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In the second half of September I was invited by the U.S. Department of State, as part of their Strategic Speakers Initiative, to visit Slovenia and Poland and address women’s groups on the subject of empowerment. Because Vital Voices first began in the Central & Eastern European region, I was both excited and anxious to visit. I would not only speak on topics related to women’s empowerment, but also assess their overall progress. This was a personal interest, as I am a co-founder of Vital Voices Global Partnership. 

I was there in Vienna in 1997 when our then-U.S. Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton hosted emerging women leaders from former communist countries and countries in transition, bringing them together with women leaders from the west. We were there to celebrate progress as well as discuss opportunities and challenges for the future, mainly to ensure that women succeeded economically, politically and in the protection of their precious human rights. It seemed like a tall order back then, when many of the “new” democracies were fragile at best, economies were weak and the challenges the women especially faced were huge. We assured them that we, their sisters from the west, would help and support them in order for them to find their collective “voices” in post-communist Europe. And, so they have.

I began my marathon speaking tour in Slovenia (part of the former Yugoslavia), a small, but beautiful country largely populated by young adults and families, all of whom are avid cyclists. I started off by sharing my knowledge and experiences with NGO leaders at a meeting organized and coordinated by educator Lidija Kramar. The main topics of discussion throughout my visit were corporate social responsibility, social entrepreneurship, economic empowerment of women and creative ways of starting a small business, as well as fundraising. Although colleges were not yet back in session in September, I met with Dr. Aleksandra Kanjuo Mrcela at the University of Ljubljana and we discussed a broad range of topics including her specialty, women in the labor market.

Another impressive woman leader I met with was Sonja Lokar, president of the Women’s Lobby and a true pioneer blazing the trail for women’s political leadership. Women’s political progress, she said, is slow, but steady. Violeta Neubauer, the coordinator for equal opportunities for women and men acknowledged that women are still in a position of inequality.

I engaged in a lively discussion with women entrepreneurs in Slovenia at a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce, organized and coordinated by Marta Turk, one of the most respected promoters of women’s issues in Slovenia. Inventor Erika Drobni€¨ from �_elezniki, who received gold and silver medals for two of her inventions at the KIWIE – 2010 International Female Innovation Fair, held in Seoul, presented her story of starting a small business after having been laid off from her management position just as she was getting ready to return from maternity leave. We were all inspired by the amazing things women are doing in Slovenia and around the world. Empowerment of women in Slovenia needs to be improved too, but as Marta said: “Women have to start connecting first.” Before I said good-bye to Slovenia, I had the pleasure of meeting with two prominent Members of the Parliament, Majda Potrata and Darja Lavti�_ar Bebler. We discussed the progress of women in Slovenia and elsewhere.

I next visited Poland, starting with Krakow and Katowice. Coming in from the airport, we stopped in Katowice to spend the afternoon with a large group of leaders of women’s organizations in mineral rich Silesia, located in Central Europe, mostly in Poland. In the past, the economy of that region was driven primarily by coal mining, but is now shifting and women have opportunities to shape their own businesses in the future.  

There was a great deal of interest in my visit to Poland and so I squeezed in media interviews whenever possible. In Krakow, I met with the representatives of eFKa Foundation to discuss media and communication strategies for women organizations. This group of feminist organizations comprises activists, gender studies specialists and journalists of a feminist journal Zadra.

Proving once again that the subject of money is a favorite of many, I led a discussion at our Consulate to a packed house on Fundraising Strategies that Appeal to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) with representatives of the Polish Fundraising Association and members of the media. I was able to draw from good Vital Voices examples of CSR and building public-private partnerships.

Mary Yerrick addresses Poland chapter

Mary Yerrick addresses the Vital Voices Poland chapter

Moving on by train to Warsaw, I discovered it was indeed possible to stuff 12-15 hours of meetings into the average day. I had the great pleasure to meet with one of our newest Vital Voices’ chapters and some of its members. They were created after four dynamic Polish women who participated in past State Department/Fortune Mentoring programs beginning in 2006, returned home, met one another and decided to begin a Vital Voices chapter and now to start a mentoring program. True to our Vital Voices belief that women are multipliers, they plowed forward and planted the seeds of mentoring in their homeland. Their first “pilot” mentoring program will take place soon with local Polish mentees, and then they would like to reach out and bring emerging women leaders from Azerbaijan to Poland. I led a Mentoring Workshop and we continued the discussion into the evening at dinner at the home of Lisa Helling, Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy.

I discussed women’s empowerment at meetings organized by the Center for the Advance of Women Foundation, the Women’s Rights Center and the American Chamber of Commerce. In a meeting with Minister El�_bieta Radziszewska, a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet overseeing equality, we discussed how governments can become more involved in current women’s issues.

On my final evening in Poland, I had the pleasure of being part of a dinner discussion with some of the most impressive Polish women business leaders I’ve met, women from the top ranks of Boeing Corporation, Citibank, the Warsaw Stock Exchange, a cosmetic company, a media company, a restauranteur, among others. The Former First Lady of Poland, Jolanta Kwasniewska, was engaged as she always is in supporting Vital Voices and other programs that empower women.

I returned home satisfied that women in Slovenia and Poland are gaining traction. They are not where they want to be yet, but they are happy to not be where they were 13 years ago.

Mary Daley Yerrick, Co-Founder and Member of Board of Directors
Vital Voices Global Partnership
September 28, 2010