Petrica Dulgheru, REDI: Entrepreneurship is a powerful vehicle in changing societal perceptions on Roma
Romania’s Roma population faces significant discrimination and exclusion, particularly in the recruitment process. Therefore, it is crucial to promote inclusivity and diversity within the workplace and teach businesses to tap into this highly skilled talent pool, says Petrica Dulgheru, Executive Director of the Roma Entrepreneurship Development Initiative (REDI), in an exclusive interview with the RDCC.
Can you tell us about the Roma Entrepreneurship Development Initiative and its mission?
Petrica Dulgheru: The Roma Entrepreneurship Development Initiative (REDI) is a non-governmental organisation established in 2016 with the goal of providing affordable finance and technical assistance to Roma entrepreneurs in Central and Eastern Europe. REDI operates in several countries, including Romania, Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bulgaria. REDI aims to support the most vulnerable group in Europe by facilitating funding for startups and businesses, which will enable entrepreneurs to develop businesses, leading to long-term employment and job opportunities in the communities.
REDI’s objectives include scaling up micro, small, and medium-sized companies in marginalised Roma communities, nurturing entrepreneurship among the young Roma generation, and advocating for the interests of Roma entrepreneurs by establishing business clubs and associations. Through its efforts, REDI hopes to make a positive impact on the economic development of Roma communities in the region.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing Roma inclusion in the workplace?
Petrica Dulgheru: In my opinion, Roma inclusion in the workplace faces several significant challenges, including hiring discrimination, unequal access to work activation measures, low educational achievements, and barriers in accessing lifelong education programs. Another challenge is that many Roma remain in the informal economy, working as unskilled labor, which limits their ability to access formal employment opportunities and hinders their social protection.
Furthermore, Roma entrepreneurs face difficulties in accessing larger markets and digitalising their businesses, which can be a significant barrier to business growth and expansion. Lack of access to finance, technical assistance, and mentoring further compounds these challenges. To address these issues, there is a need for targeted policies and programs that promote Roma inclusion in the workplace, address hiring discrimination, provide access to training and lifelong education programs, and support Roma entrepreneurship by providing access to finance, technical assistance, and mentoring.
How do you work to overcome these challenges and promote Roma inclusion in the workplace?
Petrica Dulgheru: REDI has taken several steps to address the challenges facing Roma inclusion in the workplace. One of our primary pillars is investing in young people to facilitate their transition to the job market and support Roma entrepreneurship to create self-employment opportunities. We are committed to creating pathways to employment for Roma youth and facilitating their inclusion in the green and digital transitions. To achieve this, we are currently running an advocacy project on Roma employment, promoting the effective implementation of Objective 5 of the new EU Roma Strategic Framework, which aims to increase the access of Roma to quality and sustainable employment in Romania and Bulgaria.
Furthermore, we are working with Roma youth aged 18 to 35 in the “Socio-economic inclusion of Roma in inter-ethnic rural communities” program, where we have provided entrepreneurial skills training to over 120 young Roma from vulnerable communities. We continue to offer them support through a job activation center. Additionally, we developed the Roma Digital Boost program in 2020, which provided training to 60 Roma entrepreneurs (among which were young Roma) to transition their businesses online, thereby promoting their inclusion in the digital transition. We are also developing an umbrella brand for Roma artisans in partnership with Carrefour, called Pappo Crafts, which has its dedicated e-commerce platform. In Macedonia, REDI supports Amaro Bazar, a mall outlet for Roma owned businesses.
We are currently leading the Green Entrepreneurs in Action Erasmus Partnership project, which aims to enhance the entrepreneurial skills of young Roma in green businesses and promote sustainable businesses that have no negative impact on the environment, community, or economy. We believe that investing in young Roma entrepreneurs and providing them with the necessary skills and support is critical to promoting Roma inclusion in the workplace and creating sustainable economic growth in Roma communities.
Can you share some success stories of Roma entrepreneurs who have benefited from your organization’s programs and services?
Petrica Dulgheru: Yes, we have had several success stories of Roma entrepreneurs who have benefited from our organization’s programs and services. One notable example is Traian Căldărar, who graduated from our Roma Digital Boost program. Through this program, he learned how to live stream his production process and build his online brand. As a result, Traian was catapulted to influencer status and gained an important online following. He is a very articulate speaker and has become an important ambassador for Roma emancipation, while also boosting the sales for his traditional artefacts. In Serbia, 35 entrepreneurs registered their businesses as a result of Roma Digital Boost and many went on to open and grow successful businesses.
Thanks to REDI’s support, Ferdi Sabanaj went on to open an up-and-coming sushi restaurant in Belgrade frequented by a lot of Serbian pop-stars. Dragana Ciric opened a health-conscious bakery in Novi Sad, where she produces bread with no additives which she learned to promote online to increase sales. In North Macedonia, Muamed Malikovski, a young artist entrepreneur from Bitola, received a start-up COVID relief grant of €5,000 from REDI and the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture in 2020 to put together his initial collection of traditional clothes for Roma women. Despite Covid, branding and marketing support from REDI kept his business strong. “Djozefina Fashion” is a Roma owned clothing line which has now garnered more than 17.000 followers online thanks to brand-identity support by REDI.
Through a collaboration with the National Employment Agency in Serbia, 500 entrepreneurs were assisted in applying for business grants in order to equip their businesses there. In Romania, the social economy program Pappo has built excellent relationships with several artisan families, who were able to promote and sell their products through the Pappo Crafts e-commerce platform, which enabled them to live from their craft. In Macedonia, Redi Recycling managed to legalise the work of 6 informal waste collectors and it is forecasted to grow through partnerships with local authorities.
Can you tell us how many Roma are currently employed, and how many remain in the talent pool?
Petrica Dulgheru: Racially segregated data collection on the employment of Roma is unreliable, since a lot of Roma are fearful to declare their ethnicity to National Employment Agencies. According to the latest data provided by the Romanian Employment Agency, in Romania there are 18.935 Roma registered as unemployed from a total of 239.064 unemployed people from the general population. 40% of the Roma in this data set are long term unemployed, having been out of work for more than 27 months.
However, we know that the number of Roma currently employed at the EU level is much lower than that of the general population, despite the fact that national and EU legislation prohibits discrimination. According to EU MIDIS 2, only 46% of Roma are in employment, compared to 66% of the majority population.
Structural exclusion factors push many Roma into the informal economy, creating an underclass that satisfies the capital’s needs for precarious employment.
A 2018 IRES poll found that 42% of Roma do not have sustainable employment and are forced to rely on day jobs, seasonal and temporary employment, as opposed to only 4% of the majority population. A third of working Roma are not covered by a contract.
Within the Roma community, women and youth are disproportionately excluded from the labor market. The proportion of young NEET (not in employment, education, or training) is very high, with 64% of Roma youth in Romania being recorded as NEET, compared to 18% of the general youth population. Additionally, there is a significant gender gap in the employment of women, with the number of Romanian Roma women in employment being half of that of men (27% of women of working age have paying jobs, compared to 64% of Roma men in 2019).
The limitation of women to the realm of unpaid household work means that many Roma households with a lot of dependents rely on a single earner, which leads to a higher risk of in-work poverty and a high number of low work intensity households (where less than 20% of the members of working age are in paid work).Therefore, there is a need to restore a correct gender balance and include more NEET in the workforce. REDI recognises this need and is committed to promoting gender equality and providing opportunities for young Roma to gain skills and access formal employment opportunities.
How do you collaborate with employers and businesses to create more opportunities for Roma individuals in the workforce?
Petrica Dulgheru: In Romania, we founded a job activation center through the Socio-economic inclusion of Roma in inter-ethnic rural communities program, which serves to offer technical assistance and job mediation to job applicants. In the last year alone, REDI has supported 70 Roma business owners to digitalise their businesses and access e-commerce opportunities. The REDI Call Center offered technical assistance to 133 Roma to apply for grants to start a new or equip an existing business, from which 82 received funding.
Through advocacy with local authorities, REDI supported 120 waste collectors regain employment in Romania, while in Macedonia REDI Recycling is set to grow through public private partnerships with local authorities. REDI seeks to mediate employment of informal Roma waste pickers in the waste management units run by cities. Finally, REDI Business Clubs encourage seasoned entrepreneurs to become pillars of Roma communities and mentor and support Roma start-ups.
What are some common misconceptions about the Roma community that you encounter, and how do you work to dispel these misconceptions?
Petrica Dulgheru: Through our advocacy efforts, we aim to dispel common misconceptions about the Roma community, such as the idea that they are work-shy and only suited for low-skilled manual labor. We advocate for policies and programs that support Roma entrepreneurship and promote their access to formal employment opportunities. Through our programs, we support Roma in their willingness to work and increase the living conditions for their families. We advocate for Roma entrepreneurship as a powerful vehicle in changing societal perceptions on Roma and promoting economic empowerment.
We strongly believe that Roma should not be excluded from the digital and green transition, which is why we provide the training and technical assistance needed for Roma to access these emerging sectors.
In addition, we have recently launched a policy brief in partnership with RDCC that addresses systemic and institutional discrimination against Roma and calls for anti-bias training and institutional reform to improve their access to the job market. By actively working to change societal perceptions and promote inclusion, we hope to break down barriers and reduce discrimination against the Roma community.
In 2020, REDI launched the REDI Talks program to explore entrepreneurial capacities, promote successful entrepreneurs, discuss good business development practices, and share personal stories. We have successfully organized multiple REDI Talks editions, with prominent business people from Europe introducing their way to success. This year we decided to diversify the concept and include more field visits and live streams with Roma entrepreneurs.
How do you balance promoting Roma entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency with advocating for policies and programs that support Roma inclusion in the workforce?
Petrica Dulgheru: At REDI, we believe that promoting Roma entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency is a powerful driver for creating new jobs, particularly in low-industrialized areas. Roma-owned businesses that grow generate new employment opportunities and contribute to the economic development of their communities. However, we recognize that not everyone is suited to be an entrepreneur, and that policies and programs that support Roma inclusion in the workforce are also critical.
We strive to balance these objectives by building on the natural strengths of individuals and communities. For example, our REDI Recycling program supports the formal employment of informal waste collectors and advocates for better recycling mechanisms.
By providing technical assistance and training, we help these workers transition to formal employment opportunities while also promoting environmentally sustainable practices.
Overall, our approach is to provide a range of programs and services that meet the diverse needs of the Roma community. We believe that by promoting both entrepreneurship and inclusion in the workforce, we can create pathways for Roma to achieve self-sufficiency and economic prosperity.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the Roma community and your organization’s work?
Petrica Dulgheru: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the Roma community and on our work at REDI. The disappearance of fairs and seasonal markets, along with the closure of non-essential stores, has had a severe impact on entrepreneurs we collaborate with, especially those in the informal sector. To help them survive this crisis, our digitalization programs provided a lifeline that allowed several businesses to stay afloat by moving their operations online. REDI Call Center provided entrepreneurs information and guidance on how to access relief funds and other grants.
In addition, we have established an Emergency Support to Roma Community program that includes loans and guarantee mechanisms in North Macedonia and Serbia. We have the investment capacity and ability to provide loans and risk-sharing to financial intermediaries, along with expertise on the Roma culture.
What role do you see technology playing in promoting Roma inclusion in the workplace?
Petrica Dulgheru: Technology can play a significant role in promoting Roma inclusion in the workplace. Digitalization can create new job opportunities and enable remote work, breaking down physical barriers and providing access to a wider pool of potential employees. Technology can also increase efficiency, productivity, and competitiveness of businesses owned by Roma entrepreneurs, allowing them to expand their operations and generate more jobs.
Moreover, technology can provide access to educational and training opportunities, which are crucial for improving the skills and employability of Roma individuals.
With the rise of e-learning platforms and online courses, access to lifelong learning opportunities can become more equitable and inclusive. In addition, technology can help bridge the digital divide and provide access to information, services, and job opportunities for marginalised communities, including Roma.
Overall, technology has the potential to promote Roma inclusion in the workplace by creating new job opportunities, improving skills and employability, and breaking down physical and digital barriers to employment. At REDI, we are committed to leveraging technology and promoting digitalisation to support Roma entrepreneurship and economic development.
What message would you like to send on this International Roma Day, particularly regarding the importance of Roma inclusion and entrepreneurship? the Chamber’s new division contributing to this vision?
Petrica Dulgheru: Efforts to combat discrimination against Roma communities will not be effective unless we also prioritize building their capacity to access economic growth opportunities. Economic inclusion and entrepreneurship are crucial components of a comprehensive approach to Roma inclusion, and without access to economic opportunities, discrimination will continue to be a barrier to their social mobility and advancement. Entrepreneurship also plays a vital role in changing the narrative about Roma, building a positive social image and empowering Roma economically.
Therefore, on this International Roma Day, we urge policymakers, civil society, and the private sector to work together to promote Roma entrepreneurship and economic development. Romania’s Roma population faces significant discrimination and exclusion, particularly in the recruitment process. It is crucial to promote inclusivity and diversity within the workplace, and the Romanian Diversity Chamber of Commerce’s ED&I Knowledge division is offering its members a range of services to help make the recruitment process more inclusive towards Roma populations in Romania. By doing so, we can create a more equitable and prosperous society for all, while also changing the narrative about the Roma community. Let us take this opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to building a future that is inclusive, diverse, and respectful of all cultures and communities.