A Taste For Adventure
Kitchen queen Stefania Zini enjoys blazing her own trails – both in business and in life.
By Samantha Gee
Stefania Zini isn’t afraid to go where no woman has gone before. In her twenties, she created the Russian chain of an Italian home furnishings brand from scratch. Today SCIC, which specializes in ultra-hip luxury kitchens, has stores in eleven cities across the country. But this native of Milan hasn’t limited her adventures to business; she leaves Moscow every year to spend a month exploring the untamed Russian Far East and in 2000 she led the first ever around-the-world truck expedition. The petite and stylish entrepreneur was behind the wheel of an enormous ZIL truck for 10,000 miles of the 24,000-mile journey. For half of the Russian leg, there weren’t even any roads.
Foreigners often come to Moscow for a year or two and end up staying for ten. In Stefania’s case, she knew all along that she would spend the rest of her life here. From the moment when she arrived in 1989 Stefania made Russian friends and made an effort to avoid foreigners – not such a difficult task back in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Even when she made brief visits to Italy, she couldn’t wait to return ‘home’ to Moscow. “In Italy you can find your position in life and stay there for 20 years,” she says sitting in her flagship store on the Garden Ring near Krasniye Vorota metro. “In Russia, you may be somebody today but tomorrow you might be nobody again.”
Stefania and a group of young Russian friends got their start in business importing garments from Italy and sending Russian souvenirs the other way. Having gotten a taste of international commerce, Stefania and her pals headed off to Italy in 1994 in search of a kitchen producer willing to expand into Russia. Realizing that they looked young and unprofessional (Stefania was the oldest of the group at 28), they used the little money they had to invest in some smart clothes. Still, when she first approached SCIC (pronounced sheek), Stefania was almost laughed out of their offices – despite the new threads. It was her good fortune, however, to be spotted by one of the management team who recognized her entrepreneurial spirit, took her under his wing and taught her how to broker a deal.
Once she won the license to operate SCIC in Russia, Stefania says the rest was easy. There were so few high-quality goods on the market and everyone with money wanted to redo their kitchen. She recalls the first visit of SCIC’s Italian directors to Moscow: they were initially dismayed to learn that the Moscow showroom of their high-end product was on the third floor of a modest trade center. But when they walked out of Stefania’s office they saw people literally queuing up to pay. “Back then our customers practically got into fights over who was next in line,” Stefania recalls.
As wealth started to appear outside of Moscow in the 1990s, Stefania cast her net wider and opened stores in St. Petersburg and a host of provincial cities. Today, SCIC has much more competition than it did a decade ago, but by Russian standards the brand is well established.
As Stefania’s kitchens, tiles and vases found their way to other parts of Russia, ideas of traversing the country began to grow in her mind. She hatched a ‘modest’ plan to drive her Land Rover from Moscow to the remote village of Uelen in Chukotka, at the northernmost tip of the Far East. It soon became clear, however, that a Land Rover was not up to the task of tackling endless miles of Siberian tundra, so she enlisted the help of famous Russian explorer Dmitry Schparo and his Moscow-based Adventure Club. In February 2000 Stefania and a crew of six men set out from Moscow aboard three ZIL trucks.
They arrived in Uelen after two months of brutal driving – the team made the most difficult leg of the journey, Chukotka, during the winter because lakes and marshes needed to be frozen in order for them to pass. Once in Uelen, they decided to keep going and try to make it around the world. Most of Stefania’s team had never left Russia and were keen to have the opportunity to see the world. Coordinating such an expedition of course took time and planning, so the team returned to Moscow for six months in order to make preparations, raise money and make arrangements to have the trucks shipped to Seattle. Having already succeeded in crossing Russia, they did not find it hard to broker sponsorship deals, with companies like BP, Aeroflot and SCIC.
The team made it around the world that year, rolling their huge ZILs first across North America to New York City, then from the UK across Europe through Kaliningrad to Moscow. Stefania says her travels have taught her many lessons, the most valuable of which is patience. Chukotka, where she now spends a month each year, is such a wild place and so many things can go wrong that she has learn to accept whatever fate sets in front of her. She loves the dynamic urban world of Moscow, but the placid life and landscape of the Far East rejuvenates this intrepid businesswoman.
Now, after years of “crazy wandering” she wants to share her experiences and expose others to the wonders of the Russian wilds. Following the success of her photographic exhibition to Chukotka in 2002, Stefania is now compiling a book in Italian about the region. “Open your eyes and your mind,” she urges her readers. “Russia is not only Moscow, St. Petersburg…and Lake Baikal. Look further!”