Hillary Clinton meets with Polish entrepreneurs and is photographed next to Ewa Plucinska of EVIP International, a consulting firm.
Two young Polish women entrepreneurs pose outside of their newly opened office in Warsaw.
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An unexpectedly large number of new businesses in Poland today are owned by women. Many are doing quite well, in manufacturing as well as in the service sector, helping propel Poland on its fast-track path toward a competitive market economy.

Today, women are estimated to own 20 percent of the small to medium-sized businesses (from 5 to 50 employees). They own another 18-19 percent of the total, as sole propriators.

It remains unclear how and why this is happening. The cynical view is that women got their footing in the market economy before Western-style discrimination had a chance to take root and hold them back. Another is that state socialism was good training for the flexible skills demanded by the new democratic market economy. Unlike men, women not only held down fulltime jobs but also handled virtually all the domestic duties in the era of shortages and few labor-saving devices.

There are other factors at work, however. Socialism rarely lived up to the rhetoric about equality. But many women took the equality principles seriously. When the system changed in 1989, they came to the market with self-confidence and as much entrepreneurial savvy as the men. Women used under-the-mattress money to start businesses, as did men. They forged their own futures, became their own firsts in franchising, in consulting. And they didn't suffer credit discrimination – there was no credit, early on.

In addition, one area where socialist rhetoric did approach reality was in education. Women from towns and villages as well as those from cities got solid educations, in science and engineering, medicine and law. They held university and scientific institute posts. Women rarely became factory managers – politics again – but often held high management jobs there. And they were on factory floors, in jobs the U.S. analysts called nontraditional in the early days of the U.S. women's movement. They were not nontraditional here. The Solidarity free-trade union movement began two decades ago with a Gdansk shipyard strike over the firing of a woman who was a crane operator.

Although some sectors dominated by women have collapsed, notably in clothing production, women also dominated other sectors that are fundamental for today's market economy, including accounting, banking and finance.

Powerhouse in Finance

While today's women have only a minimal presence in elected politics, (despite the highly regarded reign of Pime Minister Hanna Suchocka at a critical time in the Solidarity reforms), they are powerhouses in public jobs in banking and finance. That gives them credence and clout and expands the political space for all women in Poland today.

Hanna Gronkiewicz Waltz is nearly through a second term as president of the National Bank of Poland and has won international plaudits for a steady hand as central banker in protecting the currency and guarding against inflation. Another top NBP woman heads the bank supervisory unit which has sprearheaded efforts to detect and prevent money-laundering. When Italian bankers bought the $2 billion Bank Pekao SA recently, they negotiated with an almost all-female team including the Treasury Ministryís financial-sector privatization chief, Alicja Kornasiewicz, and the Pekao president, Maria Wisniewska.

The Boston-based Pioneer investment group recruited Polish emigre Alicja Malecka to open up the first mutual fund operations in Poland in 1991. She had no competition for four years and as the decade ended, the Pioneer funds held a commanding market niche of more than 60 percent.

Major Information-Era Entrepreneurs: Agora

Women also hold significant posts in the new information-era jobs of marketing, public relations, advertising and the media.

The largest private company on the Warsaw Stock Exchange is run by women. Agora SA, worth more than $800 million when it went public in early 1999, is the most successful media company in Central Europe. It owns 11 radio stations and has a share of Canal Plus cable television but its major asset is Gazeta Wyborcza, the national daily newspaper, which has 70 percent of the advertising in Warsaw and 42 percent nationwide.

The paper is run by Helena Luczywo, despite her title of deputy editor (to editor Adam Michnik). The president and CEO of Agora is Wanda Rapaczynski, who left Poland in 1968 and was heading a Citibank research team in New York when Luczywo talked her into returning.

Luczywo is a larger-than-life figure in Poland although she is something of a recluse rather than a public figure like Michnik. After the Communists banned the Solidarity movement in 1981, Luczywo kept the movement alive with an underground newspaper which she edited for nearly a decade, successfully staying one foot ahead of the cops. In early 1989, Michnik and Luczywo started the first private newspaper as a outgrowth of an agreement between the communists and the Solidarity dissidents for startup of a competitive paper to the state media in the runup to the first partly free election on June 4, 1989. The first issue came out three weeks before the elections, where Solidarity candidates won every contested seat. This was the beginning of the end of communism itself. Within weeks, the last communist rulers peacefully handed over power to Solidarity reformers.

Despite their enormous credibility, Luczywo and Michnik also faced formidable problems. An early political crisis came when they staked out an independent editorial stance from the Solidarity free trade union and its Nobel laureaute activist, Lech Walesa. They also had to find not just private sources of ink, paper and printing facilities (which the state had provided for state papers) ñ but to find a way to finance the overall operations.

Luczywo started working on Rapaczynski during her first scouting trip to Poland for Citibank in early 1990. Rapaczynski rustled up some pro-bono business advisors ñ for instance, a team from the Arthur D. Little office in Boston who gave Gazeta a blueprint for creation of circulation and advertising departments and for estimating costs and revenues.

In 1992, she resigned from her Citibank job, where she headed a team of 100 researching new retail products. She became Gazeta publisher, then architect of the holding company Agora. She also was the point person on getting outside investment, first from the Atlanta-based Cox Communications, then from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). These enabled the company to focus on fast, quality growth.

She also nixed a lot of expansion ideas: “my message was ‘focus, focus.'” That was solid advice which entrepreneurs including the newscomers in Poland are often loath to hear.

She also sought and acted on business-side advice from Cox, including how to arrest a circulation side after competition arrived in earnest by 1994. Gazeta had been such an immediate success. And success breeds arrogance – very genteel arrogance. They found that out the hard way, with a $2.5 million ìimageî advertising campaign that bombed. The Cox experts helped them shape a more targeted promotional campaign which has worked.

Getting Their Footing

Thousands of other women entrepreneurs also are getting their footing in Poland's new economy – taking their factory skills private with new-product manufacturing, creating startup service-sector companies.

Maria Waskiewicz is an engineer who now makes industrial doors. Born in a village of farmer parents, she got an engineering degree from a Bialystok technical university, worked for a decade in a state factory and then got a business degree in 1990. The next year, she and her husband started their own manufacturing company. She had seen a photo of automatically opening garage doors and made a sturdier model, then industrial sized doors. She now is one of two Bosch distributors for Poland, selling the door-opening electronic devices; has 10,000 customers for mostly customized industrial doors; a 2,000-square meter office building, a staff of 40 and 1998 sales of more than $600,000.

At the very beginning, it was enough to have a bright idea, she said. She and her husband with another couple started their company with a combined $40,000 (20m old zl for each couple).

Zofia Drohomirecka and her husband Krzysztof still have not been in a Starbucks. They built their own coffeehouse franchise by instinct and trial-and-error. They had been Solidarity supporters but had foregone politics to get economic degrees in the 1980s. When the system changed in 1999, they had $100 in savings and some experience in informal wholesale trade. After several false starts, they opened the Out of Africa coffee house near the historic Old Market Square, and then expanded. We knew from our studies there was something like franchising. They own and operate one of their 25 franchise shops; they control the decor of the others and import and roast coffee for all.

Some entrepreneurs got psychological support for their startups – from expatriates, more than from Poles.

Malgosia Kujawska and Dorota Drewnowska met at the Polish immersion language instruction center established by the Peace Corps, in 1992. Drewnowska, who also taught Polish-language courses for foreigners at Warsaw University, was struck by the positive feedback she got from the Americans. It was opposite from what she called ìthe Polish way, where if you get any feedback, it's negative. She also was impressed by the techniques of conversational immersion, with the goal of getting students to talk first, learn the intricacies of grammar second. By 1994, the two women paired up to establish IKO, the Institute of Polish for Foreigners. They taught the first students themselves and got pro bono help from U.S. expatriates on budgets and financial planning.

They started with $3,000 in savings or loans from relatives and, as of late 1999, had never taken out a bank loan. Today, they have more than 40 teachers and nearly 800 expatriate students, including a Who's Who of foreign managers arriving in Poland.

“The fact that we were women was not anything amazing but our age was an issue,” said Kujawska, especially when they had to negotiate with construction crews when they were renovating office cubicles in the mid-1990s.

Growth Despite Setbacks and Stereotypes

The growing economic clout of Polish women goes against the stereotype that they are suffered disproportionately in the transformation.

There definitely are problems. Women are 58 percent of the unemployed. Millions of Poland's jobs were tied in one way or another to production for the Soviet bloc. Its collapse set off country-wide downsizing. The politics of layoffs can be formidable. Half of the country's 250,000 coal miners will lose their jobs but their political muscle is such that a $300 million World Bank loan will buffer the impact with early retirement and retraining buyouts. There are no such buffers for the tens of thousands of women who made clothes for the Russian market.

In addition, the religious right of the Solidarity political alliance has been jawboning women to go home to be fulltime wives and mothers and accusing those who want careers of being “egoists.” They want to greatly enrich the already lavish social benefits for mothers (from 16 to 26 paid weeks of maternity leave, with employers required to keep jobs for them for up to three years). These family values forces recently defeated a move to set up a watchdog commission to monitor the growing wage inequalities – as well as the trend of grilling young female job applicants about their plans for children. A new pension reform law allows women to retire at 60 but has led to employers now firing women at 60 and the fledgling women's rights groups can't get anyone to care in Parliament or the government.

Forming Their Own Networks

Overall, however, discrimination cuts harder along generational than gender lines. Anyone over 40 is suspect: it is assumed they have too many socialist scripts in their head to be receptive to new businesses.

Some women over 40 are starting their own companies. In small cities and towns, many have gotten loans from Fundusz Mikro, a $20 million micro-credit U.S. government program. Women are 40 percent of the Mikro borrowers a $1,500 loan for a new freezer for a deli, a used truck for home pizza deliveries or to insulate a greenhouse. In India or Bolivia, micro-credit programs help the poorest of the poor. In Poland, the recipients are likely to be “middle class” in all but income, after the socialist experiment.

U.S. and Canadian governments have targeted women business owners and managers for special attention. June Lavelle, head of the AID contractor Firma 2000 which trains grass roots consultants, could not find out from anyone how many Polish women owned businesses. She compiled her own data base from many different sources and was astounded at how many there were and at how many were in manufacturing, in contrast to the U.S. pattern of mostly service sector businesses.

Polish businesswomen are forming their own networks. The Polish Association of Women Entrepreneurs began with eight companies in early 1998. It was the brainchild of Anna Janczewska-Radwan, who runs the Polish operations of a German medical equipment company; and Wislawa Ewa Plucinska, a lawyer who heads the EVIP consulting company, whose activities include the restructuring of the bankrupt Gdansk shipyard. It had 130 members by October 1999, paying between $120 to $190 in dues, with regional branches planned. Former Industry Minister Henryka Bochniarz, founder of the Nicom consulting company, had created a Group of 22 for top women in business and government.

It could be that these new groups could form lobbying groups that would prove more effective on women's issues than the feminists have been. Sociology professor Ewa Levicka has argued that the workplace benefits for mothers will make women less employable, at the outset, and certainly makes almost inevitable the intrusive questions about a young womanís childbearing intentions.

“We have just hired three or four top women: and all of them said that in other interviews, they were asked ‘why should we hire you if you are going to leave in two years and have babies?'” said John Lynch, CEO of Lynka, a tee-shirt and branded products company which he and his wife Anne Kalin founded after being MBA Corps volunteers in 1990.

Still, he says, “Our experience is that women are the best employees. We have women in all key positions, except mine. The women are much better organized. They come to work and do their jobs. We had five men as purchasing department chiefs and had to let each one go. Then we finally hired a woman and she straightened it up,” said Lynch.

U.S. Versus Polish: Building a Movement

The jury is out on whether women's growing economic clout will trickle down into any kind of political influence.

This would be the reverse of the U.S. pattern, where grass roots women in the 1960s began rethinking their restricted roles, then organized politically to fight for broader political and economic options for women.

In postwar America, women were eased out of wartime jobs as veterans came home. Their wartime work was looked at, in effect, as an aberration; it was assumed that men would be the major breadwinner in the future. Decades later, a contemporary women's movement began with consciousness-raising on their status, which led to fact-finding and then political organizing.

Activists quesioned why Ivy League schools were male-only, why even women with high tests scores rarely got into graduate law, business and medical schools. They asked bankers why they gave few women mortgages, personal or business loans or credit cards. Congressional hearings revealed that the men assumed women would work several years but then would marry and drop out and so should not get too much investment either in professional training or with credit. Ultimately, Congress said this class exclusion of women violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act. New laws specifically banned discrimination in education, credit (both individual and business) and company medical leave policies that had covered hair transplants but not pregnancy.

As more women took more significant workforce jobs, more men picked up at least some of the domestic burdens midst private and public debate about women's double burdens. The elimination of barriers to credit became the catalyst for a substantial increase in U.S. women business owners.

In Poland, however, the postwar conditions were dramatically different. Millions of men never came home. The country lost 20 percent of its population, or 6 million people, the highest wartime loss of any European country. Women kept the families going. After the Soviets imposed state socialism in the late 1940s, virtually all women were required to work unless they were on maternity leave.

Child-rearing was socialized, with day care at factories and offices and with liberal sick-child leave for working mothers (fathers were eligible only in 1995). Subsidies were put on all essentals – from food to medical care to transportation – with wages kept low for everyone, about $35 (in 1990 dollars) for street sweepers or for brain surgeons.

When the Solidarity reformers took over in mid-1989, it was inconceivable that either men or women would drop out of the workforce. Most people took on extra jobs just to get by.

But many women did more than that. They took their skills, their savings, their energy and their moxie and became entrepreneurs.

There still are many hurdles ahead. There may not be credit discrimination but only now are women publically dealing with the formidable work-and-home collisions.

At home, the great bulk of working women still do all the domestic work. A few bring up the subject and try to negotiate a better arrangement with their husbands – who sometimes are their business partners but still expect dinner on the table, fixed from scratch by the wife.

Many with money hire outside help. A Warsaw headhunter talked of landing a deal for a Polish marketing specialist at $300,000 a year, in a new chief executive position for a Warsaw-based multinational whose husband is a brain surgeon, making $500 a month. Hired help does cooking and cleaning, but the supermom is the one who gets up at 6 a.m. to read for an hour with the preschool kids.

Some women, including EVIP founder and CEO, talk openly about why they got divorced and how they are happy as a single mother-CEO.

What comes next, in this postcommunist country, may shape a new blueprint for women entrepreneurs elsewhere.