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Serbia's Faith in its Young Entrepreneurs

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

Like so many nations that have recently gone through major restructuring over the past 10 years, Serbia is looking to its young entrepreneurial minds to shape a new nation as it marches toward economic recovery. However, while Serbia has embarked upon several structural reforms—especially in the banking sector and in employment regulations—it has yet to successfully tackle corruption, bureaucracy and a weak judicial system. These are holding back its economic potential.

Serbia is no different than other nations freshly embracing capitalism. I stopped here in Belgrade today in the run up to Global Entrepreneurship Week to talk to students and entrepreneurs full of promise and optimism about their capacity to make a difference in their country as future job creators. Many I met with this evening seemed motivated to be the entrepreneurial drivers of new economic growth. One group of students walked me through an array of ideas capitalizing on opportunities they see with Serbia having low labor costs combined with excellent language and IT skills.

The Serbian government has certainly encouraged this from the pulpit. Government investments in recent years in support of entrepreneurship have promoted an appreciation for the entrepreneurial career path by providing different types of financial and non-financial support for new enterprises throughout the country. For example, the Ministry of Youth and Sport has begun a training project for young applicants (ages 18-35) as potential applicants for startup loans offered by the Ministry of Economy and Regional Development. Serbia has also received foreign assistance for training programs in basic entrepreneurship skills from the US Government which has supported more than 1,000 Serbian youth to help them start a new business or strengthen an existing one. Norway has also tried to help bringing a Business Innovation Program (BIP) in cooperation with the Serbian Ministry of Education and Science aimed at adding entrepreneurship in the regular curricula at vocational schools in Serbia.

I am a skeptic of government programs for entrepreneurs but their existence in a nation like this is at least a useful measure of government interest and willingness to recognize the value of startups. Be Your Own Boss (BeYOB) for example, a practical advisory and training service for individuals starting their own businesses, is very popular, having been revamped during last year’s Global Entrepreneurship Week/Serbia. Programs like it are generating additional interest from young people in networks, connections and knowledge around successful startups.

As in many economies, entrepreneurship is evaluated and addressed hand-in-hand with SMEs, which in Serbia account for 99.8% of the total number of enterprises and 67.2% of employees. The government is currently implementing the 2008-2013 Strategy for Competitive and Innovative Small and Medium Sized Enterprises, as part of its efforts to become a member of the European Union. The aim of the strategy is to create an environment conducive to an export-oriented, knowledge-based entrepreneurial economy. In developing the strategy, the government consulted with Serbian entrepreneurs and included in its action plan a focus on reducing administrative barriers to business regulatory compliance. In 2009, the government fulfilled part of its promise by establishing the Business Registers Agency, a one-stop shop for business registration. However, studies indicate that the greatest challenges to Serbian business owners continue to be with administrative issues associated with the government, political instability and economic uncertainty.

While it is encouraging that entrepreneurship is officially considered to be a major driving force to its development of the economy, Serbia has a long way to go to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Some have suggested that developing that culture and network for new firm formation will be ushered along as Serbia prepares to join the European Union. Membership of the EU may help tackle corruption and bureaucracy, but my money is on the young Serbs I met today networking with other startup ecosystem players around the world through initiatives like Global Entrepreneurship Week. In this former Yugoslavian state, it will be these young entrepreneurs who deliver on the promise of a “Balkan Tiger” and Serbs would do well to make it as easy for them as possible to start and scale.

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