Women Entrepreneurship and Empowerment: an interview with Paulina Banas from European Activism Incubator

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Paulina Banas is the founder of European Activism Incubator asbl. She has 8 years experience working for non-profit organisations at the EU level, including EUROCITIES, Caritas Europa and Mental Health Europe, where she specialised in areas of social inclusion, employment, equality and migration and integration. Currently, within the framework of the European Activism Incubator, she is leading on the incubation of two projects in the area of women empowerment: Belgium-based ‘Find Your Voice’ and Poland-based ‘Girl Full of Power’. Paulina holds a Bachelor Degree in Cognitive Science – Psychology and a Master Degree in Public Policy.

  •  How you became an entrepreneur and what were your motivations for going forward?

When I finished my last employment contract, I felt there was time to try a new challenge. I decided to follow my passion and started a few initiatives related to the empowerment of girls and women, such as ‘Find Your Voice’ and ‘Girl Full of Power’. The projects were successful in terms of social impact, but my ambition was to make them sustainable in the long-term.  I have started learning about different financing methods that could achieve that and I have been testing them initially on a small scale.

Through this, I have developed a broader interest in financing models behind initiatives that have a positive impact on our society. I am especially interested in mixing non-profit financing with business models. I founded the European Activism Incubator, which, among its many other missions, allows for testing innovative approaches to non-profit financing.

Working on projects that have objectives close to my heart and doing things I genuinely care about is one of the key things that drive me. I value the autonomy and a possibility to test my strengths on this challenging path.

  •  Entrepreneurship is about creating new business opportunities. Do you think the current education system allows this potential to bloom? If not, what are you propositions to improve the development of entrepreneurial spirit at school?

In my work with young women, I often hear that they are frustrated with school and how remote it is from the real life. For this reason, I am not sure how good the current educational system is in fostering entrepreneurial potential in young people.

For example, our ‘Find Your Voice’ project included tutoring on digital awareness: how online algorithms work, and what content becomes more visible online and why. A lot of this was new to the young participants, but it shouldn’t be since they use social media and the Internet all the time.

These topics are also important for entrepreneurship: an online presence is an important part of marketing efforts practically in every entrepreneurial endeavour. The school could use these natural interests of young people to teach on topics that are related to entrepreneurship.  Practically in every school subject, math, sciences, languages, one could find connections to contemporary business and economy.

  • Does Europe lack  entrepreneurial spirit in your opinion? What can be done to foster a great entrepreneurial mindset about Europeans?

I believe that there is a lot of entrepreneurial spirit in Europe, but the spirit alone is not enough. It needs to backed-up with good policies that allow people to realise this potential.

For example one of the greatest challenges to entrepreneurship is having the ability to invest and support oneself when starting a new business. The EU statistics tell us that on average 28% of tenants pay too much for rent compared to their income and this goes up to 85% in some EU countries. This means that saving up in advance and quitting employment to become an entrepreneur is simply beyond the reach for most people.

Research shows that access to start-up capital and financial backup (from family or inheritance) matter the most among individual personal characteristics of successful entrepreneurs, and these are far more important than personality traits.

For this reason, we need targeted policies to foster the entrepreneurial spirit. The importance of access to affordable housing is often overlooked when it comes to entrepreneurship. Very few EU countries offer systemic alternatives to private renting or ownership, both of which lock down household finances, leaving little room for starting a business and taking entrepreneurial risks.

The welfare systems are something very precious in the European societies, but they could also be geared to foster entrepreneurship better. For example, there exists unemployment benefit for people who lose their jobs, which is a very important policy, but it is not possible to decide to voluntarily leave employment and receive equivalent financial support, in order to launch a business.

It could be interesting to have a credits system, which, after a certain amount of years in employment, given access to welfare support for a year to start a company. We have a parental leave, why not have an entrepreneurial leave?

  • What are your main reasons for the low percentage of women entrepreneurship? What would you suggest could be done in order to promote women entrepreneurship and what are the obstacles?

Women earn even less money on average, and on top of this, they are disproportionately overburdened by reproductive and caring duties within the families. It is work in an economic sense, since it essential to the functioning of the entire socio-economic system, but it is unrecognised as such and mostly unpaid. Therefore, all of the issues I have mentioned above are accelerated for women.

If you counted all the work that women are doing and then introduced the credits system I’ve mentioned, many women would gain access to an entrepreneurial leave and launch a business.

On the other hand, women have a relatively low level of knowledge about money. In my experience, women are not very good at understanding the money flows and what determines their direction. I’ve noticed that in many modern families, wives still tend to outsource the financial management to the husbands, even when both are in employment. Many women I know experience shame and discomfort when negotiating payments and talking about money.

It is important to support women in understanding how to assess and develop business ideas, especially if they have not studied a business degree, but have an entrepreneurial spirit, ideas and energy and want to launch something.

A lot of information is actually available online, but it is very fragmented, so not only that it takes a lot of time to find it, but it is challenging to sift through it and understand what actually a valuable and up-to-date advice is.  For this reason, I am developing a mentoring programme for beginner female entrepreneurs, which allows them to learn a methodology of project or business development – what elements and facets to consider in its architecture to increase chances of succeeding.

  • Access to international markets is a great challenge for European SMEs. What are the main reasons for this difficulty? How can we help European SMEs expand abroad?

I do not have experience with the international markets, but even within the EU there are challenges with accessing markets in another country, which is linked to the ability of finding the information, contacts, understand the business culture etc. This is where migrant entrepreneurs can make a great contribution, as they can open the way to into the market in their country of origin.

An organisation at the EU level can have a strong role in systematically investigating the barriers to internationalisation that the SMEs face on the ground, and then engaging in a continuous dialogue with the policy-makers to address these barriers. This is a long term, but important effort.

 

 

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