Macedonia—a landlocked country in the Balkans, bordered by Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania—has had a difficult journey to become a free-market democracy since declaring independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. Despite making many strides, Macedonia still has a youth unemployment rate of 50 percent and 22 percent of the population lives under the national poverty line.
Sofija Bogeva, Kristina Domazetoska, and Aleksandra Iloska are three young social entrepreneurs who are determined to make a dent in some of these persistent social problems. They grew up in small towns across Macedonia during the transitional period of the 1990s. Now in their late twenties, the three women have returned to the country with the goal of injecting fresh energy into Macedonia’s economy and working to make it more inclusive for all Macedonian youth.
The trio first met as undergraduate students at the University St Cyril and Methodius in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, where they studied electronic business, graduating in 2010. Since then, they have earned high-powered fellowships, pursued multiple international master’s degrees, and secured jobs in multinational corporations. Sofija is a management consultant for organizational development. She won a Chevening scholarship and pursued her master’s degree in Management of Innovation at Goldsmith’s University of London. Kristina earned a master’s degree in International Business from the University of Economics, Prague, won a Fulbright scholarship, pursued an MBA from the University of Dallas, and then spent several years working for a software company in Dallas and London. Aleksandra continued her studies at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Eindhoven, Netherlands and was employed by Dutch Construction Company as a business analyst.
These are significant accomplishments and, on paper, they appear wildly successful. Five years after graduating, the three friends were stretched across Macedonia, England, the Netherlands and the United States, pursuing careers in the corporate sector.
Yet, they each had what they describe as an “awakening moment” when they realized that their lifelong interest in social issues had somehow been pushed to the margins in their pursuit of these high-powered jobs.
It was at this point that Sofija came across Social Entrepreneurship 101, a free course from +Acumen, and sent the registration link to her friends. They all signed up. Kristina explains:
“We wanted to meet people who were working around the world so that we could share experiences and knowledge about how they had introduced social entrepreneurship to their countries, or to identify models that they were using that we could bring back to Macedonia. We knew that Macedonian civil society organizations needed help transitioning to social enterprises.”
At first, the three friends only dabbled in the coursework, perusing the readings, but not yet ready to commit to starting their own social enterprise. However, their curiosity was piqued enough to sign up for another +Acumen course. This time it was the introduction to Human-Centered Design course with IDEO.org where they learned new tools and methods for tackling big problems.
During this period, Aleksandra became disillusioned with the work in the construction company and moved back to Macedonia where she initially worked with the Dutch Embassy to do outreach to marginalized communities and LGBT youth. Then she began working with a think tank to research social enterprise models that could be viable in Macedonia.
Meanwhile, Kristina was still in Texas, working for a large software firm on a product that provided mentoring services to corporate clients. Recognizing that this product could also be used to have social impact, she decided to start developing a Macedonian mentoring project with Sofjia and Aleksandra. They applied for funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund in 2014 and 2015 but, despite making it to the Top 100 projects two years in a row, ultimately did not receive any funding.
This left them discouraged. But when the +Acumen course on Social Entrepreneurship 101 was offered again, they decided to sign up a second time, and this time used the assignments to develop their mentoring initiative. They knew they needed to figure out a business model and a sustainable revenue stream since grant funding had not been forthcoming.
“After we started taking these +Acumen classes, we got more encouraged to take up this idea,” Kristina said,
“When I took the +Acumen course again, it was an awakening moment. I realized I didn’t have to work in the corporate world anymore. I could pursue social impact full time.
This course helped me realize that we need much more than money to develop my country of Macedonia. We also have to be strategic about how you measure the impact of that money. Macedonia is still far down on the list of “developed countries.” I wanted to change this.”
In the Social Entrepreneurship 101 course, the team identified the concrete social problem they wanted to solve and for whom.
“We realized the big problem we have in Macedonia is youth unemployment. It is almost 50 percent at the moment. Based on the research we have it is not because of a lack of jobs. We identified that the core problem is when undergraduates leave the school, they lack employable skills,” Aleksandra said.
“Our education system is very formal in nature. As a result, youth are not always able to adapt and respond to what the market needs. Employers face the problem of trying to train them for months and months. The skills that students have when they graduate from university are not what they need when they start in a corporation.”
After working through the Social Entrepreneurship 101 course, they decided they wanted to create Mentor2Empower, a mentoring platform to match Macedonian youth with mentors.
“We want to shift youth from being very passive about their own employment future to becoming people who really take action,”
With this potential solution in mind, the team signed up for Lean Startup Principles for Social Impact, a +Acumen course that requires participants to get out in the field and start talking to real customers. Importantly, Kristina also decided to move back to Macedonia so the three team members were now co-located in the same time zone. She got trial accounts of the mentorship software from her former employer and they identified two mentees and two mentors to pilot their idea.
Their lean experimentation led to some critical breakthroughs—most importantly that they shouldn’t rush to a technical solution.
“We discovered that our users were very excited when we were introducing the idea. But then when we gave them a seven-day free trial to the software, we realized that the mentee was not so engaged,” Aleksandra observed.
“The mentees said the platform was too hard to use. It was not functional for the process of education. That was something we had kind of thought before but we didn’t think it was really an issue. This experimentation made us realize that it was actually a big problem.”
Mentor2Empower is still in its early stages. They’ve just started to register as a nonprofit organization and have signed up for the Prototyping course with +Acumen and they’re excited to reach out to others in +Acumen Corps to brainstorm potential revenue streams for their model. But the +Acumen courses have encouraged them to keep working on an idea and to learn much more quickly about what works and what doesn’t.
“Taking classes with +Acumen is a great chance for us to get involved in a network of people who have already done great work from which we can learn and exchange knowledge. It’s such an amazing platform,” Kristina said.
Kristina, Aleksandra and Sofija are exactly the type of entrepreneurial energy many countries need. Macedonia is lucky to have to have them.
This article was produced with interview help from David Aduama.