How female migrants use entrepreneurship to create meaningful places of connection: A look at Ukrainian women in Poland

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New research shows that female migrants are using entrepreneurship to challenge ethnic and gender discrimination. Focusing on the beauty sectors in Poland and through 10 qualitative interviews with Ukrainian female migrant entrepreneurs, this research identified patterns that impact their businesses strategies and what their business activity means to them. What it found: more than just a means to financial gains, female migrants use entrepreneurship as a relational practice that challenges social power hierarchies.

The changing landscape of migration in Poland

To understand female migrants’ entrepreneurial strategies, let’s first consider how migration patterns have changed in Poland over the time. The political transformation and subsequently the country’s entry into the European Union contributed to significant changes in migration patterns with both an outflow of Polish migrants and an increasing inflow of migrants, largely labour migrants. According to the data of the Office for Foreigners as of October 2023 citizens of Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and India were the largest communities with residence permits in Poland. Initially, immigration trends (specifically labour migration) were perceived as circular, but it has gradually shifted towards long-term or even permanent settlement in Poland. This shift has brought a diversification of economic activities, with small-scale enterprises and services on the rise within the migrant communities.

During this transition, there’s been a noticeable change in the number of female migrants. The Ukrainian community for years constituted the numerically largest migrant community in Poland. In 2021, 45% of the migrant population from Ukraine were women. The number of Ukrainians significantly increased following the full-scale Russian aggression: as of September 1, 2023, available data estimates that there were 960K Ukrainians with temporary protection in Poland, 65% were women and girls.  These female migrants are actively participating in various labour-market sectors and engaging in local social and cultural activities.

The beauty sector as a niche for business activity

The growth of migrant communities in Poland has improved social capital, accessibility to diverse networks and its resources for sole entrepreneurs. This, linked to the demand for services, creates favourable conditions for business growth. Through extended co-ethnic networks, migrants are benefiting from available resources (informational, social, material and/or financial etc.) to support their ventures and enter the general market as equal members. One noteworthy niche that has seen significant growth among Ukrainian female migrant entrepreneurs in Poland is the beauty and cosmetology sector.

Why is this sector attractive to sole entrepreneurs? The correlation of economic and social factors, positive and negative, shapes their choices, and to understand these, an intersectional lens is needed.

Entrepreneurial strategies: an intersectional lens

An intersectional perspective allowed for a more nuanced understanding on how gender, ethnicity, migration status and post-migration experience might be reflected in business strategies employed by female migrants. It also allowed for a deeper exploration of the complexity of structurally and socially constructed dimensions of these strategies.

The qualitative research among Ukrainian female entrepreneurs in Poland revealed factors that motivated their decisions to choose the beauty sector as a starting point for their business activity. Among aspects perceived as opportunities, study participants mentioned:

  • relatively low investment costs;
  • affordable legal and formal conditions to initiate the business;
  • demand on services in the enclave and general markets;
  • extended social networks;
  • individual human and social capital.

Before initiating their own business, study participants gained working experience with different employers. The decision to take a risk with their own entrepreneurial venture was often perceived as a chance to respond to negative experiences at previous workplaces, which included:

  • the experience of direct and indirect discrimination, ethnicization and sexualisation at the workplace;
  • precarious employment conditions;
  • dependency on the employer’s vision of services, lack of autonomy and instability of employment;
  • the loss of social position related to occupation and specialisation;

The interrelation of positive and negative factors strengthened the decision of female entrepreneurs to launch their ventures. The experience of disadvantages reflected in social power asymmetries related to gender, nationality/citizenship, migration and occupation statuses were reformulated into new strategies aimed at regaining social status and equalising social relationships within the spaces of encounter: their own beauty salons.

Turning disadvantages into assets

By developing ventures in the beauty sector, Ukrainian female entrepreneurs have adapted their business strategies to turn disadvantages into assets. One of the solutions to change power asymmetries is the creation of ventures that respond to enclaves and general market demands. Beauty specialists provide services to a diverse clientele, effectively managing their communication (e.g. deciding on the language and promotion mechanisms etc.) and entrepreneurial strategies (e.g. related to price policy, loyalty programmes etc). Interestingly, most participating in the research were not just running businesses in terms of economic and financial benefits; they also used their beauty salons to create spaces for inclusive family-oriented interactions, fostering encounters and social integration among women from various backgrounds. The focus on meaningful social interactions as one of their core entrepreneurial strategies allows them to restore the position of a “recognised specialist”  in the general market and to safeguard their businesses through the extended ties within informal networks. 

Understanding these relational aspects of their business strategies was only possible through an intersectional approach. It demonstrated how female migrant entrepreneurs use their ventures in the beauty sector as spaces of encounter, where they can share meaningful interactions, overcome “othering” as a process of social identification and achieve more equal power relations.

The research proposes an incorporation of intersectionality as an analytical tool to achieve a better understanding of the social dynamics within migrant entrepreneurial activities. It is through this lens that the positive ripple effects from female migrant entrepreneurial strategies to the broader community can be more clearly seen.


About the author

Kseniya Homel-Ficenes is currently a PhD student at the Institute of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Warsaw and an associate researcher at the Centre of Migration Research (the University of Warsaw). In 2018 – 2022 she worked as a researcher at the Institute of Public Affairs. Her PhD research is about female migrant self-organisational practices as an empowering and relational process.  She is also involved in research projects on diaspora as a social movement and migration infrastructure; cooperates with non-governmental organisations and informal associations.

The presented case study is a part of her PhD research on female migrant self-organisation and entrepreneurship as an empowering process.

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