women’s association that expressed the need to have more consistent work opportunities. Determined to figure out how to best assist them, Gennaccaro developed a business plan and collaborated with various organizations. After evaluating other options such as a catering business and a local shop, Gennaccaro, his team at BeAtlas, and the community members decided that a dressmaking shop was the most feasible option. The social cooperations Il Torpedone and Sammanet collaborated with BeAtlas to recruit men and women tailors from Egypt, Gambia, Italy, the Slovak Republic, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Afghanistan, and Senegal. Andrea Monteverdi, founder of the cashmere shirt company AM Srl supported the project by helping to organise the machines necessary and identifying the necessary skills for the shop to succeed. Even though the Sartoria Sociale is in it’s early stages, it represents one of the ways that the BeAtlas program co-develops new social business opportunities to address the needs of the community and generate valuable returns for those involved.

Photo 3

Some of the award recipients and the team of BeAtlas at the Africa-Italy Excellence Awards ceremony in 2015 at the BPER Forum Manzoni in Modena. Photo Credit: BeAtlas of BPER.

The SBMs also coordinate events that support the success of associations run by immigrants. The program has been responsible for over 50 local events with nearly 14,300 people involved. At the end of 2016, Arsenio helped organise the World of Talents event with the Municipality of Vicenza in Veneto and the Ghanian association GITRAC. That same year, GITRAC had shared with him that they wanted an opportunity to demonstrate their passion for dance and to invite communities to perform as well. Arsenio collaborated with them to invite various musical figures from across Africa and the other continents, such as the Nigerian artists Austin Prince, Brasilian singer Luciano Jose Santa, and the Vicenza based multicultural choir “Cantamilmondo” (Sing to me the world). This event also served as an opportunity to present awards to the youth for academic excellence and community involvement. Arsenio and Taila also helped support the Africa-Italy Excellence Awards in 2015 organized by Freda Cooper, the director of the Divine Friends Organization, such as by offering the space of the BPER Forum Manzoni in Modena. The event provided nearly 30 awards to demonstrate the strong bond between Italy and Africa, and how Africans in Italy have been essential to the country’s financial, cultural and social development.

BeAtlas of BPER

Gianluca Fermanton, Director of the BPER location in Modena, Freda Cooper, founder of the Africa-Italy Excellence Awards, Eugenio Tangerini, director of the External Relations at the BPER, Solange Taila SBM for Emilia Romagna region and others at the Africa-Italy Excellence Awards in 2015. Photo Credit: BeAtlas of BPER.

Lastly, BPER has developed personalised prepaid debit cards for associations to enhance their marketing and communications, such as with the recent launch of a pre paid card for the annual multi-local festival Ottobre Africano. These types of collaborations demonstrate the ways in which the SBM are the foundation of the BeAtlas program and integral to its success, as they build long lasting relations and cultivate new opportunities with local communities that can be reproduced in similar ways.

For this coming year, the SBMs of BeAtlas will continue to support projects that facilitate cultural understanding amongst immigrant communities. Taila has coordinated the relationship between BPER, the association Reseau and Ottobre Africano to support knowledge of different African communities in Italy through cultural, musical and culinary events. The mission of the festival aims to provide a different perspective of the African continent for all communities, regardless of origin, in cities such as Modena, Parma, Bologna, Turin, Milan, Rome and Naples. Taila shares that this objective correlates with the vision and mission of BeAtlas to be a reference point for immigrant communities and to support them as they realise their goals. For this reason, the BPER will support the festival’s events in Modena in 2017. Despite the arduous process to develop BeAtlas, the SBM and the team at BeAtlas have generated new, indispensable partnerships amongst social and financial organisations. As a networker, a strategist, and a leader in social business, the SBMs role of BPER’s BeAtlas program represents an innovative way financial institutions can commit to investing and supporting positive change in its local communities.

For more about BPER visit their FB page CLICK HERE

Candice is an alumna of the Fulbright to Italy Program 17 and currently resides in the US CLICK HERE for more

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