MILAN — The Ermenegildo Zegna Group has earmarked 25 million euros, or $34.3 million at current exchange, to stimulate excellence in Italy.

This story first appeared in the February 20, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In a tightly packed press conference on Wednesday, kicking off Milan Fashion Week, Paolo and Gildo Zegna, president and chief executive officer, respectively, of the Ermenegildo Zegna Group, presented the Ermenegildo Zegna Founder’s Scholarship as a tribute to the founder of the giant men’s wear firm. Every year for 25 years, the group plans to provide 1 million euros, or $1.3 million, to enable talented Italian graduates to pursue postgraduate studies or conduct research outside of Italy. The funds will be granted on condition that those students return to Italy upon completion of their programs abroad.

Paolo Zegna described the scholarship as “timely,” at a moment in Italy’s history “when the need to think of the future of the younger generation” is paramount in the country, plagued by rampant unemployment. “There is a need for deep changes and strong solutions, to set the foundations for the future,” he said.

Zegna said the project had been in the works for almost two years. “We hope it may serve as an example, too, after almost 50 years since the death of the founder, who always believed in professional schools, quality and internationalization. In remembrance of him, but also as a sign of respect, as a wish that the world will continue to progress,” he concluded.

Gildo Zegna said that “culture and research are two strongholds,” and that “without culture there is no development.” The executive spoke about Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister-designate. “He is young, energetic and fit to bring the country forward,” said Zegna, urging changes, “otherwise our younger generation will be unmotivated, without faith in the future and negative on the growth of the country.”

Zegna said the project marks “a strong message between private and public. Our group has always been deeply conscious of its public duties and responsibilities, in line with the teachings and values of our grandfather Ermenegildo. Offering a real, albeit partial, alternative to the so-called brain drain is part and parcel of taking responsibility for the future of our country.”

Gildo Zegna and Rosario Bifulco, president of medical technology firm Sorin SpA, will be members of the selection committee, chaired by William B. McGurn of the international law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP. McGurn said the selection will be “rigorously meritocratic, but the structure will be light. We will ask rectors of eight Italian universities, from Milan’s Bocconi to Turin’s Polytechnic, to indicate two or three candidates of exceptional talent after their acceptance for postgraduate study or research programs at world-class foreign universities or research centers without limiting the subject matter.”

The committee will interview 16 to 24 candidates to finally select 10. “In the future we will probably increase the number of academic institutions we will talk to,” he said. The candidates, also selected based on their desire and ability to contribute to Italy, will be able to pursue a master’s degree for a maximum of two years or a doctorate for a maximum of three years, after which they may work abroad for a limited period of time before returning permanently to Italy. Zegna Scholars will receive up to 50,000 euros, or $68,624, annually in financial assistance. The specific amount awarded to each candidate will be based on demonstrated financial need. Scholarship recipients who choose to pursue careers outside Italy will be expected to repay the amounts awarded to them, so that they may be used to fund scholarships for future candidates. McGurn clarified that “the funds can be reimbursed over five years if the student does not return to Italy. It’s a loan without interest, and it’s not a punitive system.”

McGurn, who has been a longtime friend of the Zegna family through mutual friend Domenico De Sole, said on the sidelines of the conference that “the reference of the scholarship to the founder is correct. He had a strong philanthropic commitment from the early days.”

He said the family has been quietly making “annual low-seven-figure gifts to several institutions, often in the Biella area. This is an attempt to do something on a more national scale. It’s a continuation of a philanthropic commitment that is very much part of the Zegna family tradition. It’s a big commitment for a long time, and open to everyone, there are no limits. Limits limit you.”

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