In 2015, a non-governmental organization from Serbia, Startit, launched a Kickstarter campaign seeking support to bring free tech education to 100K people.
They have set several important goals – opening 3 additional Startit centers in smaller cities, creating an online learning platform, and finishing the transformation of the Startit Center in Belgrade, turning the basement into classrooms and maker space.
The campaign was a huge success, and we had a great pleasure to be a part of the initiative. We reached out to Zoja Kukic and Vukasin Stojkov, the founders of SEE ICT – Startit, to find out more about their experience, plans, the achievements of the second Startit Center in Indjija, and of course, to hear what they believe is critical for the growth of the Serbian IT community.
First things first – what gets you out of bed in the morning? What keeps you up at night?
Zoja: For me, it is usually the same thing — having an idea or a desire to do or finish something. Sometimes it is a full inbox that I still haven`t come round to, but more often it`s some amazing project we are working on and a desire to make it perfect.
Vukasin: The sense of urgency to make our vision a reality. Waking up for me is like the moment when Neo from Matrix wakes from the pod after he has taken the red pill, and then segues into the White Rabbit from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps this sounds funny, and it often is, but there’s so much passion we put into our work, and without that, it’s pretty hard to have the real impact.
We now know what motivates you personally, but what was the original source of motivation for you to create the first Startit Center? How did Startit center get its start?
Since the beginning of the organization, we dreamt about our own space where we can work with similar people, help them in their endeavors and where we can host our events. As our organization grew and the entire tech and startup community, finally we were able to build something like that.
We have managed to build a strong community around us and are now trying to support it by providing a space where any event related to technology, design and entrepreneurship can be hosted — a lecture, meetup, workshop, networking, a conference organized either by an organization or an individual activist. Another proof how much this is important to us is the fact that one of the criteria for those who want to work in this space is to have the giving-back-mentality, and are willing to share their knowledge and experience with their coworkers and community.
Also, we have 40 workstations for amazing people who work on some very exciting products involving VR, biotech, robotics, AI, etc.
Startit Center and almost all our projects include various numbers of key stakeholders — entrepreneurs, tech wizs, designers, investors, tech companies, NGOs and media aimed towards the same goal — to promote and strengthen local tech and startup scene in order to increase economic growth and improve living standard of our countrymen.
SEE ICT has organized more than 100 workshops and conferences and launched about 40 campaigns. Was it hard to get people out of their bedroom into the idea of collaboration and working together?
The first startup conference in the region was organized by us in Belgrade, and we found just one startup from our country that was willing to pitch. That was 5 years ago and it is amazing where we are now — our tech blog is read by 50,000 people every month, our projects have reached more than 100,000 people and the number of startups created has grown seven-fold and finally we are strong enough to have our own spaces and events across the country.
It wasn`t easy, but if you have the true desire to do something, you find a way. We are very proud of what we`ve done so far and can`t wait for the new things that are yet to come :)
Your plan is to create opportunities for 100K people to receive free tech education. What activities can we expect to see or participate in?
The idea behind this is to help decrease huge unemployment and to use Serbian smarts to help the global shortage of programmers. There is no reason to be centralized in this day and age and we plan to use the technology to our advantage.
Through the online platform and 12 Startit Centers across the country, we will provide free, deep knowledge on topics relevant to the digital economy and help thousands of our countrymen to improve their career chances, whether it is employment or entrepreneurship.
The campaign was very successful. What are you most proud of?
One word — community. Without it, we couldn`t have done it and we are so grateful to almost 500 people who donated to our campaign and thousands of those who shared and helped spread the news.
It is a huge responsibility for us and we take it very seriously. This is the largest non-profit crowdfunding success in the region and is another proof that if you are determined enough you can always find the way to support your efforts.
Create your community. No PR will support you as those who know you, follow you and have or will benefit from what you are doing.
We have shared the lessons from this campaign to the community and are already helping startups create their own campaigns, one of them raised 40,000$. We want to make this a significant funding channel for our entrepreneurs.
Let’s talk about the second Startit Center given you have turned a gambling house into the tech center. Why did you choose Indjija?
The criteria were very simple — great people with initiative and desire to run this space and change their community. It is a pilot project and so far proves really great. We are having courses for youth and children and have had a huge number of free events, which are gathering the community from that area. We are measuring the results but, in 5 years we believe the impact will be huge.
You are creating the first online platform for learning to program in the Serbian language. Can you tell us more about it?
The language is not the key differentiating factor — we aim to create a platform for learning that dramatically lessens the steepness of learning to program for novices. This way we hope that we can kill two birds with one stone. On one hand, supply the tech ecosystem with more talent, and provide the people who can’t find jobs with their skillset an opportunity to work, on the other. This will obviously be extremely hard, but we’re taking the challenge head-on.
Businesses oftentimes reach a point where they need help to cross some barriers on the way to bringing their products or services to market. How can you help?
The first and foremost is our yearly Startup Academy program, which brings together some of the most accomplished, experienced and skillful entrepreneurs and professionals, which can then help the startups attending. In addition to that, whenever a mature-enough startup contacts us we help them out with their challenges. Fortunately or unfortunately, there still isn’t a need for us to scale this.
You also organize the Startit Fest for startups. What has changed in the startup community following the success of the campaign?
Not too much. We’re committed to our work on building the startup ecosystem with everything that this entails, and even though we won’t be using the proceeds of the campaign for these goals directly, we’ve got many cool projects in the pipeline for our startups.
Your TOP 3 lessons learned?
If you have a strong community you can achieve everything
No matter how much you try, sometimes you can fail and it is OK as long as it does not paralyze you (one week before the end of the campaign we were sure this will not be a success and were drafting a fail post)
You can live without sleep for quite a long time and still function thanks to adrenaline
Last, but not least, where do you see the Startit Center(s) in 5 years?
That’s a good one. We have no idea. Five years ago we hadn’t planned many of the things we accomplished. Somebody said we’re very “agile”, describing how we relentlessly take on new projects and ambitions. But it’s safe to say that they will have had a massive impact on the Serbian tech industry.
Thank you guys! :)
The second Startit Center in Indjija opened its doors in January and since then has been on a mission to provide free tech education and strengthen the community. Through various workshops, lectures, and meetups many have improved their knowledge or learned something new. But they won’t stop here. Their goal is to open 12 educational centers across Serbia by 2020 and to help cities across Serbia establish their IT communities.
The goal of Startit Center is to drive technology innovation and create a co-working space for entrepreneurs-to-be, encouraging the young to stay in the country, and to build a positive environment for the growth of the Serbian startup ecosystem. Moreover, for the second year in a row, SEE ICT organization has received the Enterprise Promotion Award that is given by local and regional authorities to initiatives that support entrepreneurship and raise awareness of positive enterprise activities. Thus, we can expect great things from them, and we’ll probably hear of another Startit Center being opened anytime soon.