Sylvia Calvo i Fernández
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10è VOLUM. Biografies rellevants de les nostres emprenedores

Sra. Sylvia Calvo i Fernández

Founder and Manager at Sylvia Calvo BCN


Continual professional reinvention has characterized the career of this entrepreneur, who has managed to overcome difficult periods in her life and make use of her creativity. Following in her father’s ethical footsteps, she reformulated the company he founded, while also launching her own project. You can see her designs here: Needless to say, her new business has adopted the precepts of circular economy, a concept for which she acts as an ambassador.


I used to play with the typewriter in my father’s office

My earliest childhood memories take me back to those Sundays that I’d spend with my father at his office, while he resolved matters related to the ships docked at Barcelona’s port. Mariano Calvo, a man who taught me a strong sense of responsibility, worked for the company Trasmediterránea, on via Laietana in Barcelona, opposite the post office. He was in charge of managing cargo ships that were docked in the city’s port, as well as the company’s passenger traffic in the Balearic Islands. He also carried out agency tasks for foreign ships that docked in the Catalan capital, mainly from Russia. While my mother prepared lunch at home, we would spend Sunday morning in his office, where I would sit in front of the typewriter and enjoy typing on that wonderful contraption while he finished off his tasks.

A reputation carved out of the cargo between Barcelona and the Maghreb

My father had a major impact on me, even though his conservative nature meant he initially put his trust in everything related to ships and maritime traffic in my older brother, who was named after him. When he decided to found his own company in the mid-seventies, he could never have imagined that his daughter would become one of his main team members. It was one of the first companies to establish a container line between Barcelona, Algeria and Tunisia. Likewise, it became a pioneer in cement importation, at a time when there was a monopoly on this commodity in Spain. Because of both the strong masculine stamp on the sector and my father’s traditional disposition, he never suspected that one day I could end up in this sector. His company Cotinsa would eventually have its own container cargo ship, MV Cotinsa Catalunya. ftis business made my father a very well-known character in the freight market linking Barcelona with the countries of the Maghreb. He later went on to found Arab Shipping SL, a company dedicated to chartering complete cargo ships, mainly for the cement sector.

My mother developed an ingenious system for attending to foreign clients

Mercè was my mother’s name: she was a cheerful woman who spent many years working as a shop assistant at Calçats Torrents on Barcelona’s Gran Via, next to passeig de Gràcia. Her lively and decisive character, as well as her dedication and commitment to service, opened doors for her from a young age as an apprentice. With three brothers, the emblematic shop had been founded by their grandfather, a shoemaker who produced tailored footwear. fte store became something of a landmark in Barcelona, to the point that famous people who visited the city, such as the flamenco singer Lola Flores or bullfighters from the era, came to the establishment to buy their street shoes. It was a thriving business and the Torrents broadened their activity, selling accessories such as gloves, bags, clothing… and the shop grew to cover three floors, with sections for women, children and men. My mother worked in this last section, and she developed a particular skill for tending to the needs of foreign customers. She memorized a series of phrases that allowed her to provide a service suitable for clients from other countries: “Good morning”; “Sit down, please”; “Which size?”, “Black or brown?” Using the information provided, my mother entered the storeroom and chose those models that suited the client’s needs and, at the same time, had a higher score within the system they had created. When a foreign customer came to the department, the manager would request my mother’s presence, as she knew that her service guaranteed success.

I learned to attend to clients in Japanese in just ten days

My mother’s experience with the customers at Calçats Torrents didn’t go unnoticed by me. What’s more, years later, I would do something similar in my own work. I was working for American Airlines, at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago (United States), after the company had launched a route that linked the North American city with Tokyo. I had always had a love of languages and I decided to learn Japanese, to be able to attend to the Japanese clients that I might meet. Because I’ve always been a self-learner, I went to a bookshop to get a book that would allow me to get acquainted with the language. I found a very convincing title: Learn Japanese in 10 Days. Starting then, I would study a lesson with breakfast and finish the corresponding exercises every day. To achieve correct pronunciation, I turned to some work colleagues at the airline who had been hired especially because of their Japanese language skills, and I told them I was anxious to learn. With their help, I learned a series of formulas that allowed me to attend to Japanese clients in their own language, for example greeting them correctly, asking them where they were going, what their gate number was… fte customers thanked me and they were surprised and grateful that I spoke to them in Japanese. After repeating a similar formula three hundred times a day, it wasn’t surprising that the result was satisfactory.

In my neighbourhood, I had a room with exceptional views

I defined myself as being studious and diligent. Unlike my older brother, who was gifted with intelligence and a great memory, I had to dedicate a lot of time to my studies. My determination to follow my own path, to become an independent woman capable of getting ahead on my own merit, meant I put in all the effort I could. I had always disapproved of the image of a kept woman, and I promised myself that I would never marry anyone with chauvinistic tendencies. I went to a school in the neighbourhood of Barceloneta, where I grew up. ftis environment had a major influence on me, with its mix of coastal climate, the port atmosphere, the workers’ spirit… I was lucky to live in such an unusual house, with impressive views of the Barcelona port and the city. It was found at the crossroads between paseo Nacional and avenida Almirall Cervera. fte architect had left his mark on this post-war building: it didn’t have any ninety-degree angles because the architect wanted to “disrupt society”. When I was little this emblematic building seemed to have large dimensions and privileged views compared to many of the neighbourhood’s typical residences, and it made me fall in love with this beautiful city.

I started sixth form against my will so as to not leave my father in an uncomfortable position

I finished my secondary school studies with an extraordinary mark: 9.9 out of 10. Despite this, I didn’t want to continue studying. My dream was to become a singer and actress. Nor did envisaging a career at my father’s company inspire me to take up university studies. Nevertheless, my teachers insisted on my abilities and advised my parents that I should continue my academic career. But I resisted and I tried to make them understand that I didn’t want to continue studying. Back then, we used to spend summer in Castelldefels, where we ran into a neighbour who was the director of the Menéndez Pidal School, in Vall d’Hebron in Barcelona. My father explained the situation to him and, after speaking to him, he told me that he had decided to enrol me at the centre. He put a stop to my initial indignation and objections by arguing that he had already reached an agreement with the head teacher and that he couldn’t drop him in it now. I would have to attend for one year, as a minimum. ftat’s how I began my sixth form studies against my will. It turned out to be a complex experience, both because travelling from Barceloneta to the other side of the city was an excursion that required quite a serious time investment, and because of conflicts with other students. So much so that, when I finished the first year, I told my father I would continue studying elsewhere.

I left the incredulous Greek teacher speechless

After talking to one of the teachers at the Academia Barceloneta, where I had attended primary school, our dear teacher Mr Pérez told my father about my intention to continue my studies at the La Pedrera School, where this same teacher had been giving classes. ftat’s where I completed my sixth form studies and the pre-university course, following the arts pathway. Studying Latin was both a revelation and a challenge, but Greek was even more so. fte alphabet awoke a great interest in me. I remember that, on one occasion, the teacher warned us that there would be an exam the following week. He had done the same for three weeks in a row without ever following through. When the exam finally arrived and I completed it in record time, the teacher couldn’t believe it. He insinuated that I had cheated, as it seemed impossible to him that I could complete the exam in such a short time. So much so that, while my classmates continued to tackle the test, he invited me to come to the blackboard and challenged me to decline various verbs. To his great disbelief, I solved each of the challenges he set me without hesitation, until he was convinced that I had mastered the lessons on Classical Greek.

I gave up on a career in theatre to avoid certain humiliations

At sixth form I established that I had a gift for languages, which was something to consider when thinking about continuing my studies at university. Nevertheless, I continued to harbour dreams of being an actress and I took the tests for the fteatre Institute, with the hope of making this ambition a reality. At the audition I crossed paths with Carles Sabater, the late singer of Sau, who was also from Barceloneta and had studied at the same school as me. He was the same age as my brother, a year older than me, and Carles passed all the tests while I was victim of the selection process. ftis was traumatic for me, as I saw my dreams come to an end. Even then, I didn’t give up completely and I took various theatre courses in Barcelona for a year. Nevertheless, I ended up giving up, as I realised that to succeed in that environment you need to subject yourself to a series of humiliations that I wasn’t prepared to tolerate.

Surprised to see the level of English I acquired in just a month

Aware of my linguistic abilities, a friend who studied Spanish Language and Literature suggested that I enrolled in university. Nevertheless, this degree didn’t appeal to me, so she suggested I did it in English. fte problem was that I didn’t know English, because I had learned French as a foreign language at school. fte suggestion gave me something to think about. I realised that French would open few professional doors to me, while English seemed like an interesting opportunity. I resolved to become an interpreter and study at the School of Translators. However, the centre required knowledge of a minimum of two foreign languages, which would be an obstacle. Far from stopping me, I explained my plans to my father and suggested that he sent me to England to study English. He agreed to it and I invested my time in learning the language for a month. When I came back to Barcelona, I sat the entrance exams at the School of Translators. Places were limited and I was competing with many bilingual candidates, with whom I couldn’t compare. Despite everything, I wanted to get the First Certificate, so I signed up to an academy. fte centre objected, as my intention was to skip the equivalent of five courses. Finally, they suggested that I take a level test to evaluate my suitability as a student. fteir surprise was tremendous when they saw what I had been able to learn in less than a month in England …

The nocturnal schedule at university allowed me to discover the joy of studying

I then enrolled in Language and Literature at the University of Barcelona. fte first year was core studies and it allowed me to familiarize myself with Arabic, a language that I thought might one day be useful and allow me to help my father with his business in Algeria and Tunisia, and for which I achieved a Distinction. Once studies in English Language and Literature got underway, my classmates were surprised when they discovered that, unlike them, who had studied at the Institute of North American Studies or at the St. Peter’s School, I had attended La Pedrera School and my foreign language was French. ftere I struck up a relationship with someone who would later become my first husband: a North American who suggested that I transfer to study in the United States. It was a goal that seemed very far away to me, although not as far as it seemed for my father, who said that if I wanted to cross the Atlantic I’d have to pay for it myself. ftat led me to react and look for a job to save and reach my objective. I was lucky enough to find a position as a secretary at a company on rambla de Catalunya. fte work day finished at six in the afternoon. When I left work, I would go to university until ten at night. It was hard working eight hours a day and balancing it with my studies, but I managed to successfully complete my degree. At the same time, the nocturnal schedule meant that I crossed paths with older students. fteir maturity gave me a lot on an intellectual level, as some of them were professors with whom I shared the most enriching literary debates. ftat’s where I discovered what it was to truly enjoy studying as, up till now, I had only been making an effort to memorize texts.

Álex’s death was the hardest blow my family has suffered

I left for the United States in 1988, three months after I married my first husband. I didn’t want to move until I was sure that all my papers were in order. At just twenty-four years old, I thought Chicago seemed like a very interesting city. My parents visited me several times with my brother Álex, who was twelve years younger. I had a special bond with Álex, despite the fact that we had very different personalities. fte first time that he came to the United States, at thirteen years old, I enrolled him in a North American play centre so he could learn English while enjoying different activities. ftere he made friends with an American boy who ended up speaking Catalan. My aim for Álex was paradoxically overcome by that situation. My brother was exceptional. He had an explosive personality alongside a big heart. fte age difference was never an obstacle and between us we wove a special thread of mutual understanding. His life was cut short by a tragic motorbike accident at just twenty nine years of age, and it was the hardest blow my family has ever suffered.

The distress of thinking I had put people on the planes hijacked on 9/11

When my brother died, my relationship with my first husband had already come to an end and my career was stable. I had managed to get promoted at American Airlines. It wasn’t easy, but I put in all my effort, working sixteen hours a day for fourteen days straight. I went from agent to international flight coordinator, and then was promoted to the position of Customer Service Manager (CSM) and, later, I became sales manager (Southern California). Without a doubt, the most difficult moment was 11th September 2001, when two of the hijacked planes belonged to our company. As sales manager, I had played a part in ensuring that some of our agency and company clients contracted their journeys with us. Furthermore, it was a time when the sector was experiencing a certain crisis, which obliged us to carry out promotional activities. fte night before I had gone to bed very late because I was preparing the data presentation that I was obliged to do every quarter. For this reason, instead of watching the news on television while I had breakfast, I buried myself in the data accumulated in my head when I got up the following day. It was when I got in the car and put the radio on that I started to suspect that something unusual had happened. Because the journey to the office lasted barely five minutes, I didn’t have time to realise that what the radio station was talking about was happening at that very moment and wasn’t a past event. When I reached the office my colleagues were crying desperately; the telephones weren’t working and access to computers was restricted. When I looked at my mobile phone I saw I had dozens of missed calls from my family. fte anguish of thinking that I could have led some of those people towards the exploded aeroplanes took over me. Luckily, I later confirmed that none of the victims was there because of me.

I decided to return to Barcelona and take a year-long sabbatical

I stayed in the United States for fifteen years, with the last two of these spent working at American Airlines’ central offices in Dallas. My intention was to join the marketing department, which led me to study an MBA and move to Texas, which was nothing like cosmopolitan Chicago. ftere I had to live alongside people with a conservative mindset, who mainly supported Bush at the time. ftey were citizens with such a closed, Puritan mentality that I found it hard to adapt. I remember that at Iberia’s reservations office where I worked, we received requests from people who wanted to go to Spain but were prudish when faced with the possibility of going to a beach where you’re allowed to go topless, as if this would constitute an unforgivable sin that would condemn them to hell for all eternity. In Chicago I had enjoyed an international environment, making friends from around the world, forming part of the Spanish Association of the Mid-West (of which I was named president before travelling to Dallas), the International Council and intellectual associations that allowed me to enjoy conferences and other events that were of great interest to me. In Texas I found a more conservative atmosphere that led me to make a decision: go back to Barcelona and take a year-long sabbatical.

Impeccable behaviour, with ethics as the most important aspect

When I went back to Barcelona, my father suggested that I worked with him at Arab Shipping SL. He offered to show me the ins-and-outs of the freight shipping and cement markets. Curiosity got the better of me and I came into this masculine environment unaware that I would face unpleasant situations. “You’ll see Sylvia, everything will be alright,” my father would say. “All we have to do is to the right thing.” Expressions such as these defined Mariano Calvo, a person for whom professional ethics were the most important thing of all. He would also often reflect on where our company could be if we behaved like some of our competitors. But he preferred to be honest and to be able to “sleep at night”. If he was known for anything in the sector it was his impeccable professional behaviour, and many of his contacts were owed to this. Arab Shipping SL was not centred on transporting containers. Instead, it organized complete shipping expeditions. We worked with Saudi Arabia a lot, and an Arab sheikh was amongst our main clients. I often consulted with him on how to behave in a Muslim environment. Cement and clinker were the most common cargo. Moving 45,000 tonnes of cement in a month was quite typical. My father, who knew the suppliers very well, served as a trader. Although at first the cement was brought in bags, as we gained a greater market share it began to be imported in “big bags” to then transport cement in bulk and, finally, clinker, the raw material that is ground and treated in industrial furnaces with other aggregates to create cement. Importing clinker was at that time more economical for those clients who had their own facilities for grinding.

A pregnancy with a bitter end

At first, my intention was to return to the United States after a year, but first the desire to finalize some of Arab Shipping SL’s contracts, and then the death of my brother Álex, made me move to Castelldefels permanently. I managed to rebuild my life with a new partner and I was about to become a mother. However, in a new and cruel chapter, after a pregnancy that developed completely normally, a knot in the umbilical cord caused the death of my son, Christian, the day before I was going to give birth. Nobody had suspected that fatal outcome, as the prenatal checks indicated that the pregnancy was developing normally. If the delivery had taken place as it should have, my son would now be eleven years old.

The crisis, a scam and Álex’s death dug my father’s grave

In the period before the crisis, at the construction peak, we were importing a lot of clinker from China. Chinese producers, with the aim of widening their presence in the world, were ready to offer the most competitive prices on the market. If they reduced the price by one euro per tonne compared to the best offer, we had to consider this offer, as at the rate of half a million tonnes a year this was a considerable saving. ftey mainly competed with producers in Egypt and Turkey. However, all this activity suddenly collapsed. With the arrival of the crisis, we went from bringing in ships of up to seventy and eighty thousand tonnes from China to ceasing activity. Cement companies that unloaded in the ports of Tarragona and Valencia and were basically an empire disappeared overnight, or reduced their production, meaning that they no longer needed clinker because they were provided by the local market. Faced with this state of affairs, my father saw an opportunity to invest in Peru, to where the company’s resources were channelled. Unfortunately, he was the victim of a scam, for which he couldn’t be reimbursed due to Peru’s lack of legal security. Having reached the age of seventy five, this double blow to the business (along with Álex’s recent death) had a lasting impact on his health. After suffering two strokes he was wheelchair bound, and was unable to manage by himself. He needed permanent assistance in a home. On 3rd June of last year he left this world, proud to have maintained impeccable behaviour throughout his whole life, and that’s how many of his colleagues in the sector remember him.

Redirecting Arab Shipping

Although I maintained Arab Shipping, my current mission at the company is that of broker, providing ships to cover particular cargo. I have to thank the trust of an English client and a German shipowner. Without their trust and support our company would not have survived through these difficult years of crisis and change. fte first contract came about by chance, after this client’s surprise that a woman could be working on the cement and shipping sectors, given that it is such a masculine environment. We started handling twenty thousand tonnes per year (which for cement is a relatively small amount) and unloading at a single port, but over time, and after seeing their faith renewed, both in terms of the service and the specialized ships offered, we surpassed four hundred thousand tonnes and we worked in various parts of the United Kingdom. Providing special, self-unloading boats has contributed to this. ftey are much more effective, especially in this country, as they don’t require cargo holds to be opened, the cement doesn’t get wet and operations are carried out more quickly and effectively.

I wanted to learn dressmaking and after three months I was already participating in a fashion show

Although I was working in the cement freight transport industry, I always harboured a creative streak that was alive within me; without a doubt, it was inherited from my grandmother Paquita, who used to make trousers for a living. She lived with us. I remember her sewing tirelessly, turning any piece of fabric into impeccable men’s trousers. She taught me the basic concepts, as well as another piece of advice: “Listen to me, don’t make this your profession, it’s a tough job”. Nevertheless, I wasn’t very willing to take her advice, as I wanted to design and create my own models. I saw an advert in a local newspaper from a woman called Antonia who advertised that she was teaching dressmaking, and I went, keen to learn. She asked me to go to her with something I had already made, to see my level. I went with a biker jacket that I had altered for my brother with pieces of leather and a couple of zips. When Antonia looked at my creation, she said that if I was able to do that without knowing how to sew, she was willing to teach me so I could continue to grow. It was 2013 and just three months after starting classes with her, she suggested that I took part in a local fashion show. Despite my initial hesitation, I was able to present a dress that remained as part of a period costume exhibition at the Castelldefels castle for a year.

We need to move from a linear to circular economy

My life was turned upside down the day I happened to attend a conference on Biocultura in Barcelona, on the impact that the world of fashion has on the environment and on society. ftis session moved me so much that I didn’t buy a single piece of clothing for a year, just some shoes. From this, I became interested in the circular economy, a concept associated with sustainability, which advocates the minimum use of natural resources, as well as reusing all waste. A linear economy based on using up and throwing away currently prevails. Natural resources are used up while waste increases, which constitutes a serious problem. fte textile industry is one of the sectors that generates the most pollution. If we don’t put a stop to it, the situation will become unsustainable. It is estimated that by 2050 the world’s population will surpass 8 billion people. Organic growth will occur, above all in China and India, where the population aspires to consumption equivalent to that of Western societies, which puts the planet’s future in serious danger.

We created the Barcelona Sustainable Fashion Association

Completely identified with sustainability and the circular economy, I began to investigate and read up on sustainable fashion. I met Gema, who promoted marketing and networking events in Madrid, at a professional conference in Valencia. I suggested holding events in Barcelona and we began to organize talks with experts on sustainability in the world of fashion, and established that there was a lot of interest in the matter and, at the same time, a great lack of awareness. Along with five other professionals from different fields, we created the Barcelona Sustainable Fashion Association (Asociación de Moda Sostenible de Barcelona or MSBCN in Spanish), which reached 140 members. Although I began as the vice president, a short time after I took over as president of the organization, a position which I continued to hold until last February, when I decided to voluntarily give up my post because it was taking up too much time and I had to give more attention to developing my brand, Sylvia Calvo BCN.

A new lease of life for coffee bags

Last November I presented the brand at the Eco Fashion Week Australia (EFWA) in Perth (Australia), where I have been invited to return this year. fte key to Sylvia Calvo BCN is in one of the precepts of circular economy, which says that there is no material more sustainable than that which already exists. After thinking about this, I thought about the coffee bags that are used for importation. My father had a friend at the Port of Barcelona who worked in this area and, after telling him about my idea of turning the bags into garments, he showed me a storeroom where he had accumulated thousands of units. He thought I was crazy, just like everyone else I told about my idea of making garments out of coffee and cacao bags. But I wasn’t disheartened and I start to give these bags a new lease of life in the form of dresses that could be worn for going out for cocktails, parties, the office or simply taking a stroll down the street. fte secret was in treating the bags with affection, creativity and the quality of the finishes.

The challenge of getting a coffee bag on the catwalk

Launching a fashion brand turned out to be more complicated than it seems. One thing is setting up the workshop, designing a few garments and producing them. But making the leap to carrying out broader production requires a certain amount of investment. And this is the phase that I’m facing right now. All of this has obliged me to restructure Arab Shipping, working with a support person and remodelling the office, with most of the space now being used for Sylvia Calvo Bcn. fte slump in construction contributed to this redesign, where the challenge was to be able to take a coffee bag and transfer it to the catwalk as a fashion creation. Our collection was also shown at the Barcelona Ethical Fashion Fest (BEFF), an event that we created at the Barcelona Sustainable Fashion Association, at “Let it Slow” organized by fte Circular Project, and at the international MOMAD fair in Madrid. We have also participated on charity fashion shows in Vic and Alcanar, and all the ones organized by my first instructor, Antonia Garcia, in Castelldefels, Barcelona. At the same time, the video that shows our production process was selected this year for the prestigious La Jolla International Fashion Film Festival.

I was named ambassador for circular economy at the Barak Obama conference

In July I joined the Advanced Leadership Foundation as an ambassador. ftis organization recently held its Innovative Technology and Circular Economy Summit in Madrid. fte former president of the USA, Barak Obama, gave a lecture at the event, at which three hundred people were selected as leaders in circular economy. ftrough the Incyde Foundation, we received proper training to be able to serve as ambassadors for this concept, teaching society and especially entrepreneurs about the competitive advantages of this model, which is much more sustainable. Each ambassador commits to giving a dozen presentations about circular economy through conferences, articles, etc. Within the Circular Economy Foundation in Madrid, I am part of the textile work group, a sector with a low number of members, and we hope to provide a new vision and promote other models of creation, production and usage that are much more sustainable and positive for the planet and our society. With the same objective, I’m part of PIMEC Commission for Circular Economy in Barcelona. At Sylvia Calvo BCN our motto is “from waste to value”. We work to add value to our creations and be respectful to our surroundings, both social and environmental.