Sladjana Vasić is a Roma entrepreneur from Kraljevo, a town in central Serbia. Her company produces cotton underwear and sleepwear branded as Arilje, from the name of a small town in the west of the country, where the quality cotton yarn is produced. Her company is a family business which she runs along with her two sons and her husband.
They have been in business as traders of the cotton made products for over fifteen years and in 2014, they started producing sleepwear and underwear which was sold at the family’s shop in the centre of town. However, this sales strategy had to change two years ago.
Turning a crisis into an opportunity
With the start of the COVID-19 pandemic Sladjana had to close her shop without knowing when it could reopen. “We had no revenue and were not able to sell our products either wholesale or in the shop,” she says.
At that point she was contacted by the Roma Entrepreneurship Development Initiative (REDI), an EU-funded initiative implementing a programme called Roma Digital Boost working with Roma communities across the Western Balkans to enhance their digital skills. They offered to support Sladjana in changing her sales strategy to sell her products online, and reluctantly she agreed to try. “In the beginning, I doubted I could sell my products online because these are not luxury products, but the people from REDI convinced me otherwise and now we sell online and it is going quite well,” says Sladjana.
REDI launched Roma Digital Boost to support the online transition of traditional businessesas well as their formalisation. The programme equipped Roma entrepreneurs like Sladjana with digital tools and skills to scale up their businesses and start developing entrepreneurial activity online. The entrepreneurs who passed through this programme received digitalisation kits, individual coaching, and mentorship support from REDI experts.
Orhan Usein is the Regional Cooperation Council’s Roma Integration Head of Office. He explains that it is crucial to empower the Roma community to use digital skills and follow the latest business trends. Educational programmes such as the Roma Digital Boost programme, which the Roma Integration action team supported both financially and with human resources, can speed up that process and strengthen the involvement of Roma citizens in promoting, shaping, and implementing the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans. “Roma people must not be left behind, and I hope to see more programmes like this,” says Orhan.
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic slows and lockdowns are over, Sladjana’s online sales keep increasing. She dreams that one day she will expand her company even further and become a well-known brand. Her message to others is inspiring: “I want to tell all Roma women in business that women can do the same work as men and even more. So go ahead, do your job: do it with all your heart and give it the best you can and success will come – it is guaranteed.”
About the project
The Roma Integration 2020 project, implemented by the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) with the financial support of the European Union and the Open Society Foundations, aims among other things to reduce the socio-economic gapbetween the Roma and non-Roma population in the Western Balkans and Turkey.
Photo credits: RCC
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