Zoica Bakirtzief

This description of Zoica Bakirtzief's work was prepared when Zoica Bakirtzief was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998.


Zoica Bakirtzief has conceived a way for people with disabilities to enter into the job market. Rather than focusing on the few opportunities that exist in the formal sector for people who are disabled, diseased, and undereducated, she is training them to start and run their own businesses.

The New Idea

Zoica Bakirtzief is developing microenterprise training for those most excluded from the labor market, with the intention of franchising her model program throughout Brazil. In coordination with a network of labor rehabilitation centers for the disabled, Zoica's approach also creates and services a series of partnerships with local businesses, which serve as potential employers or investors for her clients; with public agencies that provide subsidies, training services and job-related data; and with university researchers to conduct market research. Together this forms an inexpensive, top-quality service to support start-up businesses for marginalized populations such as the disabled, the chronically sick, and those deprived of educational opportunities.
Zoica's initiative accomplishes two objectives. First, unlike existing training programs for this population, Zoica's program provides an independent source of income for participants to start their own businesses, rather than depending on the local labor market for employment opportunities. Second, it nourishes self-esteem and empowerment by offering a core set of business skills which are both important and transferable to other employment settings, even if the businesses do not succeed in the long-term or the participants choose to move into the formal sector.
Zoica has set up a new center in Sorocabo, São Paulo, which is part of an existing network of labor rehabilitation centers that offer first class vocational skills training for diseased and disabled persons. Called SORRI, these existing centers offer production line-based training in the context of an operating production facility as well as basic job training skills. Those trained at SORRI either seek jobs in the formal market or remain at SORRI's production facility as line workers. Zoica's center represents several major modifications to this model. She is broadening the training to include a range of self-employment skills, including small business management, basic bookkeeping and accounting, gaining access to credit, and marketing. While it differs significantly from
the current approach used by the SORRI centers, Zoica decided to launch her program in coordination with SORRI as a practical way of spreading her project and taking advantage of the reputation and resources the SORRI centers have developed over twenty years of service throughout Brazil.

The Problem

Over the past two decades, countries throughout Latin America have undergone rapid changes brought on, in part, by globalization and macroeconomic adjustment policies. Heightened international competition and the introduction of new technologies to increase productivity and competitiveness have increased the demand for skilled labor. These factors, coupled with the sharp deterioration of public sector services, have put severe pressures on unskilled potential members of the labor force. Recent studies conducted with employed persons in the state of São Paulo reveal a very precarious situation in the area of education. A majority of children never pass beyond a fourth grade education.
Few firms are investing in retraining their employees for the current environment, opting instead to replace unskilled workers with more skilled labor through "right-sizing" and outsourcing. The labor market for the majority without skills or education is soft. Many are turning to the informal sector to survive, yet even here the prospects appear grim. A recent study by the Brazilian Micro and Small Business Support Service Agency showed that some 80 percent of microenterprises close down before completing their first year of operation. In 1997 official unemployment reached sixteen percent in São Paulo.
People with disabilities and diseases number disproportionately among the un- or underemployed and are among those most directly affected by cuts in public services. A survey conducted last year by the Federation of Industry and Commerce in the region of Sorocabo, where Zoica has begun her work, showed almost no representation of disabled workers in the local job market.

The Strategy

Zoica's strategy is to provide microenterprise skills–including basic accounting, business planning, market research, and other business management skills–to help those starting their own businesses to succeed and those joining the ranks of the employed to stay there. Once she has refined and demonstrated her model, she plans to replicate it through the network of existing SORRI centers in other states.
Zoica has begun by establishing a pilot training and service center in Sorocaba, São Paulo, a town of 400,000, some 42,000 of whom are potential clients (including 2,000 leprosy sufferers) of the project. A series of partnerships are central to the model, especially those with local businesses and community-based nonprofit organizations for which there exist counterparts in other towns and cities in Brazil, where the future franchises will be set up. Her initial partnership group includes a network of vocational skills-training programs for the disabled, local and state social welfare and labor agencies, and the University of Sorocaba.
In the two-year period estimated for the initial demonstration of the model, Zoica anticipates that she will advise over 150 clients and their families, training them to set up and run viable and economically stable businesses. She expects to place another 200 people in local jobs. Meanwhile, she will continue to train teachers who will then set up their own classes to teach and mentor the ever growing clientele.
At the same time, Zoica will finance 40 to 60 percent of the project through fees earned by consulting for the same corporations in which she is placing graduates who choose not to set up their own business, but instead join the formal sector. A considerable part of the delivery of services comes from volunteers, particularly the university researchers and occasional professional business skills trainers. Zoica has initial financial support from W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the São Paulo State Leprosy Control Program, and the Sorocaba Municipal Secretariat for Labor and Social Promotion.
In the long term, Zoica will develop business incubators in her training center and work with public schools to develop microenterprise training courses for high school students. Zoica is also uniquely positioned to spread her model internationally. As a founding member of the Brazilian chapter of the International Association for Dignity and Economic Advancement, an organization which promotes employment opportunities for people with leprosy, Zoica has already found interest in developing her model in other countries with similar populations.

The Person

Zoica sees her current vocation–championing the interests of the diseased, disabled, and undereducated–as a natural continuation of her activism and leadership as a student. Where once she challenged school authorities to respect student rights and carry out their duties to educate with greater intelligence and creativity, today she is breaking new ground to create real opportunities for society's most disadvantaged.
After graduating with psychology and sociology degrees from Rutgers University in the United States, Zoica spent a number of years doing urban social work. Through that work she came to know the International Leprosy Association, which invited her to coordinate its projects in Brazil between 1990 and 1995. By the end of this period, she had completed a masters degree in social psychology and was poised to launch her project. In 1995 she was selected for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation International Leaders Fellowship Program.