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Francesco Cena “Frankie” is an entrepreneur, host, singer, debater and CEO of Fostering Debate Talent Academy. A multi- talented individual, Frankie has competed in many competitions from debates to singing to Mr. World and even hosting Miss World; we dive into the busy life of Frankie.
What’s your story?
I love to divide my story in to two parts. The first is about a young boy that really enjoyed public speaking, and years later opened up his own business—Fostering Debate Talent (FDT) Academy. I was a debater and public speaker throughout high school, and a debate and public speaking coach throughout my university degree. My students did very well—they travelled throughout Canada and the world and won many many championships. So I got to a place where I could open a debate coaching business based wholly on my own brand. We’re about to enter our second year and I couldn’t be happier with the way the business has grown, how many people we’re impacting, and the fact that I get to work with my mom and sister, who are both integral parts of the business.
The second part of my story is about a young boy who always just loved to perform, and eventually got to host Miss World, the world’s oldest and largest beauty pageant. To get there I took singing lessons and performed on stages around the world, and also pursued acting, modeling and hosting. Eventually I represented Canada at the Mr. World competition, and was very fortunate to have won that competition’s talent portion and to have placed in the top 10. I was even more fortunate to get a call, two years later, to host the next edition of Mr. World; and, later that same year, to host Miss World 2014. I take my performance career just as seriously as my coaching career, so a lot of my story up until now has been about trying to become an absolute success in both.
How did you develop a passion for singing?
People ask me this a lot, and the truth is—I don’t really know why I love singing so much. I don’t think I have any singing role models, or huge moments in my life that turned me into a singer. All I know is that, as a kid, I wrote songs with my neighbours, watched American Idol religiously, begged my music teacher to let me join the choir a year early—and was just always sure that it was my dream.
But I also remembering losing a lot of singing competitions, as a kid. So even though I was the most committed to it, I wasn’t necessarily the best at it, and I had to work very, very hard. I had to go back to those singing competitions over and over again in order to conquer them; to get myself on to some of the biggest stages in the world; and then, eventually, to win Mr. World Talent.
Why did you start a debate coaching business?
Before opening a debate academy in Vancouver, there wasn’t really a culture for instructing speech and debate through a formalized training program. I’d seen piano classes, I’d seen afterschool tutoring programs for English and math, I’d seen kids join sports teams, but why wasn’t there an elite academy for those who want to be the best public speakers and debaters in the world? For future lawyers, for future politicians? The market had a huge gap in Vancouver and, really, in the world, and I knew I had to fill that gap, and that this was the right time to do it.
But starting a debate coaching business was never really my plan—it was a passion, a volunteer activity, maybe a part-time job. That only really changed after I auditioned for The Apprentice UK. It was an enormous amount of work, and after numerous steps in the Apprentice UK process, I was asked, in the final round, to present a business plan. All that came to my mind was debate coaching. So although I was rejected from The Apprentice, I was left with this amazing business model which started to make me wonder—“Maybe this isn’t just a hobby, maybe this isn’t just a passion—maybe this is a business that needs to be implemented, in Vancouver.”
How have you been able to build a business yet keep your passion for singing and entertainment alive?
I used to really agonize over this. For a while I was convinced that my career had to settle in to some master plan, and that my passion for singing and my passion for business and public speaking had to be pre-balanced, in my head. “Should I go to university, or should I pursue my dream of singing? Am I going to become a lawyer, or am I going to try to be a television host?” At 26, I think I’ve realised that it’s much smarter to just keep my eyes and ears open for opportunities, and pounce on them whenever they come by.
When Miss World wanted me to work for them while I was just starting my company, for example, I thought to myself—“What am I supposed to do? I’m opening this academy, and here’s Miss World, asking me to fly off for ten weeks.” It was the toughest decision. But I knew that a contract with Miss World wasn’t going to come along every day, and that I had to take it because that was the opportune time to move forward with my entertainment career. So while I didn’t expect a lot of the breaks I got in singing, acting, hosting and debate to crop up when they did, I was also quick to strike when the iron was hot. And I think it’s the ability to let my career grow organically that’s helped me build my excellent business while also keeping my dream alive.
What has been your top 3 lessons from running a business?
Lesson one: Treat your staff and clients like family. This wasn’t something I’d planned to do before starting my business, it wasn’t a strategy, it wasn’t something that I was told or taught. It was just something that I felt was right. But what I eventually found was that, when you treat clients and employees like family, and you invest in them, they will be more likely to invest in you—to invest their trust, time, energy and resources into making your vision a reality.
Lesson two: Know when to let go. For my entire debate coaching career, I’ve relied almost entirely on myself. So now, as I’m about to start my tenth year of coaching, at 26, it’s been bittersweet watching our numbers grow—because growth means that I can’t do everything. It means that I can’t instruct every client all the time, or meet with every parent, or watch over every class, and it means that I have to let go of things that I’ve held so dearly to myself for so long. I let go by training my staff and trusting my staff, and trusting that my brand and my skillset will live on through them.
Lesson three: Work even harder. I will never forget the back-to-back trips—from London, England, to Newfoundland, to Mexico; coaching debate in one, training students in another, judging a Miss World competition in the third. But running a successful business means that you’re putting in the time in every way possible. So yes, that means getting on flights to do personal meetings, and flying back for a late night in the office with my mom and my sister, trying to plan our company gala. The job never ends. But if I don’t put that time in as the owner, I know that no one else will.
What has been your biggest failure?
I genuinely hate the world failure, because I think that every time I fail at something, I gain from it. And yet the word “failure” suggests that something bad has happened or that I wasn’t able to garner something positive from the experience—so that’s my first point.
But if I had to pick an event that I’m unhappy about, it would probably be not advancing on the X Factor UK. Four times. The first time, I told the producers about how I’ve always loved Simon Cowell and always wanted to sing for him. I told them that I’d actually had the pleasure of meeting Simon in Los Angeles during an X Factor USA audition, where I sang to a standing ovation—but he didn’t hear me sing. So after the performance, I somehow saw Simon Cowell and I pulled him over and said—“I’m going to sing for you one day.” And that, I told them, was what had brought me there.
And you would think that this story in combination with my talent would have led me right to Simon Cowell’s judging seat. But it didn’t. So the next year I tried out once again, made it through all of the stages, was called back, had phone calls to send my songs in to be prepared to go and sing for Simon—but, again, just didn’t make it through. And this repeated itself for a third and a fourth time.
So the amount of doors that I’ve had slammed in my face is a lot larger than the amount of times that I’ve succeeded. And that’s the truth. But as much that sucks, I’m still going to keep practicing what I preach and go back a fifth, sixth, seventh time—until I sing for Simon Cowell!
Tell us about your hosting Miss World and what you have gained from that experience.
Hosting Miss World has been by far the most incredible and shocking experience of my life. I knew so little about beauty pageants and hosting. So not only did I have to now meet a hundred and twenty women from around the world with different stories, goals, aspirations—I had to learn voiceovers, script writing, earpieces, reading autocue, teleprompter, live hosting, recorded hosting, interviews, in-depth interviews, all on the spot. The Miss World organization has given me fans, it’s given me followers, it’s given me my dream job, but most importantly it’s given me the training and the skills to become the ultimate host that I’ve always wanted to be—to be a Ryan Seacrest and to be a Jeff Probst.
So all I can say is, if you’re thrown to the wolves, don’t be afraid to fight. You could come out of it a completely different—stronger—person.
What has been your proudest moment till date?
The proudest moment of my life so far has been winning the Mr. World Talent competition. I had so many doubts and fears and insecurities going into Mr. World, surrounded by all these accomplished, amazing, beautiful men from around the world and always wondering if I was good enough. But when the talent portion started, I felt this incredible excitement, like I was finally living a childhood dream of being on American Idol or America’s Got Talent. There were rounds. There were eliminations. And after we’d gone from 50 contestants to 20 contestants to 10 to 5, there was even a finale and a final judges’ deliberation. So when I won despite all the negativity swirling in my head beforehand, it just redeemed for me a lifetime of hard work and passion and improvement and progress towards what I can only describe as my life’s dream.
What future projects/plans do you have for your business or entertainment career or personal?
On the business side, FDT academy will start its second year in September, and we will finally be in our own commercial space. This is the development from teaching at my house, teaching at client’s houses, teaching in a large residential property of one of my clients, to finally having our own storefront, our own signage, our own home. I can’t wait to expand the business, and we’re already looking forward to an amazing September school year with many new clients.
On the entertainment side, I hope to be back with the Miss World team, continuing off the success of the Miss World “Head-to-Head Challenge”, which is a project that I was invited to spearhead and work on last season. So I hope to be able to go back to the competition to do that, and be with the contestants in Sanya, China.
I also have another project brewing in the UK which could bring me one step closer to my singing dreams, but unfortunately due to contract I cannot say anything more at this time—so stay tuned.
What impact/message do you want to impart to young people who are looking to follow their dreams?
The advice I would give to young people who want to follow their dreams is to do just that—follow your dreams. But following a dream doesn’t just mean that you think of it once or twice, or once a month, or when you’re bored or when you’re happy or when you’re excited. It means that at every moment possible, you hold that dream up clearly in your mind. It means that you believe in it during the downs as much as the ups, and you pursue it to your fullest. And it means dreaming bigger than anyone else dreams, or anyone else thinks is “appropriate” for you—because if you can’t picture yourself as bigger than Ryan Seacrest or Justin Bieber or Lebron James or Versace, then no one ever will.