Barbara Baran

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1996
Stowarzyszenie Kobiet Polskich po 40-tce

Barbara Baran wyzwalają siłę ekonomiczną Polek w średnim wieku w postkomunistycznej Polsce poprzez tworzenie krajowego ruchu samopomocy, który zapewnia wsparcie emocjonalne i zachętę, wzorce, szkolenia umiejętności i możliwość zatrudnienia. Jej Stowarzyszenie Kobiet Polskich po 40-tce skierowane jest do kobiet po 40-tce jako ważnego czynnika polskiej gospodarki, który jest obecnie niedoceniany lub ignorowany przez polskiego środowiska biznesu zdominowanym przez mężczyzn.

This description of Barbara Baran's work was prepared when Barbara Baran was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996 .


Barbara Baran founded and leads a national self-help society of Polish women over the age of 40, who characteristically face discrimination when they re-enter the job market after interim periods as full-time mothers and homemakers. The Society teaches business and self-employment skills, builds self-confidence, provides job placement services and publicizes role models.

The New Idea

Barbara Baran is unleashing the economic power of middle-age Polish women for post-Communist Poland by creating a national self-help movement that provides emotional support and encouragement, role models, skills training and job opportunities. Her Society for Women Over 40 targets a potentially major contributor to the Polish economy currently undervalued or ignored by the male-dominated Polish business community. "It is amazing," says Barbara, "to watch middle-age women blossom and grow into first-class entrepreneurs once they are given the proper training and a little guidance."

Most women come to the Society via seminars on management, interviewing techniques, securing start-up capital and other related employment and self-employment skills. Barbara recruits successful businesswomen to teach these courses and act as pro bono mentors and counselors, building a role model component into the training function.

Barbara's main objective is to create an environment in which women feel empowered and build their self-esteem. She believes that this is a critical first step in triggering a release in creative energy and entrepreneurial spirit. From this base, the Society teaches business and self-employment skills, builds self-confidence, provides job placement services, operates businesses itself and publicizes its vision of women over 40 throughout society.

The Problem

In communist Poland full employment was legally guaranteed and women who left the workforce to raise families were able to return to their former employment basically when they chose. With the transition to a market economy, several factors have combined to make it extremely difficult for women in the economy. The former guarantees are gone and women not in jobs have no rights to employment. In fact, market restructuring has meant many factory closings and company "downsizing," with women bearing a disproportionate share of the consequences. In seeking work, women over 40 are commonly discriminated against in favor of men and younger women. The regrettable result is that, according to reasonable estimates, unemployment among women between 40 and 60 is over 30 percent and in many areas over 50 percent.

Compounding the structural and discriminatory barriers that they face, women over 40 often lack the new skills demanded by the competitive market economy and are psychologically ill-disposed to acquire them. They have never known an environment other than that of guaranteed employment. Basic things like interview and presentation skills are completely foreign. Moreover, women have been socialized to believe that their primary roles are to be good wives and mothers, and that they have little value outside the home. Consequently, women whose children have grown and left home frequently suffer from depression and low self-esteem.

The Strategy

Barbara founded the Society for Women Over 40 in 1995, in order to create a vehicle for women to be everything that they can be in Polish society. Her overall strategy is to create a basically voluntary self-help movement that teaches by example, that empowers because it is empowered. Successful business women volunteer their time to teach introductory business skills seminars and provide individual counseling. Self-help groups provide mutual support and counseling. Access to formal training courses and access to credit is facilitated. The Society even operates its own businesses as much to provide a stepping stone for self-employment as to gain revenues for its service activities.

For most women, the entry point to the Society is seminars on management, interviewing techniques, securing start-up capital and other related employment and self-employment skills. Barbara has recruited what is now a substantial network of successful businesswomen to teach these courses and to act as pro bono mentors and counselors, building a role model component into the training function. These professional women also provide a "brain trust" for the Society as it develops new programs.

Following the initial seminar, the Society helps many women to find employment through its job placement program or facilitates free or reduced price access to commercial business training courses (in areas like computers, bookkeeping and secretarial skills). Ongoing support in the form of individual or group counseling is always available.

In 1996, the Society established a revolving fund to provide small start-up loans to women who are interested in starting their own businesses. The Society also assists its members to access credit from the banking sector.

The Society has started a series of successful businesses to provide employment and training for its members and to raise funds for its operations (such as the revolving loan fund and job placement services). Since its inception, the Society has set up a grocery store and a small outdoor clothing stand. It has laid the groundwork to open a chain of clothing stores with a distinctive niche in 1997. Finally, Barbara invented and patented (in the name of the Society) a new kind of summer underpants that the Society will provide to its members to market door to door. "I believe that this garment is going to be very popular and will provide the sustainable financial base for the society-and many women sellers-for years to come," says Barbara with an entrepreneurial gleam in her eye.

The Society also has a strong concern for the welfare of its members. The Society runs an adult basic education course for domestic workers under its "Educated Maids Campaign." It sets up clubs for women going through "a middle age crisis." Barbara plans to begin a national work account program to provide rotating jobs for women who need to work for a certain amount of time before they can receive their social security and retirement benefits. She also plans to begin a special sheltered work program for mentally and physically challenged women who will produce goods and products in their homes or in special workshops. These goods will then be sold in Society-run stores, providing both the women and the organization with income.

Barbara believes that the Society should emphasize broad public education, both to recruit volunteers and members and to sensitize Polish society to the circumstances and potential of women over 40. She frequently appears on television and radio and is often profiled in periodicals. The Society publishes its own magazine, "40!" She has initiated a school campaign bringing the Society's message to schoolchildren.

Currently, the Society has spread through Bedzin, Zawiercie, Sosnowiec, Dabrowa, Gornicza and Katowice, and Barbara expects to have national coverage within two years. Barbara believes that her ideas can be easily applied throughout the larger Central European region where the relevant factors are identical, and looks forward to that once her program is firmly established in Poland.

The Person

Barbara remembers being surrounded by strong energetic women as a child and was always herself entrepreneurial. She got her first taste of financial independence as a small child when she organized a children's theater that provided her with a small but steady income. Later, when her working-class parents were having financial problems, she developed an idea to sell miniature, hand-crafted shoes as fertility talismans. She credits these early experiences with planting the seed of self-reliance and initiative in her that she has come to need to share with other women.