Learning to fly

The world needs dreamers very much,’ says Francesca del Nero. ‘They are the ones doing great things.’ Elle Blakeman gets ready to learn from the founder of the School for Dreamers

Back in 2007, Francesca del Nero was the quintessential Highly Successful Woman. Approaching fifty, she led a division of GE Capital in Milan. She had a large salary, a beautiful home and a close-knit community of family and friends. ‘I had a very nice life,’ she says, with no trace of regret.

A year later she read The School for Gods by Stefano D’Anna and realised that everything for which she had worked so hard was no longer serving her. So she stopped.

‘That book opened a big door for me,’ she recalls. ‘I had so much but there was something that was pushing me further. I realised that I wasn’t here just to be a banker. I knew I could keep going and someday I could be the number one in the bank – but what was it all for? And since that moment, my life changed.’

The vision that took hold of Del Nero was epic: to inspire others to shake off the shackles of what the world expects and instead find and follow their dreams.

‘I had a real awareness that there was a lack of dreamers in the world,’ she says. ‘And the world needs them, very much. They are the ones doing great things. Free from fear, they fulfil their destiny. They are the ones who are capable of a truly big vision.’ 

Thoughts come to mind of Martin Luther King on the Lincoln Memorial or Steve Jobs igniting the personal computer revolution: people who ignored the ways of the past and the ever-present naysayers to achieve extraordinary things. Yet many of these revolutionary moments are now decades in the past. As the world veers from one crisis to another – banking, housing, healthcare, immigration – and we struggle with the stress of balancing family and life with the demands of what was once called the nine to five (hours that sound positively part-time to many of us now), have we simply lost the energy to dream?

‘We inherit beliefs about what life should be,’ says Del Nero. ‘Everyone from our family to our culture and wider society gives us a description about how things should be. We learn that life is difficult: it is pain and problems, and we have to conquer those to achieve happiness. We’re taught that we are born, we study, then work, have a family, work some more, get old, get sick and die. It’s not such a tempting prospect. But we can get rid of this description. We can challenge and change these beliefs if we try. We have this freedom.

‘My vision is a world driven by better leaders: ones led by ethics, integrity, love and humanity, for the sake of all.’

This could easily sound ‘out there’ to those not so inclined. But Del Nero’s intentions were grounded in systemic and structural change – think targeting governments and large corporations rather than chanting in communes surrounded by beaded dreamcatchers. Putting her business acumen to use, Del Nero founded the School for Dreamers and devised a plan to educate and encourage world leaders and CEOs, to help them develop the emotional intelligence of their staff. Through seminars, talks and courses, the school focused on how to bring conscious freedom, integrity and visionary pragmatism into the lives of its students.

‘The basis of the School for Dreamers – which should be basis of all schools, in my opinion – is the journey of knowing yourself,’ she says, echoing the philosophy “Know thyself”, inscribed at the foot of many a Greek temple. ‘If I don’t know myself, how can I love myself? And if I don’t love myself, how do I love anyone else? How do I contribute to society?’

A widening gap between internal and external reality, argues Del Nero, has left us all so stressed. ‘We try to find solutions out there. But we are the problem and we are the solution. And yet we are always searching for solutions in something or someone external.’

At the school, there is a big focus on personal responsibility. ‘We are taught to believe in limits and we find reasons to stop ourselves from pursuing our dreams – “My English isn’t good enough,” “I don’t have enough money,” “That’ll never happen for me.” When we see that we are free to choose something else, that we can decide what we want from life, there is a shift. We become kinder to ourselves and kinder to others.’

Del Nero contests that a better future and dreaming of a better life are impossible without connecting to the inner self, away from the noise and demands of the world. Even the most cynical among us would find it hard to argue with that logic. Every ‘crisis’ –from the housing crisis to the recent pandemic – requires new ways of looking at things, or we’ll be stuck in them forever. The more visionary and freethinking our leaders, the more ideas and solutions there will be, benefitting everyone.

‘The problem is none of us received any form of inner education while we were growing up,’ Del Nero declares. ‘We think there is only an external reality, so we fight against this reality. We’ve lost the capacity to be connected to our inner life.’

Unfortunately, Del Nero’s vision happened to coincide with the biggest global banking crisis in modern history. It was a while before others were in a position to be receptive.

‘Companies weren’t ready to listen to me,’ she recalls. ‘They had other things to worry about, so there wasn’t this openness.’ For five years, she focused instead on individuals, running much acclaimed courses and events while setting up the annual Dreamer’s Day conference in Milan.

She also went through a heartbreakingly difficult few years: losing her partner in 2014, her mother a year later and then her youngest daughter in a car accident. Yet instead of throwing her off-course, these tragedies cemented her conviction. ‘I felt deeply and strongly that I had to accomplish my mission,’ she explains. ‘I learned to transform my pain into love, into gratitude.’

While grieving for her daughter, she wrote a book entitled I Am Alive, featuring messages of hope for the world. ‘I felt that Virginia was talking to me,’ Del Nero says. ‘Sometimes she was there with me. I feel that we wrote this book together: messages for change, for love and for humanity.’

And in 2015, large companies began to wake up. In a world bruised by a devastating economic crisis, people wanted to work for brands that stood for something more than profit. For the first time since the ‘family-run business’ era, there was demand for values and authenticity. Many corporations fudged ‘mission statements’ and hoped that would be enough. It wasn’t.

There was a gap between what they were saying and the reality,’ she notes. ‘And so they started talking to us about how to fill that gap.’ It brings to mind the Gandhi quote about happiness being when ‘what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony’. Del Nero ushered in the harmony.

After twenty-five years in corporate finance, she has a refreshing ‘You can’t kid a kidder’ approach for those who seek her advice. ‘They cannot tell me lies,’ she laughs, ‘because I know what their work culture is like!

‘But it’s so positive – because, if you make changes for the better, work relationships will improve. Work will improve. Home life will improve. You will be at peace.’

Now, a new unforeseen crisis is hitting the world’s economy. ‘The virus has created something new,’ she says. ‘But sometimes we need trauma to make change happen. People are awakening. There is no way we can think of just ourselves anymore. The virus – incredibly – has put forward this opportunity to move forward, to be more aware, to be more capable of listening. ‘Everyone has a responsibility to work on themselves. So I work on me, you work on you. Imagine a world where everyone is truly taking care of themselves, truly conscious. We are at the beginning of a great awakening.’


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