Milan-based social entrepreneur Riccarda Zezza works with parents, caregivers and companies to redefine and leverage life transitions as periods of intense, valuable learning and professional growth (much like earning a Master’s degree). Through Lifeed, Riccarda is revolutionizing corporate training in 23 countries, helping companies see their employees’ life transitions as skill-building opportunities that benefit their work lives as well. With Mother’s Day just around the corner, Ashoka’s Alessandro Valera sat down with Riccarda to reflect on motherhood as, as she says, “the highest form of leadership, and care as a superpower.”
Alessandro Valera: Mother’s Day is here! Does it still make sense today to celebrate mothers and fathers on separate days?
Riccarda Zezza: A good question! I think Mother’s Day forces us to focus on the wrong questions and on narrow stories of motherhood. I’m looking at: what’s the bigger story we can tell about parenting? Inclusive of mothers, fathers, and caregivers of all kinds.
I work closely with caregivers – and I can still see a very strong difference in our models of fatherhood and motherhood. The stereotype of fathers is that they have to do less. They have to be less often at home, which is more or less the same stereotype that mothers have at work. They’re supposed to be less at work. This makes Father’s Day feel like a lighter celebration. But when we get to Mother’s Day, there is always some controversy. We’re in 2021 and still, everywhere in the world, becoming a mother generates a conflict between being a woman and being a worker, between life and work.
Valera: This is the reason you started your organization, Lifeed, right?
Zezza: Yes. I had recently become a mother myself. As a manager in the corporate world, I saw a lot of money being poured into soft skills training with the aim of making leaders more effective. I realized that I was using these skills most intensely at home with my children. Family life is the best teacher for crisis management, empathy, delegation, empowerment, and leadership defined as helping others grow.
I decided to bridge the two worlds of public and private leadership and realized we need the opportunity to value the kind of leadership that emerges in the home, in the family. At Lifeed, instead of asking: Is it hard to be a mother? How do you handle it all? How do you sleep at night? We ask: What are you learning as a mother? How much stronger do you feel? What kind of world do you want your children to grow up in? These kinds of questions invite us to focus on the bigger picture. They help us see the valuable skills we have, and translate them to different contexts.
Valera: We all know by now that women tend to be the ones stepping up the most at home during the disruption of the last year. How else has the pandemic affected parenting?
Zezza: There is definitely a difference between men and women — generalizing of course. Women are feeling a higher level of fatigue, but also a higher leadership level. Whereas for men the range of change in roles and habits has generally been smaller.
But there is a bigger picture here as well. This is the first time in the history of our species that we live through a global shared transition. As with every transition, we are in the process of changing our habits, discovering new skills, and new challenges. It’s like we have all suddenly been sent on maternity leave for 18 months. We all know now that maternity leave is not actually “a leave.” Instead, we are just somewhere else, and doing double the work. The pandemic is making this much more visible.
For caregivers, especially mothers, the change was huge, but the muscles to cope with constant change and new habits were already there. It’s hard, but they largely know what to do. These are critical skills that can help society weather the storm, way beyond parenting.
Valera: So caregiving helps us develop critical skills. How can we also use those skills to raise children who can thrive in a world defined by constant change, and global complexity — as we have experienced this year in the pandemic?
Zezza: Many women leaders, when asked about the way they lead, mention motherhood as a metaphor for leadership. This goes to the essence of the human species: care is essential. We are familiar with leadership models that prize a fighter attitude – the fight or flight model. The caring model of leadership is on the other hand familiar only in private life. Yet, it’s a model the world needs.
Care is a superpower rooted in our DNA for our species to survive. When we inject care into responsibility, that responsibility gives us the power to change things. We can bring care into everything we do and so can children. That’s the way we can all be changemakers.
Valera: How can we help everyone lean into their caring super-power?
Zezza: We have to stop wasting the resources that mothers, women, diverse people, caregivers, and all the so-called minorities — i.e. the majority of the population — contribute. The world needs exactly what they have. This is not about helping women, it’s about helping the world through women. Women know how to lead with care. Women are the world experts here.
Riccarda Zezza is the co-author of the innovative learning method of Life Based Learning, emerging from the concept of “MAAM – maternity as a master.” She previously worked for many years in large companies in Italy and abroad. Today she is the CEO of Lifeed, an EdTech company bringing Life Based Learning to caregivers and companies. This method is revolutionizing corporate training, giving HR the ideas and tools to transform their employees’ life transitions into soft skills. Her Italy-based programs now reaches thousands of participants in 23 countries. Riccarda became an Ashoka Fellow in 2016. You can follow Riccarda and her work on twitter via @RiccardaZ and @lifebasedvalue.
Alessandro Valera launched Ashoka in Italy and currently leads Ashoka’s Global Impact & Evidence team.
This piece is part of Ashoka’s series on Gender and was edited for length and clarity.