Interview with Giorgio Kolaj, Co-Founder of Famous Famiglia/
Born to fleeing Kosovar Albanian parents, I was born in Atina (Roma), Italy in 1969, the youngest of five children. Six weeks later, my father passed away. Six months after this tragedy, my mother arrived with us to the United States. This was the humble beginning our journey toward the American Dream.
Though the early years were a struggle, our mother always had a way of turning the hardships into opportunities of instilling in us core values through the lessons of life. Through chores and responsibilities, we learned the value of discipline, teamwork, and commitment. We began working early on in our youth, and through the years gained much experience in the pizza industry in New York City. And, by the summer of 1986, we opened our own pizzeria, Famous Famiglia, in the heart of New York City!
Today, Famous Famiglia operates more than 100 company owned and franchised locations across a diverse mix of venues which include leading airports and transportation hubs, malls and shopping centers, colleges and universities, theme parks, hotels and casinos, stadiums and arenas, military bases, medical centers, motorways, and in-line urban downtown locations. The Famous Famiglia brand currently operates in the United States, Canada, Mexico, China, the United Arab Emirates, Ecuador, Ghana and Kosova.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend university in the U.S. I studied electrical engineering and computer science. I worked for 12 years in the high-tech sector, including global positions with IBM, as well as a software startup, which was acquired by publicly-traded giant, Computer Associates.
My passions include traveling, reading, drawing, flying airplanes, volunteering, and spending time with my daughter. I am humbled to serve on several non-profit boards, including D.A.R.E. America. – Giorgio Kolaj
Interview with Giorgio Kolaj, Co-Founder of Famous Famiglia
Interviewed by Ermira Babamusta
What are you currently working on? Tell us a little bit more about your company “Famous Famiglia”
Giorgio Kolaj: As head of global business development at Famous Famiglia, I am currently working on opportunities to expand our brand into new vertical markets in the United States, as well as expanding into new geographic territories. We recently inked expansion deals for the Balkans (Kosova, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia), as well as in Ghana, Africa. These recent developments mark the brand’s initial entries into the European and African continents, respectively.
What projects have been your favorites that you have been a part of and why?
Giorgio Kolaj: I must admit that working on the very first Famous Famiglia in the Kosova market has addition special meaning to me. Given the fact that my parents (and my siblings) are originally from Kosova, it is monumental for us to come full circle, one might say, with bringing our brand to “where it all began” for us as a family. It is quite humbling to be able to share the business that we have built and the global brand we have worked for more than 30 years to our homeland and with our community. To me, there is a sense of validation in opening a Famous Famiglia in Prishtina; the validation is for all that our parents have sacrificed and committed to in order to give us a better life. The deep sense of pride is one we have on behalf of our mother and father.
What three social issues are most important to you and why?
Giorgio Kolaj: I have often gravitated my resources toward the causes leaning to several social issues:
- Children suffering violent conditions (drugs, gangs, abusive homes, homelessness, etc.). Children our future, and if we do not responsibility to help guide, and coach, and nurture the next generation, then there is much we risk for the future of humankind.
- Battered women. I was raised by a doting mother, a loving sister, and have had the blessing of raising a wonderful daughter. God has allowed me to be surrounded by loving, and powerful, women. Each of them have had profound effect on my personality, character, and self-worth. I cannot bear to think that any society might condone the mistreatment of women.
- Support of war veterans. I owe the blessings of my freedoms to the men and women that wear the United States military uniform. I do not take for granted to tremendous sacrifices that these volunteers make on my behalf. Some have made the ultimate sacrifice to protect my freedom, in spite of the fact of never having met me. I am always humbled to meet veterans and especially the surviving family members of the fallen.
What was the most significant change you brought about in a project / organization?
Giorgio Kolaj: I would like to think that the most significant change (or changes) I have brought about in any project or in any organization I have been a part of is the sense of raising others above myself. Perhaps there is a selfish motivation on my behalf. But truly, I get genuine joy in playing a small part in someone else’s success. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to help influence other people’s successes, and as a result has gained the benevolent sense of accomplishment in my own heart and mind.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career?
Giorgio Kolaj: Well, I’m no spring chicken, so there have been many lessons. Some of the biggest ones would be (and I’ll keep it very short):
- There are no shortcuts to success, so do not waste your time and energy looking for them.
- There truly is no substitute for hard work. Every single successful person has worked very hard.
- The Golden Rule. Treat others the way you wish to be treated. Profoundly simple.
What are the most important values and ethics of a leader?
- Work hard
- Keep focused
- Build other people up
- Do not gossip
- Take risks
- Excellence matters
- Select your friends carefully
- Think big
- Be punctual
- Keep your promises
How can one improve their leadership skills?
- Surround yourself with winners
- Read fiendishly
- Find your passions
- Focus on small successes – make little wins
- Listen, then listen some more
- Learn from others’ failures, more than their successes
What is your advice for those who would like to reach higher in their career?
- Focus on one or two aspects of goal
- Learn everything there is to learn about your next career goal
- Invest your time wisely in achieving the small steps that lead toward your career goal
- Take a chance and meet with leaders in positions in similar career paths
- Find a mentor that is willing to invest in you and help you toward your career goal
- Neve…never…never give up
What are you an advocate of? What are your life passions?
Giorgio Kolaj: I’m passionate about several things, but to be in a position to advocate about something I’m passionate about, adds a more meaningful dimension. One particular case in point is the treatment and overall welfare of children. In addition to serving as the Chairman of the Board of the Boy Scouts – Queens Council, as well as the Board of Directors of D.A.R.E. America, I’ve also served in various capacities across several organizations chartered with the protection and preservation of children. Such services for children span the gamut, including: educational scholarships, after-school programs, drug and gang resistance education, homelessness, hunger relief, job placement, and more.
As the old adage goes, “the children are our future”. An investment in our children is an investment in the world’s future.
What/who inspires you?
Giorgio Kolaj: My mother has always inspired me. She was on the run, freshly minted as a widow, didn’t speak one word of English, not a penny in her pocket, no relatives in sight, and had zero vocational skills the day she landed in the United States in April 11, 1970. I personally witnessed my mother suffer on our behalf. I also learned more from this uneducated woman than all my university professors rolled up together. She taught me by example. She raised me with values. She shepherded me through all my failures and her guiding words would always lift me up, even when I did not believe in myself.
What are five characteristics that make successful leaders?
- Focused on executing with excellence
- Good communications skills
- Passionate about where they invest their time
- Influence others
- Empower those around you
What are your future plans/goals/projects?
Giorgio Kolaj: My premier goal is to be the best person that I can be, each and every day. I’m most hard on myself; I’m my biggest critic.
I hope to continue to contribute toward the global growth of the Famous Famiglia brand, while helping to launch as many American Dreams as possible.