We continue to cover the ventures launched by participants of the Biz4all Social Entrepreneurship Incubator programme supported by the European Union. In this article we offer you to take a virtual tour of the training workshop of the social atelier “Silver Swan” in Brest, where hard-working seamstresses carefully create stylish and modern masterpieces from fabric. The social atelier was founded by Aksana Shirko in cooperation with Dubael Gildas, her friend and colleague from France.
The desire to educate
Aksana Shirko at the “Green Office” Biz4all event, Minsk, 18.12.2016
Photo by: Vitaly Brazousky
For as long as she can remember, Aksana has always wanted to be useful to society and to help people. While studying in graduate school in Minsk, she took the initiative to organize “Silver Swanmaiden” courses in her free time. She recalls that in the beginning these were free courses for women who found themselves in a difficult life situation and for girls from orphanages or disadvantaged families who did not have any adults in their life to help them organize their leisure time or give them useful knowledge and skills.
Many etiquette and style, make-up, financial literacy and business education coaches agreed to work there on a charitable basis, and one of the Minsk libraries provided the necessary premises. However, the girl still had to cover other costs herself, and it soon became clear that she did not just have to be useful but also had to earn money. After that Aksana decided to sell courses. When recruiting her participants, she put a special emphasis on the fact that purchasing a course would give another girl from disadvantaged background an opportunity to take any course of her choice free of charge. Throughout the course of its life, “Silver Swanmaiden” provided useful training to more than 400 girls – this was Aksana’s first attempt at building a social enterprise.
Logo of the social atelier “Silver Swan”, Brest. Photo: official website
According to Aksana, Biz4all social entrepreneurship incubator programme gave her a fresh impetus to develop further, but this time in Brest instead of Minsk. The girl went to Brest for her compulsory post-graduate work placement as a social scientist. The young entrepreneur admits that everything seemed very strange in the new unfamiliar city, where she had no acquaintances or friends and she had to rebuild her life. Participation in the Biz4all program and realization of the social atelier “Silver Swan” project gave her the much-needed moral support, while small successes on the way towards building her own social business continued to bring her joy and push her further.
Both development and sales
Biz4all coaches and mentors helped her to develop her initial course idea. As a result, they came up with the project for a social atelier: to train women from disadvantaged social backgrounds, then provide them with necessary supplies and buy their products to resell them in the online store, sell them in suburban estates and possibly export them abroad. Aksana’s partner in the programme is a Frenchman from the small city of Lille who looks into potential demand for such products in France and helps her cope with Biz4all tasks.
Entrepreneurs Dubael Gildas and Aksana Shirko. Photo: from personal archive
“I met Gildas in Minsk while studying at the branch of the University of Bordeaux at the French embassy”, describes the girl. “He became interested in the courses I organized and got excited about creating something similar for the elderly back at home. His mother, who is retired, is constantly looking for socially beneficial things to do. Then I offered him work in the social atelier “Silver Swan” as a marketer and manager. At the moment we are trying to do everything ourselves, but I can already feel that the resources are sorely lacking”.
At the moment, Aksana works with three women of different ages from Brest who can sew. They use designer sketches by Yelena Razhkova to create collections of textile dining sets. All items are then photographed and posted on the website. Incidentally, Aksana already has the website she created for the “Silver Swanmaiden”, but she plans to set up a separate page for the online store and post the whole assortment of ready-made items she will have by early autumn.
Aksana recently returned from France and Sweden, where she learned different techniques of silk painting and received additional business knowledge. Back at home, she trained to paint her original silk handkerchiefs, and now plans to invite women from Pinsk who care for children with disabilities so they are forced to stay at home a lot. If women are given necessary skills, tools and materials, they will be able to complete orders at home, so distance will not be a problem for cooperation.
Work in the social atelier “Silver Swan”, Brest. Photos from official website
The main resource is time
Aksana launched a crowdfunding campaign on ulej.by. She needed 1500 Belarusian roubles to purchase materials and a sewing machine. At the moment she purchases all the supplies herself, but now the team of the atelier is growing so she needs to raise a start-up capital. You can support the project at the campaign’s page. Project supporters will get rewards: from a sincere “thank you” to a magnificent handcrafted handkerchief from French silk.
Dr. Palina Prysmakova, Oksana's mentor for "Silver Swan" Photo: from personal archive
Oksana admits that, apart from money, the main resource she is now sorely lacking is time. "I have to stay in Brest through my postgraduate work placement”, Oksana describes her woes. “This work is not really that interesting. However, it takes up most of the day and a lot of my energy. Every weekend I try to go somewhere, I organize the work of the social atelier “Silver Swan”, participate in Biz4all, meet new interesting and enterprising people, which helps me to lose my enthusiasm and move towards the set goals".
Dr. Palina Prysmakova is Aksana's mentor for the “Silver Swan” project. Her major input is with the project’s financial planning, which is incredibly important at the early stages of development. At the moment, “Silver Swan” project is still in its infancy, but one hopes that this undertaking will grown into a sustainable successful business.
Text by: Valerya Nikalaychyk
The goal of the programme is to develop a package of social entrepreneurship training programmes in Russian using innovative international practices, as well as the experience of Belarusian diaspora representatives who have become successful entrepreneurs in European Union countries and the USA.
The material was prepared within the framework of the "Social Entrepreneurship Incubator", implemented by ODB Brussels in partnership with TNU Network University (Netherlands), Belarusian Youth Public Union "New Faces" and International Civil Association "Union of Belarusian of the world “Motherland", with support from the European Union.