Izabella Wałkowska – CEO of the Plastwil company with its headquarters in Ujście for the last 10 years. The company is a leader in the production of rail and tram rail fastening systems in Poland and Europe. The CEO opened the company to other industries, including home appliances and the automotive industry. The company employs approx. 400 people, of which 43 percent are women
How did you become the CEO of a company in the railway industry?
The company was founded by my mother Irena, an engineer by profession. She took a chance. She quit her stable job at the factory as a manager and bought the first machine to manufacture rail fastening parts. She put it in the garage and started working on it. I was seven then. I remember her saying that she would work from home and have more time for her family. It was the other way around, of course. For 25 years she was responsible for the management of the company, its development and implementation of new products. She employed 120 people.
And your dad?
In the beginning my parents worked together. As the company developed, they had to decide who the boss would be for the good of the company and their own. My mother had the education and professional experience in the railway industry, so she became the CEO. Dad didn't have a problem with that, he supported her. He was also an entrepreneur himself - he ran a store, managed a family hotel and restaurant. My parents formed a partnership, shared household responsibilities and childcare. For me it has always been something natural. I grew up in the belief that this was as it should be.
In 1983, it must have been difficult for your mother to start a business in a male-dominated industry.
I never heard her complain. For as long as I can remember, she had a strong character and she was persistent in pursuing her goal. Always professional and ready for work. I also didn't have any problems at work because of being a woman. I think I owe a lot to how I was brought up. In my head, women and men are equal. Their competences, character and commitment count. For ten years, neither in Poland nor abroad, have I come across the statement that my gender matters. It neither helped nor interrupted me in any way. For me, my femininity is something natural. Once, a few years ago, at a trade fair in Dubai, at the Saudi Arabia stand, which I approached with a female friend, I was asked to come with a male friend – the men at the stand could not talk to women.
Unfortunately, not all women have such experiences as you.
I know I am lucky in this respect. I am aware that many women face stereotypes and discrimination on the labour market. Women should fight inequalities, boldly communicating their aspirations, improving their competences. They should support other women and men, know how to react in difficult situations, how to fight for themselves. That is why the role of supporting relationships – families and organisations helping women in the fight against discrimination – is so important.
Women are just as professional as men. In my company, they work and will work in the most important positions because they are simply good at what they do. I even think that women in managerial positions often do better than men, have a more developed emotional intelligence. And this is very important in managing people, creating teams, understanding the market and building strategies.
As a CEO, do you support women in their careers?
Work in my company is an important part of life - we spend a lot of time in it and give it a lot of energy. Therefore, in the value system, respect for people, their opinions, values, priorities and plans is very important. Women who work at the company know this. They can come to me and talk openly, even say that they are planning to have a child. I support them because I think that harmony between personal life and work is important. My employees go on maternity leave but they are happy to come back. I, my male and female directors try to create an atmosphere of respect. We want everyone to “feel” the company and want to face challenges together.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has also affected us. Sales this year will be lower, but it did not even occur to me to improve financial results by laying off employees. Few have left their jobs. I will not lose valuable people for short-term profit. It is true, we are facing difficult challenges, but we will manage.
Are you inspired by other women?
When starting my career, I followed the life and career paths of other businesswomen. It was and is a huge inspiration for me. Today I support women. Whenever I have time, which is not easy in my case, I try to talk about my story and what I do at conferences, in interviews and on social media. I am happy and fulfilled, but I went my way to find myself in this place. Sometimes it was an uphill battle and I failed.
Polish women are enterprising, but they lack courage. “What would you dream about if you knew you couldn't lose?” – wrote Brian Tracy. I am brave, but I had to work on it for a long time. In the first year of managing my company, there was an opportunity to double the machine park and complete an order for a global company. I was aware that we were not 100 percent ready, but I made a decision: let's do it. I took a chance and I succeeded. You can't wait, you're never ready.
Women do not allow themselves to make errors.
If we take the risk and want to achieve success, we must assume that there will be difficult moments, failures, stress and hard work. To be very effective, you have to get used to the unpleasant. Without leaving your own comfort zone, there is no development. It is good to be aware of this. I have the impression that women do not even try to assess the risk, they withdraw at the start. Meanwhile, even if we fail, each situation makes us wiser, more experienced and stronger. We get closer to the goal. If my mother hadn't risked it in 1983, today our company employing 400 people wouldn't exist.
I also fail - I have doubts, difficult moments and openly talk about it. We compete with global corporations and it is not easy. We do not win all the tenders. We've recently lost two in a row on the same market. And so what? I know why I lost them, I know my mistakes, I know more about my competitors. And I keep trying.
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