About 10 years ago, I visited 10 Balkan countries to learn about how the impact investment model could flourish even in the most difficult circumstances. Bosnia and Herzegovina was the most saddening, but also the place that really got under my skin. Bullet and shell holes still covered the exposed south sides of many buildings in central Sarajevo, and the pain of the tragic civil war, which had ended a decade before, was still palpable. In 2007 I came looking to learn about and tell the stories of brave individuals who rose above the hatred, the poverty and the chaos to do what they could to rebuild their countries. I found hundreds.
My preference is always to be optimistic – my kids tell me I am ridiculously so. So, in returning in mid-February 2017 as part of a project ClearlySo is doing for a large international finance institution, I was expecting something uplifting. Unfortunately, this was not to be. The combination of old rivalries, corruption, the 2008 financial crisis and a flood of refugees unable to reach the European Union means the challenges facing these countries are perhaps more severe than when I visited a decade earlier. And some of the heroes I met in 2007 have left or are leaving, seeking to build easier lives inside the EU.
But where some have left and others give up hope, still others persist in using their talents and external capital to make their world a better place. Among those unwilling to give up, I met again in Serbia with Neven Marinovic and, briefly, with his dad Sake. Together they founded, and Neven still runs, Smart Kolektiv, a great social innovation centre in Serbia, focusing on high-impact enterprises and corporate social responsibility. Also, as motivating as ever, was Veran Matic, the founder of B92, who is raising funding for educational projects in Serbian schools but is also chair of Commissions, which investigates the mysterious deaths of journalists. As a result, he now lives under police protection.
In Bosnia, the standout for me was the infinitely irrepressible Thierry Joubert, one of the co-founders of Green Visions, a Sarajevo-based company that provides socially responsible travel experiences and thrilling outdoor tours throughout the Balkan region. Thierry is also the person who has catalysed the now famous "Via Dinarica", a three-month tour through the Dinaric Alps, one of Europe’s most unexplored mountain ranges. Zoran Puljic has also done an amazing job in building the Mozaik Foundation into a leading agent for change in the region.
Encouragingly, these undaunted spirits have been joined by a new breed of impact entrepreneurs, less trapped by haunting images of the past than their elders. Nenad Moslavac, the guiding spirit of the uber-cool Impact Hub Belgrade, is a great example of this type. His charisma and boundless energy make him the perfect champion for high-impact entrepreneurs in Serbia. While visiting, we met Gerardo di Giuseppe, the founder of Sunthetic, which makes cases for mobile phones that convert sunlight into electricity to charge phones.
Out of all the inspiring entrepreneurs I met on this most recent trip, I was particularly impressed by two women entrepreneurs we met through Smart Kolektiv. The first was Nikoleta Kosovac, the editor of Liceulice, the Serbian street newspaper. Under her direction, the attractive and engaging magazine is enjoying surging volumes, tackling real subjects between its covers and assisting the country’s homeless in the process. Of a different style was the extremely professional and organised Sonja Dakic, co-founder and chief executive of Daj Daj, which manufactures and distributes re-usable nappies and feminine hygiene products made of bamboo.
There are many reasons for concern, but the existence of so many inspiring entrepreneurs, who are using impact investment to make an enormous difference, is a source of hope for us all. They need our praise, support and cash to make their dreams a reality.
Rodney Schwartz is chief executive of ClearlySo, which helps bring impact to all investment