Start-Up Culture in the Jazz Age
May 22, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
As we’ve discovered during our vintage journeys, what’s old is often new again. Concepts like working from home or innovations like 3-D movies seem like modern revelations, fitting hand-in-glove with advanced technology. But that’s all a smoke screen because the inventors of yesteryear were cutting edge (well before the phrase became part of our lexicon). The impact of vintage is everywhere and that even extends to start-up culture. This phenomenon may now be known as the exclusive realm of hipster computer programmers, but let’s turn that stereotype on its ear by traveling back to 1932 Italy. Join us as we discover the roots of start-up culture in the Jazz Age.
The man who’s credited with starting it all is Adriano Olivetti. If you have a deep love affair with typewriters (or graphic design), you’ll recognize the name. When Adriano inherited the business from his father, he came to the role with a unique perspective. About a decade prior to becoming president, he studied manufacturing processes in America (at his father’s insistence). Adriano focused his research on the relationship between organization and increased productivity. He could have easily taken this inspiration in a purely Machiavellian direction, but Adriano married this longing to streamline operations to a vision of community. That special mix transformed into the foundation for our modern idea of the start-up.
For Olivetti, the center of his profitable hub was people. The support and encouragement of his staff became his number one initiative – his most valuable investment. As the company grew, the salaries and benefits for the employees followed suit. Early in his tenure, Adriano was captivated by movements aimed at the betterment of society. Soon the world of architecture and urban design beckoned. His Utopian vision expanded to housing, community spaces, and support services (such as childcare).
I’d like to take a moment to talk about gender roles within Olivetti. Even in modern time, women continue to face discrimination. In reading “Squeezed : Why our families can’t afford America” by Alissa Quart, I’m learning more about discrimination against pregnant women and working moms. But for Olivetti, children were rightfully seen as a blessing (rather than a burden to the economic machine). Nearly 40% of the initial Olivetti workforce were women – women being paid a fantastic wage, women with quality on-site daycare, and women who were supported in a way that allowed them to pursue their careers joyfully. And to think – all of this took place over 80 years ago!
It may be easy to see his legacy as purely social – but that would miss the big picture. Adriano’s strategy was truly holistic. People were the focus, but it’s equally important to note that people were encouraged to innovate. By giving his workers an opportunity to take more ownership in their tasks, people were more productive and more apt to think outside of the box. It was the classic “win win” scenario. When people take pride in what they’re doing – and invest in the results – magic happens.
That magic extended beyond the factory floor. Adriano’s natural inclination toward good design is evident in all of Olivetti’s typewriter designs. (In fact, some models have even been featured in prestigious museum collections!) This appreciation for beauty flowed beyond the product and into the selling experience. Olivetti showrooms became a destination, designed by powerhouse architects like Carlo Scarpa. This dizzying mix of glamour and industry meant the owner of an Olivetti felt as inspired and empowered as the men and women who made their typewriter. Talk about a thoughtful (not to mention sustainable) supply chain!
At a time when Silicon Valley is trying to establish (or redefine) their corporate cultures, perhaps a look in the rear-view mirror is more prudent than a frantic race ahead. Considering all aspects of the human experience (i.e. what happens beyond working hours) is important. After all, what feeds the soul often isn’t the work itself, but the hours spent away from the daily grind fuels innovation at the office. For example, Olivetti had a poet curate a company library and a novelist lead recruiting efforts. If today’s business leaders are looking to make a positive disruption in their industry, inspiration is just a typewritten word away!