Kathleen Poe-Ross, 404-413-1374
Pursuing a master’s degree while holding down a full-time job is a lot for anyone to juggle, but Anna Alford, a graduate student in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, manages all that and more. This spring, the Poland native co-founded the Polish American Chamber of Commerce Atlanta and was chosen as its first president.
“We want to reintroduce Poland, starting with the Atlanta community,” Alford says of the organization. “When I talk to people, they’ve heard of Poland. More than likely, they still have that idea of Poland being a former communist country, and you always have that image of a buggy being pulled by a horse and horrible roads and horrible infrastructure. The reality is just the opposite right now.”
|Anna Alford, a graduate student in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, is the co-founder of the Polish American Chamber of Commerce Atlanta and the organization's first president.|
Alford grew up in Stalowa Wola, a small city of approximately 65,000 people in southeastern Poland. After she graduated high school, she came to Atlanta as part of the Au Pair in America program. She spent a year with a host family, earned a certificate in English as a Second Language from Kennesaw State University and, most important, became comfortable speaking English fluently. When she returned to Poland, she began a degree in American studies at a university there; she transferred to Georgia State in 2004 and changed her major to political science with a concentration in international studies.
While an undergraduate, Alford was part of GSU’s Model UN team, which won the outstanding delegation award at the national conference in 2007. That experience convinced Alford that she wanted to be involved in similar international activities in the future. She may not have known it at the time, but the seed for a new Polish organization in Atlanta had been planted.
Alford began work as a project analyst for the Georgia Department of Economic Development in late 2009, shortly before she began her MPA degree in planning and economic development at GSU. As part of the international trade team at GDEcD, she learned about the business side of international relations. Alford decided her new Polish group should incorporate professional aspects as well, and a clear vision for PACC Atlanta began to crystallize. Earlier this year, she met Konrad Rzasa, another enterprising Polish transplant who runs a search engine optimization and web marketing company, and they teamed up to launch PACC Atlanta. (You don’t have to be of Polish descent to get involved or participate, Alford stresses; in fact, the group’s administrative and research director – another AYSPS master’s student, Isaac Boring – has no ancestral ties to Poland.)
While Atlanta already has a similar organization – the Polish American Chamber of Commerce of the Southeast – Alford and her colleagues want to represent and reach out to a new generation of Polish immigrants.
“People from Poland coming here maybe 20, 25 years ago, those were the people escaping some sort of regime, and they had a different idea of what to do with the new freedom found here,” Alford says. “The people that we really encounter right now are people around 25 to 35 who either completed their education in Poland or are graduating from some of the best universities here in the United States. If they want to, they can just as easily go back. It’s just that this time they choose develop their talents here.”
One of the primary objectives of PACC Atlanta as it is getting off the ground is to get those people involved and use their potential to do something good for their home country. Building positive relationships between the business communities in Atlanta and Poland is a large part of that. The organization will promote Atlanta as a launching pad for Polish companies looking to come to the U.S. and, likewise, Poland as an entry point for American companies that want to expand into the European Union.
In its first four months, PACC Atlanta has introduced itself to the local Polish community and plugged into the broader international scene through monthly events, whether social or business-oriented. One of its first gatherings was a networking mixer with the Irish Chamber of Atlanta; the group’s website and Facebook page list its future events and those of its partner organizations.
While PACC Atlanta collaborates with area international consulates, chambers and trade offices from all countries, it is also working to create a coalition of local Polish organizations.
“We realize you’re not going to promote a country just from the business angle,” Alford says. “You really have to show them the culture, you have to show them the people.”
To that end, PACC Atlanta is working closely with the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Poland in Atlanta, the Chopin Society of Atlanta, the Polish Catholic Apostolate in Atlanta and the Polish Club of Atlanta. According to 2009 census data, there are between 4,000 and 5,000 Polish-born people living in Georgia, and many more of Polish descent. PACC Atlanta may be focused primarily on the city’s young professionals, but, at its core, the organization is about fostering international connections and changing outdated perceptions about Poland.
Once Alford completes her master’s degree in May 2012, she plans to continue working at GDEcD and devote her newfound free time to PACC Atlanta in the hope that it will eventually develop into something larger. Growing up in Poland, Alford watched as her mother seized the opportunity to build a business of her own once the country was open to democracy and capitalism; the security company her mother started 18 years ago now has thousands of employees. This “Polish version of the American dream,” as Alford describes it, inspired her entrepreneurial spirit.
“I have seen somebody who started from the bottom, pretty much, and, thanks to hard work…” Alford says. “It really proves working hard pays off. (My mother) is one of the examples of somebody who showed me that it can be done.”
To learn more about PACC Atlanta, visit www.paccatlanta.org.
July 18, 2011