We spoke to activist and entrepreneur Paola Diana about women’s rights, tackling the boys’ club and embracing the power of change
How to change your life for the better
‘My story is a story of change,’ says Paola Diana down a crackly phone line. We’re in the midst of lockdown, and so face-to-face interviews are out of the question. But that doesn’t stop her words really hammering home the power and possibility of change.
If you need an example of how embracing change can transform your life for the better, you only need to look at Diana. Born in Italy to an unhappy, oppressive family situation and a violent father, as a teenager Diana decided to alter her stars. She broke ties with her family and enrolled herself in the University of Bologna, graduating with a BA in Political Science and an MA in International Relations.
She then jumped headfirst into the world of politics, heading up the thinktank PariMetro (‘Equal Merit’), working with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s political campaign and lobbying the government for increased women’s rights and equality. And she was successful: her bill to make 30 percent of all company board members women became Italian law. Since then, she’s moved to London, raised two children as a single parent and founded four successful companies.
Diana puts her achievements down to being able to embrace change. ‘I think it’s important to learn to change. I strongly believe mindset is what makes the difference in life, between people who can succeed and those who can’t. And I’m not just talking about money – I’m talking about following your passions in life and being satisfied with what you have.’
She’s recently started a new YouTube series (also available in podcast format), Unleashed: The Game Changers, in which she explores subjects like racism, empowerment and resilience with people like activist Gina Miller, Tracey Woodward, former CEO of Aromatherapy Associates, and poet and author Lola Shoneyin.
‘I thought it’d be a good idea to change and become a YouTuber in my forties,’ laughs Diana, ‘because I have access to incredibly inspiring people who have done a lot in their lives, and have faced very important challenges, and they’ve overcome them and achieved success and peace of mind.’
From recording Unleashed, Diana has learnt that change is possible at any age – something that women in particular should pay attention to. ‘Women think when they have children or they turn 30 or 40 that their life is set and they can’t change. It’s not true. You can find the love of your life at any age, you can change your profession at any age and you can invest in yourself at any age. What makes you a better person is constantly learning.’
And there’s never really been a better time for embracing change. There’s a palpable thirst running through society for learning, growing and being better than we were yesterday, whether that’s through the #MeToo movement, the climate emergency or Black Lives Matter. ‘If you just accept things you lose. That’s why I love the time we’re living in now,’ says Diana. ‘I can see that people are tired and are saying “enough”.’ But she also wants people to do more than just march. ‘It’s very important to protest, but then you have to vote. Political vote is a major form of protest.’
Central to Diana’s agenda for change, and to Unleashed, is tackling women’s inequality. A proud feminist, women’s rights have been her focus from the very start of her career. ‘I saw the boys’ club close up,’ she explains of her time working with Romano Prodi in Italy. ‘I’m not saying all powerful men are bad, they can be really good men. But sometimes they don’t like women and they don’t want to share their power. They tend to give power only to their friends or to people who are similar to them, who went to school with them, who play golf with them. And they don’t understand it’s not good when there’s no diversity.’
Back in Italy, Diana did a lot of lobbying to get her message – that there need to be far more women’s voices in the public arena – across. ‘We deserve to be there where the decisions are made. I truly believe having more women, and more feminists, in powerful places – politics, finance, economics, universities – would really change the world.’
She believes there’s yet another boys’ club running the show in UK politics right now. ‘The people who hold all the power are men. And if you look at all the decisions they’re making now to boost the economy [after lockdown], it looks like they forgot women and families. They’re investing in construction, but what about welfare? What about carers and nurses? They’re mostly women and they’re underpaid, although they’re risking their lives every day.’
Although she has no plans to go back into professional politics right now, Diana will never stop speaking out on behalf of women. ‘I think activism is part of my DNA,’ she laughs. ‘I love to speak up and stand up when I see an injustice.’ She’s writing another book tackling women’s rights and, in another professional gear-change, is hoping to film a couple of documentaries later this year.
Above all, Diana’s hopeful about the future because of the younger generation of women and girls. ‘They know what they want, they don’t mess around, they’re not just obsessed with how they look – they understand there’s much more to being a woman,’ Diana explains. ‘I had to fight so much against myself and the culture, it was a constant struggle when I was a teenager. Girls nowadays don’t want to go backwards, they want to have power, freedom… everything men have always had.’
Learning to change may be one of the hardest things we can do, but women like Diana prove that it’s always worth it in the end.