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Luisa Grappone never imagined she’d be working in the cycling industry. In fact, her real dream was to be an astronaut. So, after the Italian finished her master’s degree in aerospace engineering, she applied to an internship with the then-European Space Agency, and she got very close to working in the sky.
“It was to be on this team of people that teach astronauts what do to for their specific mission,” she told VeloNews. “The company approached me because I was young and willing to move, so I spent a week in Germany preparing my interview, which was preparing a lesson for these astronauts. I had to study the satellites and then I had to prepare a lesson for these astronauts. A month later I was called back for the second interview when they were preparing for the Columbus mission so I could enter the Columbus module.”
When Grappone was turned down for someone with more experience — she was only 25 at the time — she was distraught. Her job at the time, doing stress analyses on Boeing 787 jets, was uninspiring and sapping her sense of purpose. She had wanted to leave Italy, and the job in Germany would have been a perfect escape route. She was convinced she had missed the one opportunity.
Grappone then began a conversation with an English recruiting company, and after a month of back and forth, someone there had found a job that seemed like a perfect match for the engineer. Grappone figured that given her experience (aerospace) and desire to live abroad that it must be a position somewhere else in Europe.
“They were like ‘the company is in Italy!'” Grappone said. “And then she told me the company is in the cycling industry. I was like, ‘well, I don’t want to go to Bergamo where it’s cold and people are cold, and . . . I don’t want to work in the cycling industry, I’m an aerospace engineer working on the 787.”
Begrudgingly, Grappone agreed to travel to northern Italy to meet the team at 3T Cycling; she hasn’t looked away from bikes since.
“I said, ‘well I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing and now I have the opportunity to change my life, and I always say that was the best choice ever.”
Old school tradition
Grappone’s nearly five years as senior product engineer at 3T firmly grounded her dreams of working in the sky. At 3T, she managed a small team and owned projects “from the sketch on the computer to going to team training camps to bike shows.” Although she wasn’t a cyclist before working at 3T, she became one almost immediately.
“When you start to work on something and you’ve done that handlebar or that seat post and people would say ‘have you tried this?’ I’d say no,” Grappone said. “As an engineer, you can work on something, test it, see it become something tangible and real and you can have it on your bike and that’s great. So I became a cyclist, and now I can’t live without it.”
At 3T, Grappone worked on product design and development of both components and wheels, but one of her favorite aspects of the job was her role as the brand’s pro teams liaison engineer. She spent a lot of time with the Cervelo TestTeam, “one of the first cool proper women’s teams at the time.” Working closely with athletes like Kirsten Wild, Lizzie Deignan, and Emma Pooley became yet another experience that reinforced the notion that Grappone had found the industry she wanted to be in.
So, in 2013 when Grappone was approached by Campagnolo to focus on the design and development of high end carbon wheels, she knew enough to know that checking out the venerable Italian brand would be a good career move.
Grappone would spend four years at Campy, designing and developing three wheelsets — the Campagnolo Bora 50/35, Speed 40/55, and the Racing 4 Carbon. However, she didn’t have nearly the same amount of freedom to innovate as she’d had at 3T, and she found some resistance to concepts like wider rims and tubeless tires from the ‘old guard’ at the company. She missed being involved in more than just product and design, so she started to look around, again.
“I wanted to go back and be part of ‘the bike world’ like I was at 3T,” Grappone said. “At Hunt it was like that.”
New school innovation
Grappone stumbled upon Hunt Bike Wheels the way a good journalist finds a story: she saw something in a magazine. It wasn’t a job posting, but Grappone figured she had nothing to lose by contacting the young start-up in the UK.
“I said, ‘well I think I am good, I think I can introduce myself and tell them what I am what I can give to them and what we can do together. If they don’t want me or they don’t need me, I won’t lose anything,'” Grappone said.
Grappone still desperately wanted to live abroad, and she now had enough experience to know that she wanted to lead a team, not just be part of one like she had been at Campy. She sent an email, her CV, and a portfolio, and Hunt replied, “‘wow!’ And then, ‘we can’t afford you.'”
At that time, Hunt didn’t have a senior product engineer. And, Grappone is patient. So, the conversation didn’t end there, and eventually, a three-hour Skype call led to an in-person interview in Brighton a month later, and two weeks after that, Grappone had an offer. Two months later, she packed up and moved across the pond.
With nearly ten years of product design and development on her resume, Grappone could have commanded a high rate. But it wasn’t about that.
“I wanted to get a source of recognition for what I could bring and do which wasn’t possible at Campy,” she said. “I have to say, I knew the company was a small one and obviously they paid me more than what I was earning at Campy but not as much as I should have made at that time. They weren’t in a position to afford me, but for me, I was impressed by the company, the attitude, and the people there.”
Grappone dove into the daily grind at Hunt, assembling her team and beginning to work on the design and development of new wheels. She designed a box chamber for doing in-house tests and analysis. She traveled frequently to Taiwan and China, where Hunt already had good suppliers but lacked a person who could communicate with them with the same level of expertise that Grappone had.
At Hunt, Grappone found two things that had been lacking in her previous job. One, she was managing the entire life-cycle of the products she designed and developed, working with the supply chain and sales teams in order to carry out successful product launches from initial concept through prototyping, testing, and mass production. Two, she found a shared commitment to innovation among the entire team, something that had been lacking in Europe.
“Many of those incredible Italian brands were so stuck in the past,” she said. “Those great American brands, they came out of nothing. SRAM? They came out of nothing, and now they make everything. Not just numbers but quality of products, ideas. You can’t only lean into your heritage and tradition. It’s technology in the end and you need to be up to date with that.”
Grappone’s desire to innovate and lead others through the entire lifecycle of the products she designs and develops was met with equal fervor at Hunt. From initial concept through prototyping, testing, and mass production, Grappone’s stamp on Hunt’s road, mountain bike, and gravel wheels is indelible.
At Hunt, Grappone has been able to set the sky as her limit, without even going to space.