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Stefano Virgilli on Southeast Asia vs. Europe Culture, Cross-Border Communication and Surprisingly Common Touch Points

· Show Notes,Executive,Europe

The best way to lead, in my opinion, is to be absolutely frank, not two-faced, transparent whenever possible, but you don't need to say everything. But whatever you say, you say from the bottom of your heart, having thought through it without hidden agenda. - Stefano Virgilli

Yong Quan Tan: [00:00:30] Stefano Virgilli is the Marketing Director of Mitigram, the world’s largest marketplace for Trade Finance. Founded in 2015 in Sweden, Mitigram supports network creation and expansion for corporates and financial institutions; comprehensive automated quotation workflows; audit trail, analytics on asset pricing and activity data across multiple trade finance instruments. It currently facilitates more than $2.5Bn worth of transactions per month and has spearheaded over $55Bn transactions, across over 1,000 issuers and more than 100 countries.

Before Mitigram, Stefano was the CEO of Pocket Money, a credit startup that aimed to bring innovation in the Lending Industry by creating a global marketplace for lenders and borrowers. He built an online community with members in 25 countries, and managed an investment of US$750,000. He was also the CEO of VOX.sg, a podcast startup that interviews startup Founders and CEOs globally and asks them about the origins of their ventures, achievements, pain points, challenges with fundraising, competition and technology.

Stefano has had 20 years of experience as a veteran public speaker and strategic consultant, and specialises in empowering progressive business leaders to maximise their performance and potential of their teams through speaking, mentoring and consulting. He is a six times TEDx speaker and a keynote speaker at over 90 conferences. He has ventured in Europe, Africa, Middle East and Southeast Asia, leading and/or participating close to 30 businesses and startups.

Stefano graduated from the Università del Progetto with a Diploma in Communications and Design. He holds over 80 certifications and is the most certified Adobe trainer in the global arena, having trained 14,000 participants in his career.

Jeremy Au: [00:02:45] Hey, Stefano. Good to have you on board.

Stefano Virgilli: [00:02:48] Thank you for inviting me.

Jeremy Au: [00:02:50] Well, it's such a great way for us to connect because you have so much experience across so many different cultures and countries, and you worked on deals and companies from high growth to global expansion, and that's something I'm really excited to share your experience and personal journey with so many other people.

Stefano Virgilli: [00:03:08] I'm very excited too, Jeremy. Thank you for inviting me.

Jeremy Au: [00:03:11] So for those meeting you for the first time in a new country, how would you introduce yourself?

 Stefano Virgilli: [00:03:16] Good question. So I'm Stefano, I'm Italian, born Italian, and then spent most of my professional life actually out of Italy. I moved to Singapore in 2007, and then I had an experience in the Middle East for four years in Oman. And then one year in Africa, in Uganda, and then back to Singapore. Now, currently I'm in Malaysia.

So that's my logistic presentation because it talks mostly about where I lived, but I think it also carries a weight in terms of what I've learned culturally in adapting myself to different cultures, different food, different everything, ways of working, work ethics, and government relation, and all the rest.

I am the father of three children. They are scattered around because I married twice. So I have two children in Dubai and one child in Uganda.

I am currently focused on marketing, which has been the underpinning strength throughout my career, ever since I started working at age 16. And I'm working currently as marketing director for Mitigram which is a FinTech company based in Sweden, working specifically in the trade finance segment and corporate treasury of finance.

Jeremy Au: [00:04:34] Amazing. And could you share with us what first brought you out to Southeast Asia?

Stefano Virgilli: [00:04:40] Well, I'm an Italian. We are romantic. So I fell in love with a Singaporean beautiful girl that became then my wife and we have two beautiful children. I will also say that yes, that was the magnet that pulled me out, but I had already the intention of leaving Italy.

In 2006, I was already working for about 10 years. I was tired of Italy. I was tired of taxation, which was at the time, I think was one of the highest taxation in the world. I was tired of winter because I come from a very cold place in Italy. I was tired of crime because at that point in time, I was staying actually in a city that had quite a spike in... They call it the soft crime over there, but still it was burglary, pocketing, this type of things that make you sleep bad at night.

I was interested in speaking more English because at that time, my English was not good at all. It's not good now, but back then it was a disaster. And so I needed to move to a place where I was forced to speak English on a daily basis.

And also I was a bit annoyed with the cost of living because when we went through the transition from Italian lira as a currency to euro as a currency, we were penalized by an unfavorable exchange rate where our unit of exchange, which was the 1,000 lira back then was the price of a coffee, became one euro, whereas the exchange rate was 1.93627, which was basically double in every price.

I've seen this one happening with the coffee that went from 1000 lira to one euro. I've seen this happening with a pizza, speaking to Italian stereotypes from 6,000 lira up to six euros, and also for properties from a 100 million lira for an apartment in my city, to 100,000 euro, which basically doubled the price of everything.

And so I wanted to move to a place that have these five parameters. And I found Singapore where I could satisfy all of them. You might be too young to remember this one, but there was a time in 2006 where Singapore was actually affordable. I used the pay $2 for a chicken rice. My first rental in Singapore was 1,100 Singapore dollars, which probably now doesn't even get your room.

And I got the chance to speak more Singlish than English at that time. But taxation was definitely very favorable and I started opening companies in Singapore, and I became a PR in 2007 so it made it even easier for me to be part of the business ecosystem over there and obviously very, very little crime.

Jeremy Au: [00:07:19] One heck of a journey. And I'm glad you made it out here. And obviously I'm sure that you must have seen tons of different leaders along the way, you've seen different companies that you've led or been a manager in, or started off in. How have you seen examples of great leadership versus not so great leadership?

Stefano Virgilli: [00:07:41] That's a good question. Actually when I was a kid in Italy, I say a kid, I was a teenager and I was already working. I had multiple projects that I was working at, and one of them was an insurance agency. And one of the leaders there, Jacobi Baldini really changed my life forever I'll say, because leadership style, he was phenomenal. It was so fun to be with him.

And yet, because it was so fun to be with him and everyone wanted to be around him, he was strict when he needed to be strict and everyone was willing to comply with his rules because it was so fun to be with him. He was a magnet. Very handsome Italian gentleman. Never saw him not wearing a suit, never saw him not having the belt matching the shoes or the tie matching the socks. He was perfect.

And he was probably my age now. And I was 25 years younger or 20 years younger than now. So looking at it with hindsight, he shaped my way of communicating definitely, or running businesses because I always try to make it fun. I never got to the level that he was, he was a phenomenal leader, but I managed to implement rules within my organizations that were digested.

Often, not 100% of the times, but they say in 80% of the times if you speak to people that have worked with me, they would probably have good memories. I have some former employees that write me 10 years down the road. They say, "Hey, you really changed my career path." Or they will say things, "I really have fond memories of working with you."

I have some of my employees that one year after working with me, they say, "Today is my work anniversary, working in this company." And I mean, if they remember, it means that they made a note to bring that up. So I always try to make everyone feel comfortable and special, but I used to be hot-tempered and so that was a battle that took me about 10 to 15 years to win.

 Nowadays, I will evaluate the leadership based on how quickly someone lose their temper. And because now I very seldom lose my temper, I'm super chilled, super cool. Whenever there is a problem, "Okay, bring it on. Let's see how we can solve this one." And when I work with someone that lose their temper, that really hurts.

I had an experience in 2017 with someone that I would not mention, but it was my boss for a while and used to slam the table, punch the table, shout. And I kept my cool during those times working there.

But then whenever I had the occasion, it's like, "Hey, I'm not the one that punched the table there. You are the one that let this thing aggravate you and affect you. And I think we can work together without reaching that point where you get angry at the client, or you try to be one person on the phone with the client. You try to be cool and accommodating, but then when you hang up the phone, you start shouting bad words about that client, I think you are just two-faced."

And the best way for me, in my opinion, the best way to lead is to be absolutely frank, not two-faced, transparent whenever is possible, no need to say everything. But whatever you say, you say from the bottom of your heart, having thought through it without hidden agenda, which I think is the worst thing that anyone can have, a hidden agenda when leading a company and just be absolutely frank.

If someone is not performing, I think the best thing that you can tell them is say, "Hey, you're not performing." And the company needs to be focused on performance. I've learned how to draw a line between friendship and business, and seldom I make things look personal. Or I would say, the older I grow, the more wisdom I earn. The more I will say that is clear to me that one thing is being friends, and one thing is being professional on the job.

Jeremy Au: [00:11:19] There's a huge truth in what you said, which is that the leaders and managers that we looked up to, or that we learned what not to do when we first started our careers, we're now that age of those managers and leaders, right? And it's funny when you put it that way.

It's crazy how those 10, 20 years can really make a difference in terms of us realizing our own shortfalls and what we have to do differently. You mentioned that being one of your learning points over the years. Was there anything else that you struggled with as you crossed borders and built up your own communications and leadership skills over time?

Stefano Virgilli: [00:12:00] Yes, definitely. Even recently, now working with a Swedish company and you probably are aware that Sweden is a socialist country, which means that everyone's opinion matter. And when you work in Asia, it's different because some of the companies that dictatorship, not far ago, like 30 years ago and some of them, they are under stringent control of what you can say and what you cannot say until now, until today, which from one perspective, sounds funny. From another perspective, sounds strange. So I learn how to co-exist with the environment.

So probably the same way Jim Rohn says it. He says, "That's all you got, is the environment where you are. So either you change to accommodate the environment because the environment will not change to accommodate you." And so I'd say that yes, adapting is a simple matter of being open. So when I joined the Swedish company, I talked to the team and I said, "Hey, it's the first time for me working for a Swedish company. I'd like you to teach me what is the Swedish culture."

So some of them were very kind. They sent me some links on YouTube to listen more about their culture. Some others, they told me, "Hey, these are the things that you shouldn't say. These are the things that you should say." But when I went to Middle East, that was very interesting. I went for a meeting and during the meeting, in the meetings in the Middle East are large. So then it was one meeting where my team were five of us and the client's team, there were 20 of them sitting in front of us.

And so one of them came up with something that if I had to use a frank word, I will say, "No, don't do that." But I know that in the Middle East, there is a different degree of sensitivity to what you can say, what you cannot say.

So I said, "I would strongly advise against it." That was my sentence. So at the end of the meeting while I was driving back with my business partner there, which was an Arab, he told me, "Don't use that word again. Don't use strong." I mean, "What do you mean?" And he said, "Well, if you say you strongly advise, then you're emphasizing that you're stronger than him. And he might not like it."

And so I've learned that I have to modulate my communication to make sure that it doesn't sound that way, but if I used that word, strongly advise in Asia, it's actually seen as a sign of leadership and power. So it works differently in different places. For instance in Asia, I notice that I went under fire on an article that I wrote on a famous website.

But now it slipped off my mind. I don't remember, but I wrote an article where you have to walk in the room, give your business card and start talking business. In the Middle East, it doesn't work that way, in Africa it doesn't work that way, in Europe it doesn't work. Nowhere does it work that way, except in Asia.

That's the Asian way of doing business. So long that you are able to adapt, that's how you make it work in your favor. Recently I was talking to a friend of mine, which is an Indian, became Singaporean citizen, working in a company as a sales team leader. The team is mostly of Indian origin or Chinese. So there's obviously two different approach to sales.

And so she is in a position now where some of them are not performing. And so she's sharing with me, she's telling me, "What am I supposed to do? I'm trying to coach them." And sometimes I say, "Well, there is a line that you have to draw. You can't coach forever." You will realize that some leaders, sometimes they think on popular decision. You look at Jeff Bezos, the famous emails, the sentence with the question marks only.

Steve Jobs, when he died, of course everyone celebrated him, but then started emerging a few controversial views on him. Project managers, you had to work six days a week from nine to nine. That's how you're supposed to work. So leaders are not kind, the successful ones. And in fact, you're talking to one that is not successful. I'm not a multimillionaire and therefore I am not successful.

If you talk to the multimillion or multibillionaires, they are not nice people to be with. Or maybe yes, for a steak and a glass of coke, they might be fun people to have a chat with, but then working with them is really stressful. And I prefer to work, not to that degree of success, but going to work happy, not constantly on... I used to be in a race for earning as much as possible.

I'm not on that race anymore. I rather enjoy some time spent with my friends and go to work happily than being on a constant dog-eat-dog competitive environment. And probably I'm too old for that, or just too wise.

Jeremy Au: [00:16:12] And that's interesting because you talk about how you've been supportive for so many people and teams across different cultures and geographies. What are some common myths or misconceptions that people have about cross-cultural communications?

Stefano Virgilli: [00:16:28] An interesting question. I would say that the most common thing that I heard is everyone thinks they are unique. And I beg to disagree on the largest majority of common elements of culture and communication, which means if I go to talk to Malaysians, they will tell me, "Oh, Malaysia is different." If I talk to Singaporeans, they say, "Oh yeah, but our culture is different."

If I talk to Arabs, they tell me the same thing. Africans, they tell me, "Oh, in Uganda, it's different than Kenya." Or even in Italy, I come from North Italy, they would tell me the South Italy is different. So everyone will emphasize the differences and they will tell you to change strategy because if you use underpinning common strategies, they will not work for them because they are too specific.

But in my opinion, what they are doing, they are taking the 10, 20% that makes them different and think that they can buy based on that. Matter of fact is that largest majority of the cases, you will find an underpinning common ground. Take for instance, McDonald's, they enter in every country with exactly the same base products. And then on top of that, adds the flavor.

Here in Malaysia, they just launched the Ayam Goreng fried chicken for this region, or in the case of KFC in Indonesia that sells rice, which I don't think they do in the United States or wherever you go, there is a little degree of an adaptation, but the underpinning structure of cultural communication is exactly the same.

There are taboos that are cross-cultured that in these things you will not do anywhere. And there are also some other things that you have to adapt with, which is the spending power. When I was in Uganda the first time, I went for a meeting. I wanted to purchase a company and I went to meet the founding members of the company. And then we met in a cafe and then each of us ordered, and then the eight of them together, they couldn't pay the bill.

They didn't have enough money to pay for coffee and those little things that they ordered. And I actually took the bill, but that puts you in a completely different scenario where you're sitting with eight grown-up adults owning a company, and they don't have enough money to buy coffee today and maybe tomorrow as well. So it's a really challenging situation.

Not at all what I experienced in the Middle East where I purchased a second-hand car from a gentleman. And when we went to the police to register the car in my name, there were about 250 US dollars worth of fines on my car, which I didn't know . And he told me, "Don't you dare to pay your own fines. I'll pay for your fines." So you find the extreme of someone that is willing to pay my fines just for the sake of showing the wants to be friendly.

And on the other side, a group of chaps that I'm thinking of buying their company, that they did not have enough money to pay for my coffee. That was really interesting. Or for instance, in Asia, a typical example of the karaoke rooms, they try to shower you with attention that sometimes are even not welcome, but then you play along because you want to immerse or merge with the culture.

Jeremy Au: [00:19:19] Yeah, that's so true and that rhymes with my own experience. Many people ask me, "What's the difference between the US and Singapore?" And I'm like, "Well, the similarities are way higher between US and Singapore." I remember so many people that live in Singapore listen to Britney Spears growing up, and lots of Americans that listen to Britney Spears growing up.

So there's a lot of commonality here, but more the similarities when we're talking about differences in household income level, right? Those are the things that really drive a ton of difference in terms of outlook and even career path and things like that.

I guess one interesting thing that you've really helped spearhead a lot of the regional expansion for other companies coming to Southeast Asia. Setting up officers or helping them set up the regional office. How would you think about the advice you normally give to them for anybody who's thinking about setting up in Southeast Asia?

Stefano Virgilli: [00:20:12] That's a really good question. I actually got this question a few times in past few years. I'd say that Singapore is probably still the good spot to start with. I don't think it's going to remain the best spot moving forward, given the condition that the expat community, or let's say the foreign talents that go to Singapore, they are not enjoying it, being in Singapore at the moment.

In fact, I read numbers and I don't want to quote any numbers for the sake of not being wrong, but with quite a number of zeros behind of people that have left Singapore because they prefer to be in a place like I am now. I'm in Johor. Last weekend, I took my car. I drove one hour and a half. I was on the beach in Desaru for the weekend. In Singapore if you drive one hour, you can go from Changi to Jurong and Jurong to Changi.

There is nothing much that you can do. Moreover, the social aspect is limiting. It used to be that you go to Singapore because the social life is amazing. I used to live in Club Street in Singapore. It tells you a lot about my philosophy about lifestyle, but then when you strip that away and similarly, my brother who is in Bangkok is telling me the same thing.

Lot of expatriates say, "Hey, it's no longer fun to be here. I better move somewhere else." And that's where I think the countries in Asia are not putting enough emphasis on the fact that if you want to attract foreign talents, it's not just about money, but the way they spend the money. Spending the money is something that everyone does based on what they like. And if you start removing the things that they like, then probably they make a different decision.

Money is not everything, lifestyle is everything. So in one example, I worked for a Russian company setting up shop in Singapore, wanting to expand in Indonesia. There was a challenge, frankly, because it's not just about cost of acquisition of customers. It was a B2C model, but the cost of acquisition is just the tip of the iceberg.

You have a massive cost of localization. Language, first of all. You have cost of retention because you're not the only one entering there, so there is endless number of companies that are trying to do exactly the same thing. In fact, when they enter in Singapore, they had two competitors globally.

By the time they left Singapore, they had 51 competitors in the region. So it was just rampant. And it was a big lesson that I learned. But they sound very appealing when you think, "Oh wow, Indonesia, 280 million people. Vietnam, 100 million people. Philippines... "

Yeah well, people that don't speak your language. So first of all, you've got to adapt and localize, which is the same thing even in Singapore. Any underground, you have multiple languages recorded. Before the election for example, I can read everything I want to read about politics and I will get it from one, two or three sources that are in English language.

You'll probably go through multiple resources because you can read in English, you can read in Chinese. And therefore, you have a very different opinion that I have. You get information in Singlish from HardwareZone that I don't understand. And so you have a better pulse of the local communication I might even wish to have in 10 years, in 20 years and 30 years. And this one is experienced everywhere. When I went to the Middle East, of course I can read in English.

But guess what? The largest majority of the population speaks Arabic. And despite I can read Arabic, I can speak a bit of Arabic, but I will never grasp the full understanding of what they experience or what they think. I can communicate to them on a broader level. I remember having this conversation with my business partner in the Middle East and say, "You have to be like us. You have to be an Arab if you want to understand how to sell to Arabs."

Yes, true. Fair enough, but yet look, you're driving a car that is made in Germany. Your television is made in Japan. Your phone is made in Korea. Your social media is American. The cup that you're using to drink coffee that comes from Dubai, the cup comes from China. I mean, the manpower that built your house, comes from Bangladesh. The material comes from Italy.

Look, none of these is produced where you live and yet you bought it. So you can't expect that everything is from Oman and therefore you buy everything in Oman. You are adaptable and Samsung never changed their strategy when they came to Middle East. They do the same thing that they do anywhere else in the world. You like a product, you buy the product. If they don't adapt to you, you adapt to them.

Jeremy Au: [00:24:09] Yeah, it's interesting. I think the businesses have a very clear eye that they're part of a global system; suppliers and distributors, global players, multi regions, multiple nationalities, and multiple cultures, and just doing multiple activities all at once.

And at the same time, you're sharing something which is so true, which is that from an individual perspective, there's been especially in such a pandemic year, we've seen borders closing, we've seen every country in the world, European countries, we've seen America, we've seen Asian countries all throw out the borders and have that shrinking of the tribe, of the village to who's here. And so how would you think about that?

What's the... I don't know, win-win situation for the future where like you said, our daily lifestyle is only made possible because of how tightly everybody is working with each other across the world to make our lives possible. It feels like psychologically people are shrinking their tribes. So how would you think about that?

Stefano Virgilli: [00:25:08] I think we live in the present, generally. And so we have very short historic memory. I think within 2025, we barely remember what happened in 2020, 2021. As soon as things go back to normal, there will be something else to be worried about. There might be another war somewhere and there are plenty of wars happening every year. There will be another crisis, humanitarian crisis, health crisis, economic crisis.

This thing has been happening for the entire history of mankind. So it's nothing new. It's just that we live in the present and we worry for the present. For instance, when I hear the new normal, inside me, I laugh. Of course, there's no new normal. It's not going to be here forever. It's going to be for a few years and then it'll change. The same way when the internet came out and they were scoffing, "Haha, whoever, who will use the internet or the mobile phones?"

First time I showed up at the bar with my friends in 1997 with a mobile phone in my pocket, they laughed at me and said, "Why are you bringing out a mobile phone? Who's going to call you? I mean, if I need to talk to you, I call you at home when you are at home." Even video conferencing, you probably remember some of the community say, "It will never work because who wants in their right mind to have a camera in their house that might film you when you get out of the shower?" And therefore, they laughed at it.

Books like 'Fooled by Randomness' or 'The Black Swan', they talk about this topic in great details that you can't predict what will happen, but you can assume that everything will be pretty much the same.

I know as a kid in primary school, they say that by 2020, we would have had flying cars or would have colonized the other planets. I tell you, I don't think it's going to happen for the next 200 years or anywhere. It probably will never happen. We're just doing the same things with the same technologies that we had before and in the book, 'Anti-Fragile', they clearly make it a point that the longer a technology has been around, the longer the technology is going to stay.

The wheel is the longest technology that has been around. And guess what? You're still driving a car that has four wheels, four seats, or pretty much two in front and a few back. The steering wheel. Then as you can add on top of that technology, all you want, but the bicycle has been the same. Airplane, the cinema has been the same thing. Motion pictures, photography.

These things are here to stay. Then you tell me, "I can't travel." Okay, fair enough. I can't travel for now. Then you find countries that say, "Yes, you can travel." Uganda and Dubai, they are already doing that. No quarantine. Just go in and go out. It's okay. And in some countries, they will start to do that.

And then all of a sudden, the number one source of entertainment will not be going on a Singapore Airlines, landed airplane to eat a very expensive meal of decent or inferior quality, watching a movie on a small size screen because of the novelty. But it will be like, "Hey, you know what? The Mauritius, like random name, it may be any other countries. The Mauritius has opened up the border and no need for quarantine. I'm going to go there." And the first country that does do that, it will trigger a domino effect on all the others.

Now they are doing it in Africa and not many people want to go on holiday in Africa. But if one country say, "Hey, we are safe." They say that if you compare it to H1N1, the flu that hit a decade ago, they say that 1.1 billion people in the world had it. 1.1 billion. Now imagine there is that magnitude of reaching.

Today I read an article about Italy saying that up to eight million people might have had COVID already and just they're reporting 10s of thousands. Let's imagine that we really had to hit 1.1 billion with COVID, given the statistics say that in young people, the mortality is really little. And again, it depends on how you read number. If you say, it's double as deadly as flu. Yeah, but flu is not really deadly.

It's 10 times as deadly as flu. Yeah, it's still not deadly. I mean, you're at higher chances of getting killed today on the road in Kampala, Uganda, by driving the car to the mall than someone my age with my fitness level of dying of COVID within the next three years.

So I experience different level of risk and so sooner or later some countries say, "Hey," even now Malaysia announced last week, they say, "95% of the cases are asymptomatic." Cristiano Ronaldo yesterday tweeted, "The past is BS." I mean, sooner or later, someone will have to address the elephant in the room that the largest majority of people that test positive, is not sick. Sooner or later, for instance here in Malaysia, those that are traveling between the Kuala Lumpur and Klang, they test every day.

So the number of tests are enormous at the moment. There's a very large amount of tests and they say cases. They say, "Oh today, 800 cases." Okay, how many are sick? So if you do the math, the DG of health says 95% of them are not sick. They are asymptomatic. So out of 800, it's just a handful. 40 of them that have symptoms and they say mild symptoms. And those that are severe, are less than 10.

In a country with 35 million people, well, it might be either 10 today are severe for lung cancer and 10 are severe for car accident. In Johor, there was a massive car accident last week in Johor where people died. So eventually we can not stretch this on the law. You see the conversation now in Malaysia, they said, "We cannot afford another lockdown."

In Italy, people threw bombs to the police car last week because they said, "No, don't lockdown." People are going in the squares and chanting and singing. And saying, "I decide how I want to die, if I want to die at home or if I want to die in any other way."

So you will find more this one in Europe, because of course in Europe we started having democracy. Long time ago, I say the French Revolution in 1789 opened up the door to say whatever you want, but look at what's happening in Thailand at the moment? For instance, people are going in the street now and complaining about the approach of the King. So bottom line is, every country have their own struggle. Every country have their own approach. But I think that moving forward, those that are going to benefit from economics are those that are going to be inclusive, rather than exclusive.

Jeremy Au: [00:31:02] All right. Thank you so much for coming aboard, Stefano.

Stefano Virgilli: [00:31:05] Thank you for having me.

This episode was produced by: Tan Yong Quan

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