The room was full of energy and promise. Huddled around computers, young adults worked in teams in a bright, open-concept, collaborative environment resembling a startup, creating innovative apps and IT platforms.
This is Serbia’s ICT Hub, a business incubator in Belgrade for information and communications technology (ICT) entrepreneurs.
Last fall, I visited the ICT Hub -- a partner project of USAID, DNA Communications and Orion Telekom -- to learn more about economic opportunities for young adults in Serbia, a country where the unemployment rate for this population is about 50 percent. However, jobs in ICT are growing for people entering the workforce.
So far, over 60 young Serbians have participated in the ICT Hub’s intensive training for developing entrepreneurship skills and business strategies, and many more have engaged in monthly lectures open to the general public on strategy, leadership and tech entrepreneurship.
The ICT Hub provides a space available 24/7 where teams can collaborate, receive mentorship support from local business executives, have access to business and legal resources, and develop programs and applications specific to the IT sector.
As a young communications professional and an ICT aficionado, I was delighted to discover a general sentiment of optimism and hope when I spoke to my fellow ICT-enthusiast peers at the Hub about their various apps and innovations.
First, I met ICT Hub Project Director Kosta Andrić, who emphasized that the goal of the Hub is to build the potential for tech entrepreneurship while changing the mindset of young adults and the work culture within the country.
Young adults who first come to the Hub often fear failure, but through the program, they learn to take chances and innovate. Not all ideas and products may succeed, but the skills developed through the hub are transferrable to future ventures.
Kosta introduced me Milan Brindić, 26, co-creator of Bincode Entertainment, a gaming studio that produces mobile games. Milan enrolled in the ICT Hub’s program after an initial investment from a Bulgarian accelerator, a business incubator that provided mentorship and support for his startup. His team now has a space to work on the game as well as support from the hub’s extensive network of contacts, and a pathway for fulfilling his dream of publishing his game.
“Life in Serbia is hard for a young person … but, despite that, every person must follow his dream,” Milan said. “The ICT Hub is very useful to me and helps me the most with networking…every tenant helps each other, so we are like family.”
Integrating communication and technology, Milan’s passion for gaming has a regional twist; his role-playing mobile game apps are based on Slavic mythology.
“We are inspired by all the other great role-play games in the world,” he said. “Each team member is in love with this genre of games. But one important fact -- everyone knows what Greek mythology is, but we are inspired by Slavic mythology, and we want to educate our players about Slavic mythology and about Slavs.”
A creative path for many
Since the ICT Hub opened in fall 2014, several products developed have been quite successful. Some participants have created mobile games, such as extreme sports game Longboard Mapp, which has more than 15,000 users. ICT Hub participant Vuk Nikolić, creator of TruckTrack, a management software for the trucking industry, was connected to U.S. venture capital seed fund 500 Startups, which invested money and expertise in Nikolić’s software and team. Now, TruckTrack’s team has expanded, and the platform has over 2,000 companies registered.
Other teams are just getting their start, though they are enthusiastic about their potential. Nemanja Stefanovic, 25, creator of HireApp – an application connecting youth and others with part-time jobs – remarked that the creative space and mentorship offered by the hub contributed to his success
Investing in the future
The next ICT Hub session of pitching to potential investors will take place this spring. Hope lingered in the air as participants worked in a flurry to innovate.
After meeting with the young entrepreneurs at the Hub, I can summarize the experience in one word: possibilities.
In the words of Milan Brindić, “In the next five to 10 years, I see myself running a gaming company in San Francisco, focused on game design and experience. I am making awesome games… So, my dream is… I don’t have any dream, I am living it already!”
ICT Hub is a model that could be replicated in other countries to promote entrepreneurship, leadership development, and increased economic opportunity.