Mai Vi Ferraro is a 34-year-old Italian-Vietnamese entrepreneur, formulator, and all-around creative in the cosmetics industry. While living in London for ten years, she took her first steps and honed her skills in artisanal perfume and cosmetic formulation.
Additionally, working on the shop floor of renowned retail establishments equipped her with first-hand knowledge of the diverse beauty consumers’ wants and needs. However, it also highlighted the many limitations posed by a competitive industry still hugely dominated by caucasian beauty standards. These experiences spark her desire of rediscovering the traditional use of local Italian herbs, merging it with her vision of decolonising and diversifying the beauty industry.
In 2013 she experimented with artisanal soap production and launched Organic Freak, solely managing its marketing activities. Unbeknownst to her, this solo project would slowly take shape as the original foundations for what is today known as Opera Zero.
Born under the sign of Aquarius, she’s an anti-conformism in her DNA. In fact, unlike many of her Italian peers that emigrate, she decided to go the opposite direction and move back to Italy, where Opera Zero was born: an artisan skincare line, created with the precision of science and the inspiration of a free artist.
Mai Vi lives in Bologna with her partner, her black cats Frisa and Pomo, and a beautiful rescue dog named Vita.
How was the Opera Zero project born?
Everything started with a project called Organic Freak, I made soaps, and meanwhile I was learning more and more about how to formulate cosmetics and all the steps necessary to get to the sale of the product. When I decided to return to Italy I decided to change the name, and after much internal research, I chose the name Opera Zero. Initially, the idea was to work on this project in parallel with another job, but the Italian (semi-desert) working reality pushed me to start at full capacity with Opera Zero.
What were the most surprising aspects of becoming an entrepreneur?
"Anxieties!" laughs. Surely, taking this path has allowed me to learn a lot about myself and to cultivate resilience in ways that perhaps before all of this, I would have never thought possible.
Why did you return to Italy?
As much as I have loved London and the opportunity to live and grow in a more multicultural environment, the desire of returning to Italy has always been there. I felt like I wasn’t done yet - that I had some sort of unfinished business with this land. It is a time of great changes and I am happy to be here now because I feel that it is where I have to be to do my part. Although this first year after my return was full of difficulties and cold showers, I would do it all over again.
What were the biggest challenges you encountered in Italy (personal and professional) after your return home?
They have been different. First of all, re-acclimatising to the Italian way of doing and managing anything practical, very much in contrast with the years lived in the UK. Perhaps, as I was away for quite a long time, returning has revealed some realities that I was not able to notice many years ago. It was quite disappointing to come back with a solid professional background, only to find serious difficulties in landing just one job interview.
What inspires you to create products - and in general, what inspires you in your daily life?
I like to connect with the environment that I find myself in. I love being outdoors in nature whether it's the hills, a river, or the beach and watching everything that grows, including the relationships between the elements of that place. But it is an exercise that I often apply also in the city, I try to get to know the weeds and flowers that resist and grow, despite the cement and the haste. I often start formulation with a single plant or smell in mind, and then build around it. The values that are closest to my heart are Truth, Justice, Integrity, and Knowledge, I try to actively work every single day to improve myself, while remaining in alignment with them.
What terms do you identify yourself with most, lately?
"Activist, Warrior and Witch. CEO is difficult for me!" laughs.
What do you aim to bring to the beauty routine of your customers with this range?
A moment of introspection that goes beyond the mirror and the surface, both for the dermis (the skin) and in a metaphorical sense. I wish that while using my products, they are also aware of where they come from, how they are made, and by whom. And this includes my identity as a racialized person in Italy. This is the reason why I educate on the topic of racism even if I deal with cosmetics, because there is no separation between these topics. The beauty industry does not live in a bubble isolated from reality, even if you would think so when seeing the CEOs. I'm here to change this.
The brand has a very strong and recognizable aesthetic - how important was that artistic element when creating the product?
I really love art. I like shapes, colours, and patterns. I really wanted the brand to have a strong identity, also from an artistic point of view. I'd like to collaborate with different artists and illustrators to be able to give a platform to the many talents out there.
What part of running a brand do you enjoy most and the least?
The administration is certainly the part that excites me the least, despite being vital to running a business. The Italian bureaucracy is very intricate and like many creative people, I struggle with Excel and the anxiety it causes me. The part I like most is research because I can unleash my curiosity and discover new things that open up entire worlds for me. This is the fundamental process that allows me to grow as an individual and a business. You never know what you will discover.
What advice can you give a fellow entrepreneur wanting to launch their own business?
This is a tough question because I am still in a position where I am the first one to seek advice on this topic! But there are certainly some things I have learned in recent months: surround yourself with the right people, that is, those people who understand your vision. Let yourself be helped and ask for support when you are having difficulties. Relate yourself to people you respect personally and professionally.