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8 agosto 2022

María Jesús Lorente: “Cepyme is the loudspeaker of small and medium-sized companies and their day-to-day problems”

We interviewed the recently elected president of Cepyme Aragón, María Jesús Lorente, a businesswoman with a long career and who has been at the head of ARAME for 13 years. We addressed issues such as equality, her plans for this new position, the importance of SMEs in the structuring of the territory or the problems faced by entrepreneurs.

Congratulations on your appointment as president of CEPYME Aragón. How are you facing this new challenge?

It has been a career. I started as president of ARAME in 2008 and I was there for 13 years. That has given me a background and I have seen what an organization is like inside and how it could be changed. Then I understood, liking CEPYME as much as I liked it, that there were things that had to be transformed, renewed and regenerated.
I ran for CEPYME Zaragoza and then, with my committee backing me, we thought we could run for CEPYME Aragón. It is a qualitative and quantitative leap.
I jokingly say that I have jumped out of the plane without a parachute, but fortunately I haven’t suffered any scratches so far. Maybe it’s because of the baggage I had behind me. For me this was a personal and professional challenge and I am very excited.

It is also worth mentioning that you are the first woman to hold this position.

Yes, I think that is something we have to highlight. It is the moment to enter women, but, in addition, it is the moment for time. I mean, when they say that there are no women in certain places, I always say that time puts everything in its place. If in 1980 we could not even enter the Armed Forces, it is normal that there are still no women generals or that they are now becoming generals. Because we need our value, our capacity and our merit to be recognized, and we do not need to be put there just because, because of a quota.
So women, logically, we have had to advance because we have entered the social and labor sphere, we have been occupying the positions that corresponded to us and it is now when we are reaching the positions where decisions are made. What happens is that I think it is very important that women take that step and for that it is necessary that there are also other women who are referents. That other women see us and think that they too can make it.

Do you think there is a lack of women exercising leadership or a lack of visibility of these women?

It would be the conjunction of the two issues. That is to say, there are many women who are leading their companies on a day-to-day basis, but they are not visible and that is something we have to work on. In CEPYME we have noticed it: there are many associations where women play a role, for example, of manager, but they are not the president. We have to claim that role of being in the foreground and not in the background. And, moreover, as I say: let’s stop being the second perfect and become the first imperfect.
You have said that CEPYME Aragón needs a renewal. How do you propose it?
I have always been very clear that you cannot enter a place like an elephant in a china shop, you have to enter and, little by little, make changes that at first are subtle and enveloping and at a certain moment people see them as something natural.
That is what I think, we have to change externally and internally. CEPYME is an organization with a very good social reputation, but we have not been able to work very well on communication, and that is what we have to work on. We have to tell society what we do at CEPYME, what it means to be a microenterprise and to be an SME and the value of SMEs in our territory. Because talking about territorial structuring and cohesion without talking about SMEs makes no sense. But we have to put this into practice.
I often tell my committee that what is not said is as if we had not done it. We are at a time of technology, social networks, of staging. And from that point of view is where we have to make the leap.

“We, the companies, are the ones who settle the territory”

How many SMEs and self-employed are there in Aragon?

At the moment, the business fabric we have in Aragon is 88,000 companies. Of these, 84,000 have less than 9 workers and of these 84,000, 47,000 are self-employed without workers. We have an average of about 3,000 SMEs (from 50 to 200) and 117 large companies, with more than 250 workers.
That is the big problem we have in Aragon as in the rest of Spain: the business fabric has little flexibility in the face of adversity. When any circumstance occurs -as we have experienced with the pandemic or now with the fluctuations of energy, raw materials, fuel or the war in Ukraine- for a large company it would be a flu, for a small company it is its demolition.

How many of these companies are part of CEPYME?

Of those 84,000, 35,000 are CEPYME: we have more than 35% representation. CEPYME is a business organization that was born in 1977, it is the first business organization born in Spain and CEPYME Zaragoza was born in 1980. We have always been there and we have always been very clear that the important thing is to know who we are representing: micro-enterprises and SMEs throughout the territory.
We are looking for social cohesion. We understand that the business fabric is the one that truly vertebrates the territory. But even within the counties and the cities themselves: if we were to take a street in Zaragoza such as Alfonso Street or San José Avenue, if we imagine it without commerce, we would be afraid to walk along it. That is what I want to convey: that a society without a business fabric, without small and medium-sized companies would be a society doomed to failure, we would close our community, we would not be able to survive, we would not be sustainable. We are the companies that settle the territory.

What are the main problems affecting Aragonese SMEs at present?

I would name a great many. Everything has to be put in the current geopolitical context: we are coming from a pandemic and, in addition, we have entered a war, which we did not expect either. These are facts that are there and we have to deal with them. The first challenge I think it would be very important to work on the growth of companies. The fact that out of 88,000 there are 84,000 small ones makes the economy falter and makes it difficult to seek financing from the banks. It is complicated to fight against the law of default, it is complicated from the small to work for the no unfair competition.
Therefore, we have to work on growth and make it a sustainable growth.

“Being an entrepreneur is having the daily illusion of implementing ideas that occur to you and that you know will benefit the common good, the people around you.”

You wrote in a recent article that you were looking for “a shared and collaborative leadership, valuing the great human team of CEPYME Aragón”.

This is basic and fundamental. I believe that organizations are people. In fact, the first thing I did when I arrived at CEPYME Zaragoza was to create my executive committee, an almost total renewal because I think I renewed 80% of the old committee and they are people of my total and absolute confidence and that I have taken them for their value and capacity and for the area of influence they have. So I have people from industry, commerce, plastic arts, crafts, biotechnology, pharmacy, health, agriculture, transport, hotels, restaurants, construction.
I think we have taken the whole spectrum of all the sectors where industrial activity is possible. This allows us to be aware of the reality of each sector and also to have a voice that really knows the subject.
For me, the most important thing was to generate the team, which has given me 100% and has shown me that. It has been a hard year, an important journey, we started from CEPYME Zaragoza, which nobody knew because it was not separate from CEPYME Aragón, so the work has been exciting but also hard and intense. Now that team is the one that will support me, that is the advantage I have. In addition, I can count on the staff that the company has. There is a first-class technical team: people specialized in technology, innovation, grant applications, internationalization, occupational risk prevention. The team is impressive.

Earlier we mentioned the backbone role of SMEs. How does CEPYME help SMEs to make themselves heard and to ensure that their backbone work is known and institutionally supported?

CEPYME is the loudspeaker for all small companies. Our mission is to make institutions, administrations and politicians aware of what is happening to the small and medium-sized companies we represent.
We are social agents recognized by the Constitution itself and our main role is to be the advocates of the people we represent. Many times there is an association that calls me because it has to go to a County or a City Council, so we prepare the meeting, we act as an advance party and we put in contact the person who has a problem with the person who has to solve it. This is one of our main missions: to act as advocates, as loudspeakers for small and medium-sized companies and their day-to-day problems.

What initiatives do you carry out in the field of equality?

A great many. We are recognized as a social agent and the main agent in the field of equality. We have carried out many projects in collaboration with the Directorate General of Labor of the Government of Aragon, we make guides for the implementation of equality plans in the company, webinars and workshops. Moreover, with great success because we make them very practical and visual so that companies are not afraid of something that is mandatory and that they have to implement.
But independently of this, we are working on something that I think is fundamental and much more important and that is the awareness of companies in terms of equality. It is not a question of making something mandatory, but of motivating people to make it part of their DNA.
I always say that diversity is much more enriching and makes us more competitive than uniformity. It is a question of raising awareness so that they work on the basis of equality and diversity, and as we at CEPYME firmly believe in this and also have it in our DNA, it is very easy to transmit it.

You have been at the head of ARAME for 13 years, making female leadership visible, how are you going to transfer that experience to CEPYME?

I think with facts. In the executive committee of CEPYME Zaragoza I proposed that I had to have a committee as equal as possible, in fact I have 48% of women, which is the first time in CEPYME that this has happened. Now, with the vice-presidencies, first I set very specific areas and, once I had defined the areas, I looked for the people. There are four men and four women. We have to make that effort, we have to work on making it known that in any forum, executive, commission or paper there must always be diversity. There cannot be a table of only men or only women. There must be different points of view and criteria.

Do you consider that society has advanced towards real equality in recent years?

Have we made progress? Yes and no. We are better off than 40 years ago without a doubt, any time in the past was not better. We are where we are and we have to look to the future, the present is what will lead us to the future.
I am a bit afraid of the stagnation in which, as a society, we are. I do not know if it is the result of comfort or of that welfare state in which we have forgotten the demands, but I am afraid of stagnation and I see behaviors that I do not like, I see attitudes that I do not like and above all I see them in young people, that is what scares me the most.
Through the Aragonese Women’s Institute (IAM) we are told that there are many cases of violence among young people and attitudes that are not understood from the young women themselves. I think we cannot relax, we are advancing little by little, we have to be more and more referents, but we have to fight not to stagnate or take a step backwards because that scares me a little.

“Women have to stop being the second perfect ones and become the first imperfect ones”.

You are also the founder of Bioknostic, what do you enjoy most as an entrepreneur?

Many things. For me, the day-to-day, generating projects, getting things done, hiring people, having new experiences. I am passionate about that. I can’t conceive life any other way. It has its advantages and disadvantages. We are a family business and the weekend comes and we have mini board meetings around a paella because we are still generating ideas. We have the second generation, my daughter and son-in-law work with us, so it can’t be more of a family business.
But it gives us life to get up in the morning and continue with a project, we see how that initial idea takes shape, it is implemented and also becomes a product and you sell it and you are successful. It is something impressive. But no one should get confused and think that this is the way it is from the beginning. I have been with my company for 26 years and I have had difficult times, not making ends meet. What happens? You have to have the ability to know how to reinvent yourself, not to become obsessed with the idea that your idea is the good one, to slow down, take a step back and see where to go from there. Because maybe you have to close or reconvert.
We had to reconvert because we did badly, we did well, we did badly, very badly, and now we are doing well. And that is what it means to be an entrepreneur. Companies evolve and are living entities that are formed by people, and because of that, the company is my life.
In fact my partner, who is my partner, is 64 years old and now we are in a new project with more work and more ships and hiring and he says he should be thinking about retirement and instead he is thinking about what he is going to do in the next 10 years.
That is what being an entrepreneur is: having the daily illusion of implementing ideas that come to your mind and that you know are going to benefit the common good, the people around you.

In Aragon, 7 out of 10 jobs are generated by SMEs and they represent more than 65% of the GDP.

Many small ones make the territory work, they create jobs. It is true that we need to grow a little more. I recently read a statement by the national president of CEPYME, Gerardo Cuerva, who said that in Spain we had the 50-plus syndrome: companies have to make the leap to having more than 50 workers. It is also true that the legislation as from 50 requires a series of things that were not required up to 49.
I believe that, on the one hand, the administration has to become more aware and, on the other hand, we have to believe more in being entrepreneurs. I like to say that we are small but our dreams are big, the size does not matter, what is important is the business idea and the employment we can generate.

Do you think people are aware of the importance of SMEs in job creation?

I don’t think so, and it is an issue that worries me a lot. It is something that I want to clarify in this legislature that I have ahead of me and I want to see what results I get.
We know from a reputation study that we have done that CEPYME has an important social reputation among citizens and businessmen. But we are not quite there yet. People see if Stellantis stops a shift or not; if Balay closes or not; if Pikolin sells more or less or if El Corte Inglés opens a new store or not.
But people don’t understand what the small ones do. Sometimes I even get angry and I don’t want to be misunderstood. I give the example of the pandemic: people went out to applaud the health workers, and I think it is all very well and I admire the work they did, but how many companies and how many workers and we were considered essential, and we did not receive the masks either? A lot of them. Because everybody got bread, milk and what they asked for on Amazon. That was people from small companies who were working, who were getting in the car with a safe-conduct and who nobody applauded.
At a certain point, society turned to us and they even considered us heroes because the neighborhood baker had been working and they had discovered the neighborhood haberdashery. And then the pandemic ended and people forgot about neighborhood commerce and we all went back to shopping where we always shopped and using the Internet.
Sometimes we say that we have to buy in local commerce, but we want the jeans to be worth two cents and we are not willing to pay a certain amount. This is how we are destroying the business fabric.
So, we should be truly more sustainable and this should not be said, but demonstrated. When I say that I am socially responsible, does it mean where do I buy, where do I consume, in my neighborhood, in my town, in my city, or do I go where I get the cheapest gasoline?

Do SMEs have enough support from public institutions or do they need more?

I think there is still a long way to go. We need to get to know each other better. We need the administration and I think we have a permanent and constant dialogue.
But I would like Spain to be a country like Germany where, when you are going to set up a company, the responsible declaration is a reality and not a piece of paper where I say that what I am going to do complies with the regulations and the legislation, so that I can start to set up the company and hire. And if I don’t comply, the administration will come a few months later and tell me what I need. But not to put sticks in the wheels of the driving force of the economy, which is private enterprise. That would speed up the bureaucratic hurdles that we encounter every day with the administration.
I am an advocate of private enterprise, also understanding that it is necessary for certain areas and activities to have important public institutions in terms of health, education, services of the Armed Forces?

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