We want to tell women that they don’t have to be modest

"We want to tell women, that they don't have to be modest" –  Answear board member.com about the mission to support women [INTERVIEW]

How to get to the business top in times when the share of women on company boards is decreasing? Are we facing a crisis of consumerism? And what role in today's reality plays the fashion brand? With Magdalena Dąbrowska, Answear board member.com S.A. Alicja Szewczyk talks.

The issue of too few women on company boards often comes up in the media. As much as 80 percent. The majority of CEOs and 75 percent of CEOs are women. The positions of board members are occupied by men, despite the fact that, according to the CSO, the share of women in the Polish labor market is over 40%. It is puzzling also in the context of the fashion industry, which is not only very feminized but also creates products that are mostly purchased by women. You reached the highest level of your career – you have been in Answear board for almost three years.com. Where do you see the problem that prevents us women from climbing to the top?

In my opinion the problem is complex and involves several levels. First of all, culturally and historically, women are victims of tradition, which has put men in high positions. Let's remember that in Poland women gained voting rights only in 1918, just over 100 years ago. So the story is too short and the tradition too strong, although when I look at the business world in a broader context than just fashion, I see that it is definitely better than 20 years ago and a woman in a management position does not surprise anyone anymore. However, women still have a problem with self-confidence. Even though they are equal to men in knowledge, competence and experience, they feel that they are not good enough. In my opinion, women should work on their self-confidence and self-esteem, but to build them from the inside, you need support from the outside, i.e. a wide environment – starting with a life partner. Another issue is the perception of women in companies and here an important role is played by CEOs who should look at women as an employee with specific competencies, experience and potential. They should see strength in women because research confirms that companies which have women on their boards achieve better financial results.

What does it stem from?

Probably because women have a different perspective on many issues, they are more empathetic and often more relational. They are brave to make sometimes really difficult decisions, but these decisions have been well thought out beforehand, and even calculated based on numbers and facts. Thanks to this they are able to convince presidents or their board colleagues of ideas, which usually turn out to be successful.

What skills, character traits or specific decisions have helped you in your career?

One factor was important for my professional development – courage. Since childhood I was very courageous and I had no problem with communication, even with communicating difficult things. At the beginning of my career this courage bordered a little on insolence. When, over time, my colleagues started to clearly communicate that this bothered them, I started to think hard about it. I worked through this and found out very quickly that you can be just as brave, but less offensive and achieve the same or even more. I think, however, that I needed this nerve at the beginning. Thanks to people who are not afraid and often, unaware of the problems and consequences, take on difficult projects or enter new roles, the world moves forward. I like challenges very much. The more difficult it gets, the higher the expectations, the more it turns me on and I believe I can do it – of course after calculating if I can take the project to the end. I do not like to give up, and when I encounter difficulties, I do not retreat, but look for the reasons for failure and try very quickly to turn this into a solution that will move the project forward. As for brave decisions, at the very beginning of my career there was an opportunity to work for Orsay, but this involved moving to Germany for over a year to learn the profession of product manager. Autonomously, without consulting my then fiancé and now husband, I made a "yes" decision. I found that going abroad, working in an international company and being a pioneer in a position that did not yet exist in Poland is a great opportunity for me. I left and I think it was the best decision. I trained, got to know the culture of an international organization and came back to Poland to create a purchasing department. It gave me a lot of direction. After this experience I knew I only wanted to do interesting things.

Have you encountered this famous glass ceiling on your career path?

My first CEO, of German origin, once said to me: "I think women always work brilliantly and you can rely on them. They may get pregnant, they may be away from work for a few months, they come back and continue to be as efficient and as effective as before." I thought at the time: "Smart guy!". In every company I had a male boss: wise, inspiring but also giving me a chance for development. Thanks to them I have spread my wings everywhere I have worked. In retrospect I can see that I also had a good intuition when it came to choosing an organization, and I chose companies taking into account values of a given boss or president. Simon Sinek [motivational speaker and author of books on leadership – note.] said two important things: "Together is better" and that there is enough light for everyone. All the time I have in the back of my mind that there is enough light for all of us. The value of the company is created not because I am alpha and omega but when I see that someone else can bring something valuable to the team. Cooperation is extremely important for me. If we open ourselves up to it, we open ourselves up to growth. In one of the leadership trainings I realized that I may know everything or I may think I know everything, but without my team I won't do anything. If my people do not grow, the company will not grow, so I am happy when my people get promoted. Then I feel that I have fulfilled a mission.

How do you find yourself in this male-dominated business environment?

I do not see the difference, or to be more precise – I do not feel it. For me working with people means always exchange of ideas, but also ability to convince to different solutions, which in turn is a matter of substantive discussion. When I came to work for OTCF, the owner of m.in. 4F brand, there were only men on the board and I just had to adapt to them. The most difficult thing at the beginning was to convince them to my ideas. From the moment they saw those ideas working, having a strong impact on the results and seeing the results, it was much easier. In Answear.com working with men is pure pleasure, that's why I don't feel at all that I am a woman in a man's world. We are partners who talk on the same level, using business arguments.

You mentioned that you like challenges. What in Answear.com was a challenge for you?

When I came to Answear.com, I knew very well fashion market, but I didn't know much about e-commerce, which is governed by different rules than retail. Just learning about those processes was a challenge, but improving the profitability of the business was much more difficult. But this is what I like: if something needs to be changed, I am willing to analyze everything, make a plan and act. Of course, improvement of profitability is not only my achievement, but of the whole Answear.com.

Answear.com is a very pro-women and pro-environment company, which can be seen in the campaigns, the way you communicate and the collaborations you undertake.in. with Martyna Wojciechowska's Unawez Foundation. The fashion industry, like any industry, is geared to sales. So on the one hand there is profit at stake, on the other hand there is the mission to make this world a little bit better after all. Like Answear.com finds that golden mean?

It's a huge challenge for the entire fashion industry these days. Planet needs our pro-environmental actions, and on the other hand we have KPIs, financial parameters and assumptions which we have to meet. All brands are definitely more concerned with how materials are sourced and produced and what we can do with it afterwards. I really like the idea that clothes should not be for one or two seasons, but for years. Brands rely on better materials to make clothes last longer. This is also the assumption of our Answear brand.LAB, and I create my closet in such a way that I add what fits the rest and will last at least a few years.

Do you think consumerism in fashion is coming to an end?

Note that we no longer have the trends we used to. No one proclaims: "Pink is fashionable this year". If we think about what colors are fashionable now, we can say that some are more expressive and visible, but in fact you can wear anything and no one has a problem with it. In the past, when it was trendy to wear skinny jeans and someone wore bell-bottoms, everyone laughed. Now one wears tube tops, another wears bell-bottoms, and a third wears tracksuits, and everything is acceptable. Fashion is becoming versatile, so you don't have to replace your entire closet every season. I am convinced that some brands, abstracting from the inflation we are seeing now, will go in the direction of raising quality and perhaps raising prices. We will produce less, but the value of sales should stay the same because we will be investing in better and more durable things, but we will have to pay more for it. In the past, when clothes were not manufactured in Asia, a sweater did not cost 69 PLN, as it does now, but 200 or even 300 PLN and no one was surprised by that price.

The question is whether millenials and generation Z will understand that quality has to be paid for.

Young people are often more committed to action than older ones, who declare the desire for change, but often end with a declaration. In my opinion, we will see a big change in consumer behavior in a few years. Young people communicate quickly, consume content on the Internet quickly, but their awareness in the area of fashion is growing every year. In just 20 or 30 years, we've all changed this planet, degraded it, and now we need to repair that damage very quickly. I am convinced that the younger generation understands this and will take matters into their own hands.