Teaching entrepreneurship in Sarajevo: an intersection of cultures

I recently spent two weeks teaching in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) with the Ivey LEADER Project. Our teams teach business concepts to promising entrepreneurs in emerging markets around the world.

Immersing myself in a culture while building relationships with my team and entrepreneurs was incredibly rewarding. This article is a summary & reflection of my experiences and learnings while in Sarajevo. Any views expressed here are my own.

Thank you to the LEADER team, Restart & Salih Musić, the Bosnian American Friendship Association, and USAID Diaspora Invest for making the BiH LEADER Project happen!


East meets West: Sarajevo’s history as a crossroads of cultures makes the modern city a mélange: Ottoman and Roman, Eastern and Western, multi-denominational, modern and historic. You can see this history in the city’s structure, architecture, and in people’s stories.

History and Narrative: Reading about history and understanding the events through the eyes of people who experienced them gave me a deeper perspective of the resilience needed to survive a war.

Culture in Sarajevo: Bosnians are welcoming people who shared their food, music, and cultural traditions with us. Sarajevo is a huge tech hub, and entrepreneurship a popular path in BiH.

Case Teaching: Case teaching is a collaborative and challenging endeavor between teacher and students, and the program acts like a knowledge exchange where everyone brings their unique experiences to the class.

Teaching Team, Travel Advice, & Resources

East Meets West

When I found out I was travelling to BiH, I was very excited but had no idea what to expect. I know very few people who have been to BiH, and had only heard of the country’s history during the fall of Yugoslavia and the war during the 90’s. Before arriving, I read about Sarajevo as a ‘European Jerusalem’ because of the mixture of Eastern and Western cultures. I started to understand the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungarian influences, and the recent war.

Going to Sarajevo made all of this history come alive in a way I’d never experienced. I was born and grew up in Toronto with strong Ukrainian heritage, and I am acclimatized to a multi-cultural atmosphere. But I have never spent an extended time period in somewhere with this fusion of cultures: having mosques, churches, synagogues andTurkish and Austro-Hungarian buildings side by side. I had also never spent a significant time period in a city with a strong Muslim presence.

Being part of the Ottoman (1461–1878) and Austro-Hungarian (1878–1908) empires influences the appearance of modern-day Sarajevo. You can see this fusion across the city: The Meeting of Cultures, a street where one way looks like a Turkish style market, and the other way is Austro-Hungarian buildings.

My favourite building in Sarajevo was Vijenica (pronounced Vee-yeh-chne-tsya), the Moorish Revival style city hall. Walking in is a wonder to the eyes, and this building is a sort of metaphor for two historical influences : Islamic-inspired motifs and stained glass alongside Corinthian columns and the grandeur of a Central European empire.

Walking into the old city known as Baščaršija (pronounced Bash-char-shija), I felt immersed in this historic Turkish-style market. You can feel the bustle of locals enjoying great culture and food in the main arteries, and suddenly enter a tiny alley and find a different world of relaxed shisha bars, metalwork merchants, art sellers, and more. Every time we went back, we would discover new places and corners we had not noticed before.

A lot of the old city was based around buildings built by Gazi Husrev-Beg, the governor of Sarajevo from 1521 to 1541. His endowment fund, or waqf, funded many structures that still make up the old city today. These include mosque, madrasa (school), bezistan (shopping mall), hammam (bathhouse), imaret (kitchen), and musafirhana (inn). The next governor, Isa Bey Ishaković, expanded on this complex to build up much more of the old city.

Ottoman-era buildings are mostly found in the red rectangle. (Credit: Sarajevo map, Masina Nina on Flickr)

It was fascinating for me to see how these buildings have impacted the lives of Sarajevans for 400 years, and I felt this connection to history that I do not feel as much walking on the streets of Toronto.

Our two weeks in Sarajevo were during the month of Ramadan, a pillar of Islam where people fast daily from sunrise to sundown. A daily cannon shot around 8pm from a hilltop fortress signals that people are allowed to eat their large nightly meal, Iftar. One highlight from our trip was eating delicious Iftar meals with some of our students and getting to know them outside of the classroom. This multi-course meal included local dishes such as somun bread, topa cheese and egg dip, burek or sirnica pastries, other vegetable and meat dishes, and baklava for dessert.

Like many European cities, Sarajevo has both modern and historical atmospheres. Many facilities were built for the 1984 Winter Olympics, but got destroyed during the recent war. Some, like the bobsled track, never got repaired and are now covered in 1.3 km of stunning graffiti.

More modern structures include the newly constructed Trebević cable car, downtown core, and our co-working space Academy387. I also noticed the impact of consumer-facing multi-national corporations, particularly Coca-Cola. Coke has taken over the old city restaurants by providing them free tents and awnings in exchange for exclusive distribution and the red logo on menus. This dichotomy of centuries-old buildings with covered with the logos global giants made me think about how glocalization impacts a city and its inhabitants.

When our team first arrived in Sarajevo, we were astonished by the bullet holes and destruction still visible in the main city. As we spent time in the city, these wounds shift from an outlier to part of the landscape — you start to get used to seeing the remnants of what was. What is powerful to me is that this metaphor extends to people’s stories: You can still hear these scars from the war, embedded in narrative and politics, but BiH is now 25 years past and is writing a new story for the country.

History and Narrative

Before I arrived, I read policy papers and articles about the fall of Yugoslavia to develop a foundational understanding for what happened in BiH in the 90s. Upon arrival, I found that understanding history through the lived-experiences of people in the war was the most eye-opening part of being in Sarajevo.

I will explain at a basic level the origins of the war, but I highly recommend delving into a resource like this one because of the war’s complexity.

Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic, multi-country entity created after WWI between present-day Slovenia, Croatia, BiH, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. In 1941, Yugoslavia was taken over by Nazi forces. Conflict ensued between state and resistance movements, and one significant resistance movement was the communist Partisans led by Tito. Tito’s party united the republics, promoting ‘brotherhood and unity’ to keep ethnic tensions low. Despite maintaining harmony, several challenges remained upon Tito’s death. This article talks about how divergent ethnic interests remained, the economy was inefficient, and the country’s institutional structure was incapable of retaining Yugoslav unity. New republic leaders started to promote more nationalistic agendas, aided by the collapse of communism in 1989. Serbian leader Milosevic envisioned a unitary Yugoslavia, while many other republics saw Yugoslavia as a step towards their own independence.

In June of 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence. Slovenia won their independence after a 10 day war with the Yugoslav National Army (JNA). Croatia also declared independence, however, war ensued until January 1992.

BiH struggled to assert independence because of the fragmentation between three main ethnic and religious groups: Serbian Orthodox, Croatian Catholics, and Bosnian Muslims (See map and graph above). People explained to us that a large part of the war’s complexity was caused by the ethnic and cultural heterogeneity between these groups, and still plays a role in BiH’s current government.

The war in BiH resulted in terrors including a 1425 day siege on Sarajevo, a massacre of ~8000 people at Srebenica, and other terrors.

Hearing the stories of people who had lived through the war added depth to historical fact and developed my empathy for what it is like to live in a war zone. We heard stories from people who lived in Sarajevo during the war: running to get bread and avoiding snipers, eating rationed UN meals, cooking without electricity, sharing fuel with other families, and living in fear in a converted one room apartment. Everyone knew somebody hurt by the war. People continued to attend school and some cultural gatherings as ways to continue daily life despite the city being under siege. I found the bravery and resilience of Bosnians inspiring.

Comparing people’s stories growing up to my own in Canada, I saw how much war shifts people’s life narratives. The majority of my friends are either born in Canada or immigrated when young, and have lived here for a large portion of their lives. In Bosnia, everyone was somehow involved in the war or affected by its actions. When people tell their stories, there is a 5 to 10 year period where families moved abroad, survived Sarajevo, or built new lives. Many of our students have family around the world, generally in the USA, Canada, Germany, and across Europe. The Bosnian diaspora represents at least 2 million people, around 56% of the country’s 3.5 million population. In additional to foreign aid, a huge part of rebuilding Bosnia has been about engaging the diaspora to re-invest.

Learning about these roots of ethnic conflict was perspective-shifting for me. Culture is important to me as a third-generation Ukrainian, but I have never felt threatened in Canada because of my background. Primary exposure to these dynamics helped me empathize with individuals who experience racial or ethnic bias and made me feel very grateful for where I grew up.

Culture in Sarajevo

In Canada, I sometimes feel abstracted from history and even my own Ukrainian heritage. In Sarajevo, I felt very engaged in culture, ethnicity, and history, because these aspects are physically present in the city and conceptually present in current politics and attitudes.

We spent our evenings getting to know students, talking with our local site partner, and exploring Sarajevo. Living like a local and learning about Bosnia through our students was amazing because they showed us how they went about their lives in the city. By the end of two weeks of our morning walk, teaching, dinners, and exploring, I felt like I was becoming part of the city.

Bosnians are very friendly and proud of their nation. Two stories we were told: In Sarajevo, it’s not expected that you gawk at famous people, because they should be treated just like everyone else. Guests to Sarajevo in the Middle Ages were also able to stay for free at the inn in the old city, paid for by the taxes from the stalls in Gazi-Husrev Beg’s market. Sarajevo welcomes all equally, though the city’s neighbourhoods are visibly less diverse than somewhere like large like Toronto. Bosnians are also straight-up and matter-of-fact.

The pace of life in BiH seemed to be more relaxed than at home in Toronto. Finding takeout coffee in BiH is rare: people prefer to have Bosnian coffee in a mini jug with a tiny cup, and spend an hour or more drinking with friends. Shisha culture is everywhere, and people of all ages can be seen relaxing throughout the day. At night time, shisha bars are especially popular with youth. Smoking is allowed in restaurants and bars, and higher percentages of the population smoke. When you’re out, local Turkish-inspired music is playing alongside Balkan turbofolk (think club music, folk meets EDM) and international English and Spanish hits. At a restaurant, you can also catch some sevdah, traditional Bosnian ballads about life, love, and hardship played on guitar.

A dialogue between new habits and old habits is ingrained not only in Sarajevo’s buildings, but in the government and politics of the region. Many students talked about the regulatory barriers to entrepreneurship and inefficient government as two frustrations in the BiH business landscape. Modern Bosnian politics was rarely the focus of our conversations with students, but many expressed frustration because some parts of the government want to modernize, and other parts continue to operate like the past.

Something I noticed in our students across the board was amazing resilience and tenacity. Compared to Canada, people seem more willing to start one, two, or more businesses, even if they don’t know the industry well. I think some of this resilience comes from the instability of the 90s, where creativity and perseverance were key to survival. High unemployment rates in BiH also likely push people to create their own opportunities. Seeing how resourceful our students are while operating their businesses helped me put my own first year of business school in perspective — the problems I had to tackle were not as all-encompassing as many of our entrepreneurs.

We also discovered that Sarajevo is a huge tech hub. Many people are employed in marketing, design, and app or web development agencies, and our students talked about difficulties retaining top local tech talent. Through guest speakers and student businesses, we also learned many US and European companies outsource key functions to BiH. Maša Campara welcomed us for a visit into her company, eMedia Patch, which manages the relationship between company advertisers and web publishers. Students Arnes and Adnan run a 40-person company that builds websites and writes industry-leading content for offshore energy businesses. Several other students wanted to launch their own design or PR firms. Tech is a huge passion of mine, and seeing the industry so prominent in a foreign place made me feel more at home.

I grew up in a Ukrainian Canadian community and was very engaged with my heritage when I was younger, but I have never been to Ukraine and have spoken the language less throughout university. Yet in Bosnia, I felt very connected to my Eastern European heritage. I felt many similarities between Bosnia and Ukraine, including some common words between languages, traditional patterns, local music, and cultural norms. Going to Bosnia has ignited my desire to bring my passion for learning about new cultures back to my own culture via reading more about Ukraine’s history and planning a visit.

Teaching cases to entrepreneurs

Students & teachers on the final day of presentations

Our weekdays were spent preparing from 8 am to 11am, teaching a case and lecture from 12pm to 4pm, and coaching students individually from 4pm to 5pm. We had a class of around 20 students, ranging in age from university to experienced professionals. Many students ran their own business or were planning to start one.

LEADER pushed me to consolidate my learning from the first year of business school and put concepts I had learned in class into practice. Being on the other side of the classroom means you have to watch classroom dynamics, encourage participation, organize thoughts on the board. Even though a teacher is speaking less than 20% of the time in a case classroom, I realized how much your individual personality, aura, and sense of humour matter to creating the class environment.

Teaching lectures like operations, I also realized how challenging it can be to explain theories that I have primarily learned through the case method. Teaching things forces you to understand them inside and out. I usually resort to explaining concepts with examples, and get feedback from students throughout the lecture to know how to adjust my teaching style during the class. I also found it tough to make a mistake or reply to a question I wasn’t sure about. LEADER helped me be more uncomfortable admitting that to a large group, and following up on the concept later to try and better understand.

Case teaching is definitely tougher than our professors make it seem, and requires both a) knowing how to work through the case and b) fostering a conversation that helps students get to the answer without too much support. I thought about the kind of questions I should ask to guide students without jumping right to a final answer. Steering a discussion is challenging because you need to know how to ask open-ended questions and respond appropriately to student commentary. Cases also foster unique contributions that bring in students’ backgrounds. Getting to participate in conversations about concepts like heavy machine purchasing, local government regulation, and pride for national brands are my favourite part of case teaching.

One of our students, Aldin, had experience managing a factory, and provided many helpful insights during our operations class. I loved seeing how business concepts I’ve learned translate in real scenarios, because it helped me begin closing the gap between doing cases and operating a business. Teaching business to entrepreneurs felt like a knowledge exchange: we taught business theory and applied it to unique, real-world cases. The students brought their management and entrepreneurial experience, and everyone in the classroom learned from each other. Seeing students who had worked for 10 to 20 years tell us they could apply concepts we had taught in their day-to-day work was a really rewarding feeling.

Teaching Team

The best part of my LEADER experience was spending two weeks doing everything with this team. Amy — thank you for sharing everything, from meals and accommodations to inside jokes and late-night laughs. A huge shoutout goes out to MBAs Dave and Tyson for their life experience, senses of humour, and honesty — we learned a lot from your living room wisdom and welcomed chirps. Thank you for the coaching and how-to lessons on all aspects of adulting.

Getting to know three people through the shared experience of LEADER allowed our team to bond quickly. Great company is the kind of people with whom you can talk for hours comfortably and openly. Beyond being super fun, hanging out with people outside of my existing circles helped me put my biases, habits, and ways of interacting in a new perspective. I value the people who push me to question my own status quo and improve, but also know when to step back and have a great time.

The Bosnia team knew how to have solid Type A and Type B fun (kudos to Tyson for this framework!) Type A fun is when you are having a great time in the moment and don’t want to leave, like going to a party or a great dinner with friends. Type B fun is things that are tough or challenging at the time, but very rewarding in the long-term. Working out, learning a new skill could both be Type B. I found my best balance of the two on the trip, being in BiH to teach entrepreneurship and learn from students while experiencing the food, culture, and life in Sarajevo.

Thank you again to the LEADER Program participants, my teammates, the Restart team in Bosnia, and other LEADER teachers for making this a fantastic experience that I’ll never forget!

Travel Advice

BiH is stunning, and a hidden travel gem. Some suggestions:

  • Attractions in Sarajevo: Visit Vijneica (the city hall), take the cable car and walk on the bobsled track
  • Old town Sarajevo: have Bosnian coffee, head to Dibek shisha bar, get chevapi at Ćevabdžinica Hodzic or Zirko, buy baklava at Baklava Sarajbosna
  • Best food & views in Sarajevo: Kibe Mahala & Park Princeva, make reservations
Park Princeva meal at sunset overlooking all of the city
  • In Herzegovina, the southern part of BiH, head to Blagaj to see a monastery in a mountain, and Konjic (town on a river), Kravice waterfalls
  • The drive from Sarajevo to Mostar is beautiful. Stunning rolling deciduous hills, with deep turquoise rivers and a curvy road, little towns along the way. Snow capped mountains are visible when the morning fog lifts, and you’ll feel like you’re driving in a carved out canyon.

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