Four young people show a tabletop display

Team Georgia created a board game designed to enhance children’s motor skills. Different closures – buttons, zips, etc – conceal new scenes behind the big picture. Photo Credit: Junior Achievement/USAID

As we celebrate International Youth Day this month, we can look to the entrepreneurial spirit of young people in Serbia for inspiration. I first noticed this streak of industriousness in 1988 during a trip to Belgrade, then the capital of Yugoslavia. At that time, the city was abuzz about a brand new coffee shop, one of the first of its kind to be owned and operated by a young entrepreneur.

Today in the United States, most people might not remember what a splash Starbucks made when it first came on the scene. The same was true back then in Belgrade, and the stakes were a lot higher than in Seattle. Belgrade was still part of a communist country and independent businesses were unique and difficult to start, let alone a coffee shop where young people could meet and talk openly about the events of the day.

Today, Belgrade is the capital of Serbia and is a bustling city, which boasts a pedestrian shopping area with small, fashionable boutiques, busy restaurants and the now ubiquitous independent coffee shops. There are signs of entrepreneurship everywhere. And, yes, Starbucks is planning to open a store in coffee-loving Belgrade this year.

Not far from this lively downtown scene is the home of a new type of business endeavor catering to young innovators, Impact Hub Belgrade.

With a grant from USAID, Impact Hub helps young entrepreneurs and startups attract potential investors. This focus on youth is significant as Serbia has a 40 percent youth unemployment rate. And like many countries of the region, a lack of job opportunities compels large numbers of young people to leave Serbia in search of work elsewhere.

How does it work? The Impact Hub’s Launch Pad program gives young innovators the tools and skills they need to develop new products, validate their business models and link them to regional and international investors. Access to finance is the number one obstacle for start-ups, so bridging this gap is critical for creating opportunity for young entrepreneurs.

Five young people pose for the camera

Team Macedonia, UnicaSpera, created Ringobit, a disc with numbers set on rotating rings that generate answers to math questions to assist children with learning difficulties. Photo Credit: Junior Achievement/USAID

While the project ended in March, participants raised $230,000 in new investments from a mix of Serbian public sector and domestic and international private investors, and these new investments have continued over the past few months, including an additional $100,000 from Dubai’s Innovation Impact Grant Program.

Almost 30 years after my first visit to Belgrade, I had the opportunity to again witness the entrepreneurial spirit of Serbians when I met with young innovators working at the Impact Hub.

One ecologically – and business – minded innovator, Nikica Marinkovic, showed me his Box System, a new prototype for transporting organic produce that replaces Styrofoam. He already has funding from an Austrian investor, and is actively assessing access to the U.S. market. Another entrepreneur used the Launchpad support framework to create a competitive niche product targeting the growing men’s skin care market in Serbia and internationally.

Serbia’s entrepreneurial spirit is also demonstrated by the success of the Junior Achievement (JA) program in the country. With USAID’s support, JA advances entrepreneurship through programs to help high school students enter the job market with business-friendly technical skills.

With the JA training curriculum, students learn all facets of setting up a business, from writing a business plan to identifying product placement and forecasting earnings. While JA has an active presence throughout Europe, the Serbia JA program is among the strongest, as demonstrated by recently hosting the European Student Company Competition. Thirty-nine student companies from throughout Europe convened in Belgrade to showcase their businesses and present to a jury of prominent business leaders from the region. The students excelled at modeling business skills, teamwork, problem solving, organizational management, and communication and presentation skills.

The team representing Serbia, called Groove Street, is a group of students in Belgrade who started a business to make special wristbands that contain computer code with the medical information of the person wearing it – inspired by the medical needs of fellow students in their own classroom. These young innovators observed a problem and got to work solving it. Their goal was to make first aid in medical emergencies faster and more efficient. The best part? Not only did they create a useful product, their wristbands may help save the lives of their fellow students.

Five young people pose for the camera

Winning team from Serbia, Groove Street, invented a special wristbands imprinted with the wearer’s medical information. Team members adopted as their motto a quote from German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “Health is not everything, but without health everything is nothing.” Photo Credit: Junior Achievement/USAID

The JA initiative is also supported by local businesses and the Government of Serbia. Serbian companies and the Ministry of Economy provided financial support for the competition and the Ministry of Education approved JA’s entrepreneurship curriculum – both important investments in Serbia’s youth!

While it’s true that aspiring entrepreneurs in Belgrade still face challenges, once again, young Serbian entrepreneurs are making a statement. The innovation and dedication of these young businesswomen and men is something to celebrate. Perhaps by going to the local coffee shop, the one owned and operated by a young entrepreneur who has chosen to stay local and launch a new business.


Gretchen Birkle is Deputy Assistant Administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia. Follow her at @GBirkleUSAID