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Feature 30 Aug 17

Bosnian Women Show Business is not a ‘Man’s World’

More and more of women in Bosnia are breaking traditional patriarchal stereotypes in the Balkans with their entrepreneurial successes.

Haris Buljubasic
Erna Sosevic presenting her Bizbook in Switzerland. Photo: courtesy of Erna Sosevic

“A few times, at meetings with potential clients, I was asked why my [male] boss hadn’t come, or why I hadn’t hired a man as the chief executive officer – because that way my business would grow faster,” Erna Sosevic, the owner and CEO of Bizbook B2B online platform, said.

“A male CEO would never be in that kind position,” she told BIRN, recalling some of her encounters with the patriarchal traditions still very much present in the Balkan business community – and which recall all too clearly American soul and funk legend James Brown’s song. “It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World.

But these traditions are being increasingly challenged by Bosnian businesswomen like Erna Sosevic.

 She left her previous, stable job at a consulting agency, where she headed the damage payment department, to start her own business.

She wanted to do something useful for the wider community that would allow her also to express her creativity, and make her a role model for her two children.

“Bizbook came about as a result of my thinking how to gather all companies on the national level in one online place, where they can put their offers and demands and communicate with each other about the content,” she says.

While many women still hesitate to run their own businesses in the Balkans, Sosevic aims high – and dreams of having all of 357,000 registered companies in Bosnia as her clients.

At the same time, as a wife and mother, she says businesswomen like her need more understanding and support from their families than businessmen do.

Women storm the male bastion of business:

Samira Nuhanovic-Ribic, social business incubator director at Mozaik foundation. Photo: courtesy of Samira Nuhanovic-Ribic

The exact number of female entrepreneurs in Bosnia and Herzegovina is not known, because one of the country’s two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, does not keep such statistics.

However, judging by figures provided by the Institute of Statistics in the other entity, Republika Srpska, the business community in Bosnia is slowly ceasing to be an exclusive “Man’s World”.

According to this source, of 39,627 entrepreneurs registered in Republika Srpska, 19,075, or some 48 per cent, are women.

This is far higher than the EU average of 31 percent. Experts say the ratio is unlikely to be very different in the Federation entity.

This shift is also recognized by Mozaik Foundation, a non-governmental organization that aims to fire up the entrepreneurial spirit among the young in Bosnia.

This year, for the third in a row, it is organizing a business incubator project to support young social entrepreneurs and help them develop business ideas.

At the end of the cycle, the best ideas get rewarded with investments.

In the first year of the programme, in 2015, male entrepreneurs dominated in terms of numbers.

However, the situation started changing in 2016. In 2017, strikingly, more than two-thirds of Mozaik fellows in the incubator are women.

“This is no coincidence. We purposefully tried to attract a wide range of participants, ensuring at all times that gender balance is one of the backbones of the programme,” Samira Nuhanovic-Ribic, Social Business Incubator director at Mozaik Foundation, said.

“We see this as an investment in changing the perception that woman are not fit to be business leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” she added.

Same challenges face businesswomen and men alike:

Bazerdzan, concept store in Bascarsija ran by Zana Karkin. Photo: Eldin Hasanagic

Still, women doing business in Bosnia and Herzegovina face many obstacles.

Nuhanovic-Ribic says the main things holding women entrepreneurs back are prejudice in society and a lack of confidence among women themselves.

“A transitional and traditional society like ours is a mixture of both. In rural areas, women were rarely the legal owners of land, which precluded them from actively engaging on a par with men in market-oriented agriculture,” she told BIRN.

“Not being able to own and manage productive resources in context where considerable stigma is attached to women doing men's work, which is how any kind of business like activity is often defined, has robbed us of generations of women who could have contributed to development of their communities but were prevented from doing so.

“This tacit isolation, often internalized by women themselves, is most difficult to break,” Nuhanović-Ribić added.

Aida Zubčević, founder of the Association of Business Women in BiH, says that the main problem facing business people in Bosnia is obtaining commercial loans on decent terms, because banks are reluctant to provide such loans due to the political crisis and the weak economy. This problem is especially acute for would-be women entrepreneurs.

“The most common problems that women and our members face in establishing their operations are financial in nature,” she says.

However, not all women think that there is much difference between being a man or a woman in terms of entrepreneurship.

Young entrepreneur Zana Karkin opened Bazerdžan, a concept store for BiH clothing, accessorize and jewellery brands, at the beginning of this year.

Karkin said becoming an entrepreneur was a personal choice and gender had nothing to do with it.

“I don’t like it when this distinction is made: women and men in business. Of course, in my professional life, not everything has gone smoothly. I faced many obstacles, but I wouldn’t assign that to the fact that I am a woman,” she recalled.

Karkin complains more of a lack of entrepreneurial spirit among young people in Bosnia in general, criticizing the way many young people still dream of finding a job by pulling strings, preferably in the public sector.

“The challenge in Bosnia and Herzegovina is that most people wish to work in the public sector because they consider this work ‘secure’,” she said.

“I rarely meet people who want to realize their full potential, because this would require work, struggle and possibly pain,” she added.

She considers this attitude absurd. “As if having a job you don’t like for your entire life is not painful enough! That’s the true horror,” Karkin concluded.

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