CLIO TALKS BACK: Albanian woman entrepreneur make good: meet Donika Mici

Juli Siri, rephotographed by Clio
Donika Mici and her staff - 1996
Clio has been traveling lately, both through time and space. A recent article about a path-breaking entreprenurial woman from Albania caught her attention. It appeared in the International Herald Tribune (The Global Edition of the New York Times).

In the spirit of I.M.O.W.’s newly-launched online exhibit, “Economica: Women and the Global Economy,” Clio presents a woman making history in the business world today by defying convention and “thinking otherwise.” Her name is Donika Mici. She lives in Albania and her company makes shoes for the export trade.

Here is her story, as told by Dan Bilefsky of the New York Times:

“Donika Mici has braved decades of dictatorship, the burning down of one of her factories, a near-civil war and a mother-in-law who thought she would be better off in the kitchen than running a fashion empire.

“Now, however, Ms. Mici, 47, chief executive of DoniAnna, the largest shoe manufacturing business in Albania, says the time has come for Albania Inc. to shed its outmoded image and overcome the hurdles of the past.

“While other shoe exporters produce at least part of their shoes in nearby Italy so they can gain the cachet of a “Made in Italy” label, Ms. Mici makes shoes only in Albania and proundly insists that a “Made in Albania” label is no longer an impediment to success.

“DoniAnna boasts an enviable client list of retailers, from mass-market chains like Macy’s and Bata to specialists like Aldo and Kenneth Cole. The company had sales of more than €14 million, or $20.4 million, in the first six months of this year. It employs about 1,400 workers and exports to more than a dozen countries, including Italy, the United States and France.

“’You have to be very, very tough to succeed in this country, because we started with nothing after communism fell in 1990,’ said Ms. Mici, a down-to-earth mother of one, whose main concessions to fashion are Versace glasses and a train of Chihuahuas following her on DoniAnna’s sprawling factory floor.

“’Now, Albania is heading in the right direction to become a modern European country and there is no turning back,’ she said. . . .

“Assuming the economy remains relatively stable, Ms. Mici said Albania’s potential resided in a low-cost and hard-working work force that, she argued, made the country an attractive manufacturing center. She added that Albania had the potential to become an outsourcing alternative to China and India.

“’We have low wages, and we do not skimp on quality,’ she said, rubbing her painted fingernails over a stack of brown cowhide leather. ‘And while it can take six months for a manufacturer in Bangalore to fill an order for a European shoe retailer, Albania’s location means it takes only 30 days for my shoes to go from factory floor to a shelf in London or Paris.’

‘The daughter of an army officer and a chef, Ms. Mici started DoniAnna in 1992 – a time, she recalled, when Albania was still so isolated that microwave ovens were unattainable and she was the only woman driving a car in Tirana. With no credit available from a then-nonexistent banking sector, she teamed up with an Italian investor. Within a few years, she was producing a million pairs of shoes a year and exporting across the world.

“The stress was unbearable, she recalled, not least because she was a woman in an abidingly macho society. When she showed up for meetings with male suppliers, she said, they would routinely ask her to see the boss. ‘I’m a pioneer in this country because I was one of the first people, never mind women, to set up a private business after communism fell,’ she said. ‘My husband’s family were not happy, but I hired a nanny and someone to cook and clean and iron his clothes. I told my husband, the system has changed and these are the new rules.’

“Building an export-oriented company from scratch also proved difficult, she said, in a nascent democracy where regulations governing everything from customs duties to safety did not exist.

“In March 2008, when a former military ammunition depot exploded in Gerdec, a village northwest of Tirana, killing 26 people, DoniAnna’s nearby factory was burned to the ground, causing more than €1 million worth of damage.

“’My company could be five times bigger but all of these hurdles slowed me down,’ she said. . . .

Clio says: We can all learn from courageous women like Donika Mici, whose drive and determination can inspire other women to take that entrepreneurial leap. Are you one of them? Think hard about the project you would like to launch….. and then do it!

Source: Excerpted from Dan Bilefsky, “Struggling to help a country heal: Albanian entrepreneurs lead effort to throw off a long and troubled history,” International Herald Tribune (The Global Edition of the New York Times) 3-4 October 2009, 15-16.