It's not easy to change jobs or specialisation. For some, it is mentally impossible. Interview with Aleksandra Harasiuk, the founder of the Polish branch of Lean In Poland, an organisation for women consociating over 33 thousand regional circles
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Anna Dobiegała: Has the coronavirus affected small and medium enterprises the most? Full-time employees did not have to worry about going bankrupt or not getting money from the “anti-crisis shield”...

Small and medium-sized companies revolve around large ones. If large enterprises collapse, small and medium-sized businesses will also cease to exist.

It is not easy for people who work full-time either. They get 20% lower salaries, work remotely and bear the costs that their employer has incurred so far such as water and electricity.

Enterprises from the service industry, usually one-man companies, e.g. florists, cafés and beauty parlours, did not operate for three months.

As ‘Lean’ In Poland, we encouraged to support such companies. Not to withdraw advances, but to buy a product or service and have it delivered after lockdown is over. People were buying flowers from growers so that they would not be wasted or hotel vouchers to support their favourite places. Without the help of customers, such enterprises have no chance of surviving.

A friend of mine had to shut down her flower shop. How should we deal with the new reality?

Disasters and unpredictable things have happened before. Young women should learn from the history of their mothers in the People's Republic of Poland and grandmothers during World War II. We have had nothing but wars and uprisings in Poland for two centuries, and women must learn to cope as they are seen as responsible for children and the elderly. Polish women have become accustomed to the fact that they have to embrace the prose of life, regardless of their circumstances. Situations like the coronavirus or other disasters destroy businesses. How to survive this? Like everything else. We were able to get back to life after World War II, now we must do it after the virus. We did not mention travel agencies that are in a very difficult situation. These companies are run mostly by women. Tour operators count on the fact that clients will go on paid trips, so they do not return advance payments to travel agencies. Owners will have to think: what now?

This is not an easy situation...

We should realise that the time has come to combine different areas of life. A florist does not have to work from an open flower shop, but can cooperate with hotels, restaurants and be available online. The ability to combine and adapt is what counts in business. As women, we are more afraid of changes, e.g. of the industry or workplace – we are responsible for our home and our loved ones! If one job does not give you enough money, you have to make a bold decision to perhaps change your specialisation, you have to think about what can bring you income. Imagination is important. Maybe it is worth turning your passion into a business? Women have adaptability, plus they have similar qualities to the Renaissance people. Under communist rule, our mothers sewed clothes because there were none in the shops, they cooked, they went to farms for pigs when they had to organise the first communion, they threw house parties during which guests drank from mustard pots.

Activity – it is worth treating it as a habit. Scarlett O'Hara from “Gone with the Wind” said: “I will never be hungry again”. I admire her stubbornness. One business did not work out, therefore start another one. When a door closes, a window opens. The shopping malls were closed, so the companies moved sales to the Internet. Our ‘Amber’ women take care of everything from alpha to omega – from designing jewellery to selling it and then promoting it on social media platforms.

In Poland or Western Europe, we have become accustomed to stabilisation in the economy.

Nobody expected an outbreak of the coronavirus, no one was prepared for it. Those who, like Scarlett O'Hara, have the will to fight instead of starving, will survive. Everyone has some skills, but it is not easy to make a decision about changing jobs or specialisation. For some, this is mentally insurmountable, but the truth is that, in times like these there is no other way.

Some people will struggle, complain and have a demanding attitude. Motivation is key. A woman cannot simply watch her child having nothing to eat. Single mothers have to fight and work. They cannot sit and cry. Thousands of women around the world have lost their jobs in hotels, in airlines as flight attendants and in the tourism industry. Now they have to find a new place on the labour market, they have to find a new income.

During the pandemic, actors in Poland started working as couriers – they could not perform in films or on stage, so they began to carry packages. No job is a disgrace. We are learning this in Poland. All jobs are productive and are vital for the Polish economy.

What lesson will we learn from the coronavirus?

We live in comfortable conditions. We do not remember hard times because we have not experienced them in the last 30 years. In Gdańsk, a city with over a thousand years of mercantile tradition. Those merchants who skimped on money were the most successful – they invested in business development, they did not spend everything they earned, resulting in a legacy of strong business men.

Now the virus has challenged normality, I hope we will slow down a bit now. We will look around. We will see that our planet's resources are limited. This is the moment to stop.

Aleksandra Harasiuk – founder of Lean In Poland (organisation created by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO). Currently director of the office of the International Amber Association in Gdańsk

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