A FAILED MALL TRANSFORMED, A MULTI ENTREPRENEUR AND AN IT HUB.
By Stefan Jermann
While I had previously arranged to meet with Bojan, creative director and head of the graphic design department of the academy of arts, he gives me a ring on my cell and says we should meet at »BosMal« where he wants to introduce me to his companion. I am not sure if I understood the name and he repeats the fusion of the names: “Bosnia and Malaysia makes BOSMAL, understood?”
Before meeting with Bojan, I did some prep work, even though little personal information could be found on him. His name first claimed international attention during the siege where he, his now wife and a colleague acted as »Trio« - a design collective that created postcards depicting the absurdity, horrors and the sarcasm this conflict brought about. I was eager to meet the guy, after all I somewhat had the impression that he is the creative brain of Sarajevo and had become a propeller to help push the younger generation.
After a short taxi ride, Bojan greets me with a smile outside of this post war skyscraper. I was particularly impressed by its architecture, but certainly by its size. Bojan elaborates that they planned a mall in this building, but the space remained deserted, there was no demand for things like that. :”Let me show you something. This is a future vision for Bosnia that has just started to take off. We are transforming those empty spaces into a creative IT hub for start-ups and established IT companies, plus we just started an academy where we train the new generation in creating apps, coding and most of all on how to start a new business. We want to spark the entrepreneurial mind-set of the young generation and hope to create some sort of a hunger to reach out for goals and visions. Words that have not been in the mind-set of the young generation until recently, but now we see change happening.”
We enter a modernist hallway with lots of glass windows and see people working behind computers everywhere. Companies developing cutting edge »IT« solutions on a transnational level. Then staff folks of the newly established IT academy greet us. One quickly forgets that we are actually in a former mall; the space is clean, modern and ready to be used. We learn that courses have just started and the response is huge. Finally, it seems, doors are opening up for the younger generation and they get the opportunity to learn and take courses with international credited staff that have a proven track record. They are all working professionals and want to share their knowledge and give back, explain the head of marketing, Kenan Salihbegovic, of Academy 387.
Bojan takes us down one floor and into a colourful and modern large size office that boosts a fresh and clean look. Where Edin Saracevic, the founder and mastermind of the 387 concept, greets me. Saracevic also likes to call the operation “IT Disneyland” because it should become a playground for the young and ambitious where projects are encouraged, discovered and eventually seed funded. Edin Saracevic is dividing his time between Sarajevo and the United States, where he has become a successful serial entrepreneur and multi millionaire, founding and co-founding various start-ups. He is one of those 3 million Bosnians that left the country during the war and spread all over the world. Saracevic tells me that the Bosnians living abroad are one of the countries biggest assets. By starting the 387 hub it is now time to give some of the fortune back to the new generation, says Saracevic, but on the other hand, the gifted venture capitalist is a business man and he envisions to create some sort of a “mini” Silicon Valley, even if that comparison is a long stretch, as he admits himself. In a recent interview for Forbes Magazine, Edin points out that Bosnia remains a country where ethnic divisions between the Moslem Bosnians, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats continue to create obstacles for businesses. “To do everything here takes 10 times more effort than other places,” he says. “You can’t just take concepts from the United States and cut and paste. There are huge cultural differences.”
The concept of the 387 hub is visionary and it unites people with exactly those visions under one roof. First of all Saracevic is renting out office space to various IT start-ups that are already operating on an international level. They are smaller companies anywhere from 5 to 20 staff. Then there is Nest71, which is a shared office space that provides infrastructure. You can just rent a desk for a day, a week or a month and it gives young people a chance to interact with others that are in the same field, rather than experimenting at home all by themselves. Plus, there is the Academy that shall breed the new generation of IT entrepreneurs.
When I ask Saracevic about the future of Sarajevo, he is very optimistic, despite the huge youth unemployment rate (At 60,4% Bosnia & Herzegovina’s youth unemployment is amongst the highest in the world according to the statistics of “The World Bank”). He points out that the young generation need be given opportunities to develop ideas and visions. “The potential is there, Bosnians are smart and fast learners and Sarajevo has the potential of becoming an important place on the IT map in the Balkans.
If the 387 hub concept works out, Saracevic might take the business idea to other neighbouring countries and open new branches, so far the focus is on Sarajevo and the response has been huge. Even the “Academy” which just opened — is running on full steam. So here comes a Bosnian guy that speaks the American entrepreneurial language as if he never did anything else. At the same time he understands the complexity of his countries culture. And, the guy is not just in it for the big buck; otherwise he would have not opened shop at a place that is known for ridiculous bureaucracy and corruption. The motivations behind are “to give back” and rebuilding a country that is still severely suffering from a post war trauma.
While other countries have gotten an extreme boost after the war, Bosnia has been lacking that kind of economical support ever since. While becoming part of European Community is one of the top priorities in Bosnia, only time will tell if that would alter the situation for the better, as other countries such as Greece have proven quite the opposite. As for now, the hopes are clearly in the hands of people such as Edin Saracevic who operate at the root and are capable of changing the situation with micro-interventions that actually do improve the situation and the hopes for the future generations to come.