20 years long journey from socialism to entrepreneurship

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Business Environment in Yugoslavia (Serbia): Historical Background

I rarely talk about my life story; only few of my best friends in the US know about the twists and turns in my life, but today I am compelled to tell more. I’ll even break the rule that a woman should  never tell her age. I was born in 1970; I was raised in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, non-aligned country ruled by Communist Party and their interpretation of self-managed socialism. In practical terms, that means that I grew up in a country that was not as autocratic as Soviet Union, but not as free as Western Europe either. All businesses were owned by the federal government and run by party leaders. For the most part, private property and private business didn’t exist.

I left Yugoslavia (now Serbia) in 1993 for the US, in the middle of the bloody civil war, and difficult economic transition out of socialism. Twenty years later, I am so thrilled to meet and advise young entrepreneurs in Serbia who are enthusiastically changing the country for the better.

Knez Mihailova pedestrian street, Belgrade
Knez Mihailova pedestrian street, Belgrade

Private property and entrepreneurship is the cornerstone of the American society. Because of that, first time entrepreneurs can draw upon experiences of generations of successful business people before them. That’s not the case in most Eastern European countries that went trough tough transitions over the last fifty years. Serbia, in particular, was hard hit by World War II, followed by 40 years of autocratic Socialism, then civil war in 1990s before finally setting into a democratic society following the elections in 2002. Because the country was shaken to the core with numerous and difficult transitions, young entrepreneurs today don’t have lots of role models and successful business people that can guide them as they launch their companies and dream about expanding internationally.

Startup Ecosystem in Belgrade, Serbia

 

SEE ICT
SEE ICT

There are only few incubators in Serbia today with a mission to foster entrepreneurship, so I was privileged to spend time with SEE ICT this week, meet their leadership team and some of the startups under their roof and the region. Zoja Kukic welcomed me warmly  to SEE ICT. In the last four years since they have been established Zoja and her team have organized  hundreds of networking events for budding entrepreneurs and educational workshops covering both business topics and technical topics. They also host two months long startup academy with support from leading accelerators in the US, such as Tech Stars, Seedcamp, and StartLabs.

Advising Serbian Startups

Because I would be thrilled to see more and more successful companies grow in my home town, I offered 1-1 mentorship to SEE ICT members. I was truly privileged to be able to offer strategic advice and more ideas for go-to-market strategy to six entrepreneurs.

  • Nemanja Stefanovic is a first time entrepreneur from Belgrade, but comes from a family of small business owners. He and his co-founder are currently working on a prototype that will help Main Street small business owners with a store front find suitable part-time employees quickly.
  • Kristina Nikolic & Bojana Borkovic founded Strawberry Energy four years ago and are poised to grow. I was truly impressed by design and technical capabilities of their product, Strawberry Tree, powered by solar panels so they can provide internet connectivity and charging stations to people living and traveling in the city. Investors: don’t lose an opportunity to hear their pitch; they are fundraising currently!
  • Irina Ponomarev, cofounder at Althemy, impressed me a flawless execution of defining a narrow target market segment and then delivering a product that fits their customers’ needs perfectly. Because of their textbook go-to-market strategy, they will be successful in their goal to expand their market size geographically.
  • Vladimir Arnautovic, founder of Tender5, is filling the need in the region to match skilled handyman with people who are not so skilled with tools, but need to get projects done at their home or office.
  • Rastko Pajić, co-founder at Regos, a successful serial entrepreneur, came from Novi Sad to brainstorm about new project he and his partners are currently evaluating.
  • Ivan Petrović, co-founder at Spectator, had designed and developed a beautiful, user friendly analytic software that helps small and medium size company managers have an insight into their employees productivity or the lack of it.

All entrepreneurs that I met are highly dedicated to their business, and they all want to grow their companies and make a significant impact in the region and word wide. Their positive energy, enthusiasm, professionalism, attention to detail, ability to learn and accept constructive advice and criticism left me elated and happy, because only 20 years ago government was putting all kids of roadblocks in front of people that wanted to launch their own private business. Change is good.

Mentorship is a key to a successful startup ecosystem 

First time entrepreneurs need successful role models, mentors, to advise them as they embark on the hard, but exciting process of growing a new company. For example, my adopted home town, Raleigh-Durham, NC is having a thriving startup environment where people can find networking or educational event they can attend every single day. Even though support is plentiful, North Carolina startups still face challenges meeting venture capitalists because most investors are located either in Silicon Valley or New England. This challenge is even harder for people in Serbia, so I encourage everyone that can to join me and support first time entrepreneurs in this part of the world. Leadership team at SEE ICT should be the first point of contact for anyone wanting to engage with entrepreneurs in Belgrade, Serbia.

About Dragana Mendel 84 Articles
Dragana Mendel is a President and Principal Consultant at ANAGARD, LLC. In her role, she provides management consulting services to small and medium size businesses on the best strategy to achieve their short and long term goals.