In war-torn Bosnia, tech startups are battling massive brain drain
Senad Šantić, CEO of ZenDev, remembers playing as a child on the streets of Mostar, a city in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, and how everything changed when war broke out. “When [the] the bombs were starting to fall, my father was hiding me behind the bed or under the table,” Šantić, now 34, told Rest of the world.
In 1992, conflict erupted between the country’s three main ethnic groups – Bosnian Muslims, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs – and Šantić and his family fled to Sweden. Six years ago, he returned to Bosnia to start a software development company. He says many were surprised by his return – two decades after the war, most young people were still leaving Bosnia.
Out of 137 countries surveyed, the World Economic Forum ranked Bosnia 135th in its “ability to retain talent.” Nearly half of Bosnians aged 18-29 have considered leaving the country in the last year, according to a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) 2021 Report. If emigration and low birth rates continue at current rates, the population will halve in just under 50 years.
But technology is one of the few bright spots in the Bosnian economy. Jobs in the industry tripled from 2012 to 2019, according to a report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Many Bosnians returned from abroad are at the forefront of the industry, said Damir Maglajlić, executive director of Bit Alliance, a business group of Bosnia’s leading tech companies. Rest of the world.
Šantić said what started as a personal decision to return to Mostar took on a larger goal: to stem the flow of young people leaving the country. “If we want people to stay, it’s not about selling these young people the idea of patriotism and why they should stay,” Šantić said. Rest of the world, sitting on the terrace of his office. Behind him, houses with red roofs dotted the hills of the city. “Let’s build a place with better living conditions here in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
His company, ZenDev, is a software development company and one of many companies in Bosnia’s tech industry that hopes to reshape a country still scarred by war. Maglajlić estimates that 40% of tech companies in the country were founded by members of the diaspora. They hope to stem the accelerating “brain drain” of young people leaving the country and overcome the inter-ethnic conflicts that have plagued Bosnia for decades.
“There must be, I think, a revolution,” Šantić said. “At the rate things are going right now, I don’t think we’ll be able to survive as a country.”
Šantić says he first caught the “starter bug” in San Francisco, where he spent a year after college. After returning to Sweden, he founded LoopMe, a mobile app that helps teachers manage student homework, in 2014. But he had always dreamed of returning to Bosnia.
In 2016, he finally moved on. Together with childhood friend Nikola Mirković, Šantić co-founded ZenDev, which began by writing code for multinational clients such as tech giant Emerson, telecommunications company Ericsson, and manufacturing company Volvo. But, he says, his real goal was to provide young people with better job opportunities.
“The first thing that comes to mind shouldn’t be: ‘How can I get to Germany? How can I go to Sweden? But rather, they should be able to nominate certain companies here in Bosnia that you want to be a part of,” he said.
At ZenDev, Šantić aims to foster a culture that transcends Bosnia’s ethnic divides. “We try to be completely agnostic about your ethnicity,” said Šantić, who hires solely on merit and deliberately chose an office between the Bosnian and Croatian sides of Mostar.
His message seems to resonate with young people. Last year, the company offered internships for the first time and hundreds of people applied. ZenDev said Rest of the world that their annual turnover has more than doubled between 2020 and 2021, and that their workforce has grown from around 25 to 80 in the last two years.
After graduating from university, 29-year-old Tarek Stoper thought his best chance of getting a good job was to go abroad. Then he discovered ZenDev. He loved the office culture and camaraderie, so he applied for a job as a software developer and has been working there for over a year.
“If I didn’t get into Zendev, I’d probably be looking for overseas jobs right now,” Stoper said. Rest of the worldadding that he hopes to stay with the company for years to come.
Jobs that keep people in Bosnia for the long term are essential. This means that Bosnian technology companies will have to go beyond outsourcing and develop appropriate Bosnian products. About 75% of all Bosnian tech companies provide services to foreign companies, according to the UNDP study. ZenDev develops its own software applications, including search engine optimization and note-taking tools for researchers.
“We just need to show more examples of products made in this region that are globally recognized,” Šantić said. “And I think when we do that other people will follow.”
Edin Saracevic, 57, fled Sarajevo in 1994 as Serbs besieged the city. He went to the United States and started several successful tech companies during the dot-com boom of the late 90s.
In 2013, he returned to Bosnia to found Hub387, a coworking space in downtown Sarajevo. He named the company after Bosnia’s international calling code – a neutral choice that avoids ethnic bias and promotes a unified view of the country.
HUB387 was the first coworking space in Bosnia, Jovana Musić, the general manager, told Rest of the world. “IT companies existed and they did their thing, but they all worked in really shitty places, you know, like basements and abandoned apartments,” she said.
Like Šantić, Saracevic wanted Hub387 to be more than a business.
“Our huge hidden agenda was to keep people in Bosnia,” Musić added. In addition to providing a workspace, Hub387 organizes technical conferences and “hackathons”, and recently hosted a training session to help Bosnian businesses get started.
Integral to their work is Academy387, a learning center that offers programming courses, software tutorials, and graphic design courses. Musić said Academy387 aims to bridge the gap between the needs of tech companies and what Bosnian universities teach.
Rešad Začina, 36, co-founder of Bosnian startup studio Ministry of Programming (MOP), said Rest of the world that the keys to the growth of the country’s tech industry are talent and money. His company, which helps entrepreneurs develop business ideas, start their business and obtain venture capital, does both. MOP has developed 75 products and built nearly a dozen companies around the world.
Launched in 2015, MOP now directly employs nearly 200 people in Bosnia — “not counting all the people who work in specific startups,” Začina added. MOP has been cited as one of Top 50 fastest growing companies in central Europe. By also funding foreign companies rather than just working for them, the MOP reverses the usual dynamic, giving them what Začina called “a seat at this table as the underdogs”.
Last month, MOP moved into a new office with plush sofas, a huge party patio, and a neon “Work Hard, Play Harder” sign on the wall. Everything MOP has accomplished, they have done without any public funding, Začina said. He joked, “We live in a dysfunctional government, so we say we are the only functioning ministry in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Despite a lack of institutional support in the past, Bosnian tech leaders agree that involving the government is essential. The IT sector can create jobs, Šantić said, but without changes in education and political systems, people will continue to leave.
“Like, why are we doing all this if in five, 10 years there’s going to be nothing to work on?” he said. Founders like Šantić believe that local and national governments need to integrate programming training into all levels of public education, as well as provide more funding for startups.
Every day, on his way to work, he passes a row of ruined houses. They are riddled with bullets, hollowed out.
“That’s actually the only way I got to know Mostar, because I was five when the war broke out,” Šantić said. “I don’t even remember what it looked like before that.”
The city recently deemed the structures a safety hazard, he said, and will demolish them to make way for new buildings. ZenDev’s trendy office stands opposite these soon to be demolished ruins.
“Obviously, we can create our own bubble in ZenDev,” Šantić said, as he emerged from his office in the late afternoon. “But if the problems are at the national level – and they are at the national level – we need to start thinking bigger.”
Reporting for this article was made possible by New York University GlobalBeat program.