Article at a Glance
- Revitalizing Serbia’s economy requires encouraging more women to engage in the private sector at the small and medium enterprise level
- Women-to-women mentorship is crucial for supporting and nurturing the growth of women entrepreneurs because it helps build the mentees’ confidence to expand their businesses
- Local women’s business associations, which understand the local challenges that women entrepreneurs face, are great contributors to the entrepreneurship ecosystem for women business owners
Serbia has experienced a dramatic transition in the past 15 years. Overcoming the setbacks of the 1990s, which include conflicts, international sanctions, and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the country has been steadily pursuing political and economic reforms, including membership talks with the European Union. Yet, the global financial crisis and the May 2014 floods have pushed the economy into recession. Serbia now faces a large trade deficit (at 30 percent) and an unemployment rate of nearly 17 percent (the unemployment rate is even higher among youth at 47 percent).
Many economists have suggested that the answer to revitalizing Serbia’s economy is encouraging more women into the private sector, especially to start small and medium-sized enterprises. However, women in Serbia face limited access to economic opportunities. The employment rate of working age women is over 20 percent lower than it is for working age men. Women-owned enterprises (owners of small businesses, limited liability companies, partnerships, etc.) make up only 26 percent of all registered businesses and companies currently active in the Serbian economy.
Tackling this issue requires addressing the problem from the ground-up. That’s why the Association of Business Women in Serbia (ABW), a national organization with a mission to support and advocate for women entrepreneurs, led a 10-month mentorship program in partnership with CIPE to build the capacity of women entrepreneurs throughout Serbia.
ABW was inspired to implement a mentorship program after experiencing first-hand the benefits of participating in CIPE’s KnowHow Mentorship. Through the KnowHow program, ABW wasmentored by a U.S. association for two years. Within that timeframe, ABW developed into a mature organization – it improved its operations, increased its membership, and created a fundraising strategy. Seeing how mentorships can motivate and change individuals and organizations, ABW tailored the model to the local context and implemented a mentorship program that supported local women entrepreneurs throughout Serbia.
To engage women from different industries and geographies, ABW involved local women’s associations from throughout the country to implement the program. ABW issued a call for application for both mentors and mentees. Based on their industries, skills, and experiences, ABW and local coordinators from the affiliate organizations carefully selected and matched up a total of 27 mentoring pairs in five cities (7 pairs in Subotica, 8 pairs in Valjevo, 2 pairs in Zajecar, 4 pairs in Cacak, and 6 pairs in Belgrade). The mentors were ABW members with established businesses who were willing to share their knowledge and experiences. The mentees, on the other hand, were new entrepreneurs. Because most start-ups fail within the first few years of operations, ABW decided to involve women who had been operating their businesses for less than three years.
Within the first few weeks of being matched, each pair was required to set goals for the mentorship. ABW emphasized the need to set realistic, manageable goals that could be accomplished within ten months, such as developing a new marketing plan, assessing new business activities, or helping to strengthen the mentee’s business model. Once the goals were defined, all pairs agreed to communicate at least once a month, either in-person or by email and phone, to touch base on mentee progress and for the mentor to provide suggestions or support.
In addition, ABW and the local women’s associations organized monthly in-person meetings in each of the cities for the mentoring pairs; the meetings were also open to general association members in the community. These meetings included three activities: the first part was specifically for the mentorship pairs to catch up on how they were progressing with their goals. The second part was a training session for all interested attendees on business skills, such as accounting or marketing, led by guest speakers (who were successful local entrepreneurs or local university professors). The training session topics were chosen beforehand based on demand from the association members. The third part was a networking session for all attendees.
These monthly meetings were an important opportunity for the mentoring pairs to come together in a formal setting to update each other and to alert the local coordinators on any issues. It was also an opportunity for the mentoring pairs to seek assistance from other association members. For example, at one event in Belgrade, a mentee had specific questions for her mentor regarding tax regulations. Since her mentor lacked knowledge in this area, the mentor approached an accountant who was at the event for suggestions.
ABW also placed heavy emphasis on obtaining media attention for the program. Whenever there was a mentorship event, local television stations and journalists were invited to attend and interview the participants. This was significant because whenever a mentor or a mentee was interviewed, it publicized not just the success of the program but the success of these women’s businesses. At the same time, by focusing on the role of women entrepreneurs in the local economy, the media helped raise awareness that small and medium-sized enterprises in Serbia are often run by women.
At the conclusion of the ten-month program, CIPE interviewed the participants on what they gained from the experience. Their overall feedback emphasized that mentorship – especially between women – is crucial for supporting and nurturing the growth of women entrepreneurs. The following are key outcomes from this mentorship program.
Having someone with whom to share thoughts and ideas, and who could provide positive or constructive feedback, was the best part of the program for the mentees. The mentees unanimously agreed that they gained confidence from their interaction with their mentors. Lidia Varju from Subotica, a mentee who owns an engineering consultancy said, “Hearing the stories of how my mentor started her business, who also confronted challenges and fears, was very empowering.” Realizing that other businesswomen have overcome obstacles, and learning tips for addressing specific business issues, helped build the confidence of the mentees. “With my new confidence,” Varju noted, ”now I have concrete goals and vision for my company’s future and I’m excited.”
Thinking about the Future
Because the mentees were all new business owners, many lacked specific roadmaps for their companies’ future. What happens after you register a business? How do you ask your bank for more loans if you want to expand your firm? How do you separate friendship and management when you work closely with a small team? Having a mentor helped them clarify such questions and think ahead about their ventures.
Biljana Jovanovic, owner of an international clothing company Luna, commented that what she offered most to her mentee was helping her strategize about her company’s future. “My mentee just started her own design studio and managing an office is new to her. I reflected back on the skills I had to gain when I started my clothing company – how to manage people, how to negotiate with clients, and so forth. I gave my mentee candid tips on what she can anticipate ahead as she expands her business, and how she should think about her management style.”
Similarly, some mentors gained new perspectives that would help their company’s future as well. Izabel Lanji-Hnis, a mentor in Subotica with a project management consulting firm, commented that she became energized to revamp her own firm with new online business tools that were introduced to her by her mentee.
Power of women-to-women mentoring
ABW’s mentorship program purposely worked only with women because, from the association’s experience, male entrepreneurs in Serbia often do not understand the nuances and specific challenges that women business owners face. This approach was successful. Many program participants voiced that women-to-women mentorship has great advantages.
One mentor in Belgrade said that women-to-women mentorship is good because of its open communication style: “While technical expertise may not be different among men and women, the way mentorship is approached is different. Women care more about building trust and a bond with a mentee, because mentorship is about communicating weaknesses and supporting each other. From a mentee’s perspective, it is probably easier to admit vulnerability to a fellow woman entrepreneur who has already gone through the same thing of formalizing and expanding her business. The mentor wouldn’t judge. Whereas if the mentee had a male mentor, maybe she would be hesitant about admitting her actual fears.”
Varju from Subotica commented that having a women mentor was helpful because she understood the difficulties of juggling family and business obligations. “I am sure having a male mentor would have been great as well, but he probably wouldn’t understand how much I balance between my family and work. My mentor, on the other hand, understood the difficulties of building a company and raising a family at the same time.”
ABW made it a priority to recognize the success of mentorship participants and celebrate the importance of women entrepreneurs. At ABW’s 2014 Success Flower Awards Ceremony, an annual event that honors women entrepreneurs in Serbia, four awards were given to celebrate inspiring women business owners. One of them was a participating mentorship pair – a publisher and an artist – who successfully co-produced a children’s book that they are now selling together. Over 400 guests attended the event, including representatives from the government, embassies, international organizations, civil society organizations, as well as the local media. Thirteen television stations and 20 newspapers reported on the ceremony and the award recipients, which helped highlight the important role women entrepreneurs play in the Serbian economy.
ABW also emphasized celebrating progress made by the mentoring pairs. At each monthly meeting, participants were asked to share updates to celebrate even small successes, such as opening up a Facebook page for the mentee’s business to expand her firm’s marketing efforts. Acknowledging such wins –big or small – is important for the mentees because it helps build their confidence and showcases paths to success.
Networking through Associations
A mentorship program organized by an association like ABW offers great networking opportunities. Many of the mentees said that their mentors introduced them to new contacts to help expand the mentee’s business. For instance, Gordana Tesanovic from Valjevo is transforming her farm into an agritourism destination. As a way to test if her lodge was ready for guests, her mentor asked her friends in the agritourism industry to spend a night at the farm. “My mentor introduced me to experts in the industry and that was extremely helpful. Her friends provided valuable input at the end of their stay, and it was helpful to hear their suggestions since I would have otherwise not thought of them” Tesanovic said.
Moreover, whenever a mentor did not have an answer for the mentee, they sought help from other association members. When Tijana Sekulic, a mentor in Belgrade was asked by her mentee about export regulations, she did not have an answer. “I don’t have direct experience with exporting goods, so I couldn’t help her. But I knew other ABW members who export their products internationally, so we approached them for answers. Entrepreneurship is challenging in Serbia – it’s a new concept and has only been around for the past ten, fifteen years. And it also is difficult because you are usually working and trying to solve problems alone. Associations like ABW are a good way to network with other entrepreneurs who understand your struggles and who can help you along your journey.”
The ABW mentorship program produced meaningful impact both for the program participants and their communities at large. Overall, having a mentor helped expand the mentee’s businesses. For instance, Tea Konstantinovic, who owns a handmade jewelry line, worked with her mentor Sekulic to network and secure deals with gallery owners to sell her products. Sekulic was able to introduce Konstantinovic to several gallery owners in Belgrade, and now two studios are selling her accessories. More recently, one of the studio owners liked Konstantinovic’s work so much that she recommended them to the head of marketing at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, and now the Guggenheim is selling Konstantinovic’s jewelry. “Such opportunities wouldn’t have happened in such a short amount of time if I didn’t have my mentor [Sekulic]’s support and network” said Konstantinovic.
Moreover, ABW’s mentorship program spurred entrepreneurship beyond its program participants. In Valjevo, after months of discussion among the mentorship pairs, ABW identified a demand to create a business incubator for aspiring young entrepreneurs. To take the next step, the eight mentoring pairs in Valjevo visited the local government and Singidunum University’s Faculty of Business to progress the idea. The City of Valjevo agreed to jointly partner with ABW to create the incubator, and the Singidunum University offered one of its academic buildings to house it. Moving forward, ABW and the mentoring pairs from Valjevo will work together to develop the business incubator.
While the formal mentorship program has concluded, all of the mentoring participants told ABW that they will continue staying in touch to maintain the mentor-mentee relationship. The reason was not because the pairs did not achieve their goals, but because they wanted to continue growing together. “I think ABW did an excellent job coordinating the matching,” Sekulic commented. “My energy and my mentee’s energy was well-balanced and we were very compatible. Thanks to them, I made a new friend and someone who I’m excited to help in her career.”
By connecting aspiring and successful women entrepreneurs and business owners through mentorships led by local business women associations, CIPE helped create a space for women to network and develop both their business skills and leadership abilities. These skills will help women become stronger participants in their communities; working through an association will also improve the local entrepreneurship ecosystem. ABW’s and CIPE’s efforts, therefore, helped aspiring women entrepreneurs in Serbia gain confidence to follow their dreams and help propel the economic growth of the country.