Bringing Italy to the dinner table, one olive tree at a time

Photo by Tyra Wu ‘19 | Julia Franchi Scarselli ’18 recently launched an olive tree adoption company, Libellula, after winning third place in the Draper contest.


Tyra Wu ‘19
Associate Editor 

As a first year, Julia Franchi Scarselli ’18 decided to enter Draper on a whim. She received an email about a participant who needed a teammate to create a prototype using Rhino, a design program that she was familiar with, and decided to help out. On the day of the competition, she looked up at the people giving their pitches on stage and thought to herself, “I could never do that.” Just a year later, Scarselli stood on that same stage as the third place winner for her company Libellula, an olive tree adoption company.

Starting Libellula was something that she had dreamt of since her first year, when her father moved to Montelibretti, a town just 40 minutes north of Rome. Most people, including Italians, think of Tuscany when they think of Italian olive oil. However, Montelibretti is part of the ancient Sabina region, the first region in Europe to cultivate olive oil. Accordingly, the land in Montelibretti is lush, green and completely covered in olive trees. It’s this town, among remnants of medieval fortresses, that holds the olive oil known as the “Gold of Rome.”

Many people in the U.S. will spend $30 on extra virgin olive oil that is not even pure, Scarselli says. Oftentimes the bottle will say “made in Italy,” but will actually be a blend of olive oils from Spain or Greece. Libellula is designed to establish a solution to the practice of family olive oil cultivation and provide customers in the U.S. with an authentic piece of Rome.

“My idea was that you’re not just buying a product anymore, you’re adopting the tree,” Scarselli said. “You’re getting the product directly from the source so it’s guaranteed that it’s organic.”

The expansive olive oil industry in Montelibretti is very family-oriented, as many families own over 200 trees that they inherit over generations.  “People my age that I met while I was there know that when they reach a certain age, they’ll inherit all of those trees. They’ll have to find ways to keep on cultivating because they do it really out of passion and tradition,” Scarselli said. “I realized that we should connect these families to the market and the U.S.”

Scarselli has adopted a family-oriented business style. Over the past year, she has worked to develop the company with her father, eventually hiring a local of Montelibretti as a marketing intern. Scarselli stresses the company’s family to family model, referring to new customers as additions to their family. Their team is small, allowing for direct communication with customers. Scarselli’s personal phone number is even listed on the website as contact information.

Scarselli initially created Libellula’s business plan for one of her classes, however, she was eventually convinced to enter Draper by the director of the Conway Center for Entrepreneurship, Rene Heavlow.

Because Scarselli decided to compete in Draper so last minute, she had just three weeks to prepare. Although she scrambled to prepare, her company impressed the judges, earning her a $2500 cash prize that she used to travel to Rome during the summer and start Libellula. While running the company has been extremely time-consuming (she admits that she often goes to sleep at 3 a.m.), Scarselli is in no way neglecting her academics.

“My majors are very relevant to what I’m doing. I’m environmental science and architecture, so the environmental science is very relevant and architecture for the creative aspect,” Scarselli said. “It’s just being much more efficient with my time. I think of it as a sport. If you do crew, you’re really busy, but you find time to do your schoolwork. It’s kind of taking the place of my sport.”

Even when confronted by setbacks, Scarselli recalls the struggles in a positive light. While she had initially planned to launch the website on Jan. 1, the launch had to be delayed until March 10. Because Scarselli didn’t want the company to seem unreliable, they were able to turn this setback into a positive, using the extra time to create a presence on social media. Their marketing efforts paid off; in the first ten days, Libellula received 26 olive tree adoptions, with President McCartney as the first customer. Scarselli credits the Smith community, from the resources to the encouraging alumnae community, as one of the main reasons for her success.

“Having Smith be so supportive made everything feel more feasible,” Scarselli said. “The support behind me was incredible and I had something to fall back on if I needed a support system.”

While the process of starting Libellula has been intimidating at times, Scarselli stresses the importance of risk taking saying, “You’re never going to get to where you want to be if you don’t take risks, because usually where you want to be is the hardest to get to. You have to go through many roadblocks.”

This attitude toward hardship has allowed Scarselli to establish herself as an entrepreneur while balancing student life. But most of all, Scarselli believes that her passion has set her apart from her competitors and even convinced Tim Draper, the founder of Draper University to invest in her business.

“You have to really connect to yourself. You’re going to be working on this day and night. If you’re passionate about it, it’s a much smoother ride.”

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