Women at Work, Helping Women in Switzerland Return to Work

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by Tsitaliya Mircheva

It’s a cold and grey day in Lucerne and I am driving to a surprise birthday lunch for one of my girlfriends. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I’ve had lunch at all, let alone meet friends for a long rendez-vous at a cute little restaurant like Grottino 1313. What happened to the Sex and the City girl gang days? I must sound like a dinosaur, but I am not that old. May be skipping all these girls’ nights out is exactly what makes me feel so old. But I am sure you know how it is nowadays, without trying to give you an excuse, with two toddlers on my lap, a business and a blog to run, constantly learning new skills, a Business school I’ve recently started, you get the picture…

I am late and I can see the birthday girl walking right to the front door of the restaurant. I stop the car at the entrance and without even turning off the ignition I storm in the minute she opens the door and she sees everyone gathered to greet her. I am relieved. After the hugs and the greetings I get out to find a parking spot, I run back to sit next to a lady I don’t actually know. See, that’s what happens when you don’t have time to talk to your friends. They find new friends.

We start talking and the conversation goes around our small businesses (not that there is anything small about them…we work 24/7 and pour all our passion and creative thought there) and the things we wish we had known when we were young: digital marketing, graphic design, sales, social media, presentation skills, branding… Except that such “studies” didn’t exist at the time.

We all feel a bit sad that despite our rich experiences and knowledge in academic disciplines and different traditional fields of studies we feel completely useless and irrelevant to be more competitive in our time.

That’s when Evelin, who sits right next to me, tells us about her new project: the Swiss Skills Academy (SSA), launching officially this March, SSA offers programs and courses that help business owners like us and people who have had a career break to develop and update their skills in digital marketing, website & graphic design, social media, personal branding, presentation skills and project management.

The academy aims to provide practical courses, but at the same time build a network of mentors, entrepreneurs, and peers that will remain in contact for years to come.  This takes me back to the recognition that we all need to start nurturing and expanding strong networks of supporters in order to succeed. It takes a village to build a business and if a network sounds too formal for you, you can call them a female tribe, a girl-gang, whatever you like, just know you can’t do it alone or at least it’s easier when you have people who believe in you and can help you with what you don’t know or don’t have.

Back to Evelin. I am intrigued by her initiative and I ask her for more information. Together with Charlie Hartmann and Lin Petraviciute the idea was developed and is now being officially launched with six courses targeting adult learners in Lucerne. It took them six months to put everything together: a business plan, a website, the list of experts, and the courses’ syllabi. “We have different strengths and skills and we came together as a team to launch this initiative. We may have different reasons for doing this but one thing that unites us is our desire to help international residents, both men and women, to integrate socially and economically.

Evelin’s drive is helping women and she is adamant about it. “I know so many women who run their own business, but struggle with certain things like using social media or designing their website and I thought to myself; how can I help them? This shouldn’t stop them! At the same time, I remembered when I was trying to launch my own business, how hesitant I felt to tap into my own network for help. Yes, it is hard to get out of your comfort zone and ask for help, but you have to if that will solve a problem which stops you from achieving your goals”.

Hearing that Evelin had to go through the same struggles as many of us I am curious to learn more about her journey as a “”mumpreneur and a foreigner who moved to Switzerland because of love. I always believe that moving to another country forces us in a way to lose our identity, because we are no longer associated with the job titles we used to have or the people we used to be around. Instead we have to re-invent ourselves, to re-build our lives from scratch and we start questioning ourselves whether what we used to do was what really made us content and fulfilled. We start to examine who we are and how to live our highest purpose on earth.

I know these may sound like deep, philosophical questions, but eventually we all arrive to that point in life. With those who move around the world it comes a bit earlier.

Evelin tells me that she used to work for the World Bank in Washington, D.C. when she met her future husband and she fell in love: “He had a career as a neurologist and was set on coming back to Switzerland. I was very hesitant at first and despite not having ever been a risk taker, I decided to move to Switzerland with him, giving up my own career”.

“When I arrived in Switzerland in 2003 I focused on learning German and established my own consulting firm, landing projects with the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs, WWF and IUCN. Our plans to start a family soon made it evident that perhaps I needed to explore a career change that would make it easier to raise our children in a country where I lacked the extended family support that women need to be able to combine family life and work.” She remembers a time, right after she had her children, when she felt isolated and lonely and was looking to connect with other women like her. This is what drove her to start a Mom’s Café together with two very close friends. Soon after that, a surprised phone call came one day from a professional contact she had made while working at WWF who trusted her background and experience. And so she decided to return to her former passion, teaching, by accepting a job offer at the Lucerne School of Business.

That was almost 10 years ago. Despite that her life seemed all so perfect on the surface and she had everything, Evelin felt something was missing. It was something she hadn’t experienced before so she struggled to understand her dilemma. “What was the problem? I was happily married. I had two beautiful children and was working part time at the University.” She had to ask herself the big question: What do I want as an individual? What are my values? What drives me?

That’s when Evelin realized she has always been excited about development and interested in gender diversity and creating opportunities for women to return to work. She asked herself how she could work within the community and help other women like her, who face exactly the same issues as foreigners, who don’t have a strong professional network they can connect with and trust, who cannot find a way to return to work after a career break or after moving to a new country. That’s how Evelin approached her friend Charlie Hartmann and asked for help to launch the Swiss International Volunteer Organization (SIVO). “Charlie was instrumental in giving me the platform and the space I needed to develop SIVO.” SIVO soon became Evelin’s brainchild.

She began initiating projects where she could engage women to volunteer for positions and work that could become their future permanent jobs or at least receive referrals that could help them land other similar positions. Evelin calls this strategic volunteering. By that time Evelin had already managed to build her own network of people but continued to strengthen partnerships with Living in Lucerne, the Swiss American Society, where she used to be the president, and many local organizations.

Evelin’s advice is that whenever we start our own business – we need to tap into all of our networks and look for support! It’s also important to have clear goals. “With SIVO I wanted to raise the awareness within the local government and local organizations about the importance of utilizing the skills of international residents and promoting their social and economic integration through volunteering. Supporting local initiatives such as working with asylum-seekers in one of the temporary shelters became one of SIVO’s first projects where she could also engage women to volunteer.

You can’t say Evelin has been wasting her time in the last 10 years, she has been very focused and strategic on doing what she loves: she is a member of the “Elternrat” (Parent & Teachers Association) in the local school, a member of the Integration Commission of the City of Lucerne, which also voted for financial sponsorship for SIVO and finally today she is working on developing a new program to create awareness within companies and the government to develop internship programs for women who want to return to work after an extended career break. She calls this “bringing women back to work”.

Because of this new venture Evelin realized that an essential element to return to work is the need to upgrade one’s technology, digital marketing and project management skills. The Swiss Skills Academy is a social enterprise whose mission is to equip adult learners for emerging roles in different sectors in which they work or would like to work. The Academy’s work nicely complements her previous efforts through SIVO and her new plans through the program Bringing Women Back to Work.

“I want to be part of a movement in Switzerland that will change the way the work environment empowers and creates opportunities for talented women. I believe the corporate world needs to move away from traditional employment models and be creative and innovative at developing opportunities for those talented women who wish to return to work. Working mothers have to engage in flexible work arrangements. When the corporate world is not flexible enough for this to happen, we choose to be our own bosses, become entrepreneurs and design our own working environment. An environment that allows us to combine family life and a career. But even as entrepreneurs there needs to be the institutional, legal and social structures put in place that support women who choose the entrepreneurial path”.

When I ask her: how does she deal with the feelings of self-doubt and fears of failure, she tells me: I always like to connect with my girlfriends and we go out chatting, dancing, having fun, talking… That’s how I return to my zone of “I can do it: I am not alone!” Friends are very important to me.

That reminds me of Brene Brown`s definition of CONNECTION: I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”