My name is Petar Dragnic, co-founder of PIN Escape Rooms from Serbia, and I was privileged to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) on “Entrepreneurship and Cooperation among Balkan Summer Work and Travel Alumni” in November 2017. I can say that participating in the IVLP was a life-changing experience that significantly impacted me personally and professionally.
Our program was organized with the mission to improve the cooperation between Work and Travel Alumni organizations in the Balkans region and to promote entrepreneurship among young people. Our group was comprised of nine people from three Balkan countries: Bulgaria, Serbia, and Macedonia. Together, we met with representatives from the government, nonprofits, corporations, as well as startups and innovation centers in four very different U.S. cities.
Our program started in Washington, DC then took us to Chicago, IL, followed by Boise, ID and concluding in Detroit, MI. Every city felt like a new experience. In Washington, we were welcomed by World Learning where they informed us about the activities that we will be doing during the program. We attended meetings and lectures at various institutions and organizations, and also had free time to explore the city and go to events and cultural activities recommended by the program coordinator. I was very inspired by our meeting with Alexander Justice Moore from DC Central Kitchen. The nonprofit is a nationally recognized “community kitchen” that recycles food from around the city and helps train unemployed adults to develop work skills while providing thousands of meals for local service agencies.
In Chicago, the program focused on visiting business incubators, accelerators, and innovation centers. With our host WorldChicago, we visited several different organizations throughout the city, including Project Tech Teens, an organization focused on teaching youth basic coding and programming skills. It was interesting to see that each of these organizations has something unique. I saw how talented and motivated people connected with each other and made impact together.
In Boise, we visited Idaho Youth Ranch thrift shops, a nonprofit that provides shelter, job training, and other family services for children and families using funds raised from their network of thrift stores. We became familiar with the concept of such stores and their mission, and learned more about the business ecosystem in a smaller U.S. city. The Idaho Humane Society was another program highlight. These animal shelters are fully funded by donations, and the animals receive a lot of attention from employees and Boise residents.
Our host, the Idaho Council for International Visitors, organized an “American Hospitality Dinner” for us. The idea is that American citizens voluntarily host visitors of the IVLP and experience cultural exchange, as many people in Boise do not have many opportunities to meet people from our region. Our host was Maja Duratovic, whose family emigrated to the U.S. from Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. Her family and friends were a great hosts to us; we had a wonderful dinner in their home.
In Detroit, our host Global Ties Detroit organized a visit to the new Little Caesars Arena where we watched a hockey game between the Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres. We heard an inspirational story about the Detroit Red Wings owner, Mike Ilic, a businessman of Macedonian descent who started his career in 1959 by opening a pizzeria in Garden City, MI. He eventually became one of the top 500 richest people in America.
The IVLP was an invaluable opportunity for me to get a glimpse of what entrepreneurship and innovation look like in the U.S. It was also an opportunity for me to connect with other fellows from Balkans and our American counterparts. Thanks to the program, I gained plenty of insights into the startup and ecosystem in the U.S.
I want to thank the program coordinators and organizations that hosted us during our stay: World Learning, World Chicago, Idaho Council for International Visitors, and Global Ties Detroit. Thank you for providing me with an unforgettable, life-changing experience that left a great impact on my personal and professional development.