For EADA Alumna Maria José Pujol (International MBA graduate at EADA in 1994), there is no greater reward than helping others and solving social issues. She is a clear example of a leader with a purpose, since her whole life has been characterised by this fight for education, employment and integration of children and young people with intellectual disabilities.
Since setting up Icaria Iniciatives Socials in 1975, she has achieved great success: a special needs school which pioneered the integration of schoolchildren, a printing company which offers young people with disabilities a way to enter the job market, the Bogatell occupational centre and the InOut Hostel, which is the first of its kind in its sector to have over 90% of staff with disabilities. Her purpose of helping people with disabilities during different stages of their lives is now more relevant than ever.
How would you define a leader with a purpose?
For me, a leader with a purpose is someone who is aware of the issues that exist in society and never stop thinking about ways to solve them. When you have an idea that could help someone you must always go ahead and try.
Would this be your main piece of advice for a leader who wants to contribute to a better world?
Yes, this would be the first step. It is important not to waste time at the beginning, but keep moving forward. It is essential to see what you need and find the right solution along the way to be able to continue with the project and the purpose. It is important not to lose sight of the main goal and continue until the objective is achieved. I would also recommend gaining a holistic vision of the business through training such as the MBA I did at EADA, which gave me the knowledge and competences I needed to be able to make the right decisions when needed. When you are in charge of a company, you worry a lot about the numbers not adding up. Not everything is subsidised and, on many occasions, there are liquidity issues which need solving immediately.
What does ‘business with a purpose’ mean to you?
A business with a purpose is one that contributes to the common good and takes care of the environment. We cannot offer jobs to people with disabilities if, in the process, we end up contributing to environmental problems. This is why we have installed solar panels; we use green energy and we help to reduce the use of plastic and promote recycling. Our InOut Hostel is a good example of our commitment to sustainable tourism and the circular economy. We also have two other centres: one is an occupational centre called Bogatell, which pioneers person-centred work focusing on what they aspire to and the support we can offer them to achieve their dreams. The second centre we opened specialises in employment and is called Icària Gràfiques. Working in the printing sector is hard, because mistakes are easy to notice. Also, printing is something everyone always remembers at the last minute because they are organising an event and need to print extra cards, for example. The fact that the printers produce quality work and work to tight deadlines is very important, because this is the pace of real life (it is not the same at the school, where they can take the work home with them). We are teaching them to learn how to work quickly and productively.
What has been your purpose over all this time?
My purpose is to solve issues for people with intellectual disabilities. It has been my purpose for the last 43 years, ever since we saw a group of children with disabilities who were socially excluded when their school was closed. We came up with a solution by setting up a special needs education centre that still exists today called Escuela de Educación Especial Taiga. The second challenge was to guarantee they could enter the job market, which led us to create Icaria Gràfiques, but which started out with the name Icaria Serigrafía. People with mental disabilities must also have their life project, as similar to ours as possible. Working with these people and providing them with training is very rewarding. They are very honest people with a great sense of humour who do not complicate their lives in the same way we do.
Then InOut Hostel was opened and you started organising several events to promote business with a social value.
Yes, that’s right. InOut Hostel is a workplace located in the privileged surroundings of the Parc de Collserola, which is a few kilometres outside of Barcelona. It was opened in 2005 and it has become the first hostel in Europe where 90% of its staff is made up of workers with mainly intellectual disabilities. It shares the same two key objectives as the big companies in the tourism sector: to offer the best service to the client and generate enough economic resources to obtain a profit. The hostel has obtained satisfaction scores from clients of over 80%. We also organise two large events a year: the first of these is ‘Business with a Social Value’, which started 10 years ago when the state subsidies for people with intellectual disabilities was cut by 25%. Faced with this problem, we decided to organise an event to raise awareness in the business world about the extensive range of products and services offered by non-profit organisations. We organise meetings, face-to-face networking sessions and conferences which are of mutual interest to both collectives. The other big event we organise is Cheers4U, which is a team building event that connects company teams with people with intellectual disabilities.
What is the main thing you have learnt from your experience of working with people with disabilities?
Tell the truth, explain what you are thinking or what is troubling you. They find it easy to laugh and cry.
How did the MBA at EADA help you with your achievements over the years?When you face a challenge, you can’t advance rapidly if you lack the funds or anticipate when you are going to have liquidity issues, analyse your balance sheet and know why you are not going to be granted a loan. Or maybe you have to submit a dossier or a report for a prize or competition, and you need to know how to present your mission, your vision and your political strategy. When you make decisions, you have to know how to carry them out by analysing all the processes. Before starting the master’s programme, I was driven by impulse and lacked the necessary analytical perspective whereas at EADA, I learnt how to make rational decisions.
What is your next challenge in terms of purpose?To be able to financially overcome the dire situation that Covid-19 has caused. At InOut Hostel, there are 46 employees and we invested 4 million euros, mainly through loans, to renovate three buildings. International mobility has reduced and this has affected our business, which has forced us to adapt many of our spaces for meeting rooms and lunches. One of the main problems is how to solve the issue of housing, which I have been trying to do since 2007. Land in Barcelona is very expensive. However, there is land that can be leased by the public administration. I have an idea but it is difficult at the current time.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?I see myself ready for anything. In my opinion, giving up work does not bring you freedom. It is important to work in something that you like, that engages you and that contributes to the common good. I think contributing to society is very important. Everyone contributes, even a business owner without a purpose, because jobs pay for the food and mortgages of many families.