INTERVIEW WITH AFSOON NEGINY – Executive Master in Sustainability and Innovation

27 January 2022

Afsoon Neginy, COO and Sustainability Director at AGF88 Holding and Alumna of the Executive Master in Sustainability and Innovation at BBS, is one of the 100 successful women of Forbes 2021 and has recently received the Pambianco Award Le quotabili 2021” on behalf of her company. The award is given to Italian companies in the Fashion, Beauty, Design and Wine sectors that have the economic, financial and positioning characteristics to be successfully listed on the Stock Exchange within a 3/5 year timeframe. 

Afsoon seems to be the embodiment of the Made in Italy ideal of excellence: creativity, intuition, curiosity, flexibility and a drive for innovation are not only characteristics of her managerial style, but also part of her way of being. This is why we asked her to tell us her point of view on training, the future and sustainability

Let’s start with your extraordinary career. Can you summarize your career path? 

I moved to Italy at the age of 18, initially attending the University for Foreigners in Perugia and then continuing my studies at the University of Ferrara, where I graduated in Pharmacy in 1986. At the same university, I then chose to specialize with a Master’s degree in Cosmetic Science and Technology. I continued my education by attending the most important marketing and general management courses in Italy, at SDA Bocconi, the Palo Alto and Milan schools, Bologna Business School and I attended the London Business School. I integrated my managerial education with an interest in digitalization and sustainability issues, obtaining a Master in Digital Disruption at the University of Cambridge and, of course, the Master in Sustainability and Innovation at Bologna Business School. After starting my career in the laboratory, in the R&D department, in 1994 I was appointed Marketing Director at Davines, continuing in 1996 as Research and Development Director at Cosmoproject. From 1998 to 2014, I began my experience at Colomer Italy (a professional spin-off of the Revlon group, later acquired by a fund) first as Marketing Director of the Intercosmo brand, then as Director of the Revlon and American Crew division and, finally, as Business Director of the Intercosmo brand. In 2013, I won the International Women’s Profile Award, a distinctive recognition of professionalism and commitment to my field of work.

From March 2014 to June 2018, I held the role of Managing Director and General Manager of Beautyge Italy, the Italian subsidiary of the Revlon Group, a US multinational and leader in the cosmetics industry. Since September 2019 I have been Chief Operating Office Business & Sustainability Director of Agf88 Holding, one of the main Italian groups specializing in hair & skin care. 

I know that having a scientific degree, with a background as a pharmacist and cosmetologist, may be considered a bit unusual for someone working in General Management, but for me it has been a great and distinctive added value. To finish telling my story, in 2021 I became founder and president of Women4Beauty, an initiative that supports the professional development of women of all ages in the areas of leadership and empowerment. Also last year, I was named one of the 100 most successful women in Forbes magazine.

What do you think was the added value of the Executive Master in Sustainability and Innovation at BBS in your career? 

I experienced the Executive Master in Sustainability and Innovation as a bridge between my training, which, as I said, is in the S.T.E.M. field, and my career in the Business world. It was a very useful experience because it gave me a method and offered me the tools to set up a Sustainability program in the company I work for. It was two years during which I gathered a lot of interesting ideas, not only theoretical but also practical, and I had the opportunity to implement the sustainable innovation strategy that is now one of our corporate objectives. The time had come to implement new business models to support our decision to reposition and internationalize.

You work in a sector, the Beauty industry, where sustainability can become a key factor in various stages of the supply chain. What are the margins for avoiding greenwashing and facilitating a transition that is anything but simple and immediate?

Over the years, the Beauty sector has taken very important steps towards understanding the difference between natural and sustainable, two different paths that require different forms of communication. The natural origin of an ingredient does not always make the product sustainable, whereas when we talk about sustainability, we are entering a broader path, which starts from the design of the product through to a whole series of collateral actions. I find the latter a much more complete project and I am convinced that nowadays even the people who buy the products have started to attach the right value to this issue. In terms of sustainability, 40% of a product’s impact is the way the user uses it, and this is where the important role of companies in educating people about product use comes in. Another 20% is given by innovation, particularly with regard to the choice of packaging, while the remainder can include formulas and the greater or lesser biodegradability of its ingredients. Whereas in the past, to speak of a ‘natural’ product it was enough to put a very low percentage of a natural ingredient or essential oil, today we evaluate the product comprehensively in its supply chain, without neglecting any aspect and assessing the regeneration capacity of the entire process. Just think, for example, how much water you can waste washing your hair or taking a shower, or the impact of transport or energy costs during production. It makes me smile to see that today we are going back to using technologies, such as soaps, powders or anhydrous products, from 20 or 30 years ago, which had gone out of use and are now useful again.

In conclusion, I think there is little room for greenwashing at the moment: of course, there is always the risk of misusing the word sustainable (which has replaced the word natural), but thanks to certifications and laws that impose more and more limits, communication has become more verifiable and transparent. 

You have a decidedly international study and career background. From your point of view, where does the Italian business system stand in terms of sustainability and innovation?

We know that Italy is not mentioned for top sustainable companies today. However, much is being done in the Beauty sector and the Italian market plays an important role in cosmetics. In the make-up sector, around 65% of world production is done in Italy by third-party companies. Even in the Hair sector, especially in Europe in the professional field, we have another important market share, represented by our industrial companies. Innovation in terms of sustainability is one of the five most important trends. Today, all cosmetic companies, as well as having undertaken a profound evolution of distribution channels with the introduction of e-commerce, are concretely working on paths towards sustainability. So, I would say that, at least in the world of beauty, Italy will play a very important role in the very short term.


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