On a Monday night in early December, about 100 youth gathered at the Filikaqa Sports and Events Bar in downtown Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. But this was no ordinary social hangout.
It was the musical kickoff to the Rock Entrepreneurial Monday series, where guest speakers offer youth insights and advice on market research, business development, financing, management, branding, and marketing. It’s part of the Young Entrepreneurs Program (YEP) in Kosovo, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and directed by EDC.
Education and economic opportunities are paramount to Kosovo's recovery following the inter-ethnic violence and war of the 1990s. The nation has the highest percentage of youth under the age of 30 of all countries in Europe, and many youth face unemployment. By participating in YEP, enterprising young people can become business owners and contribute to the economic growth of their country.
Reaching out to new and emerging entrepreneurs, YEP focuses on helping young entrepreneurs start new businesses by providing matching grants with a goal of contributing to economic growth and job creation. The program offers two different kinds of support for entrepreneurs: Fast track support targets those who have graduated from entrepreneurship courses or have operated their own businesses for up to two years, while intensive track support helps youth with promising ideas but no prior business training or experience.
"We believe that the Young Entrepreneurs Program is having an immediate impact on economic development and reducing unemployment and will continue to do so for years to come," says EDC's James Kent McNeil. "We are excited to see so many different, innovative, and viable business ideas from the young people of Kosovo. They come to us from every region throughout the country and every business sector."
Any good business idea needs capital investment, so YEP offers seed grants to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses. To date, YEP has received more than 1,600 applications from aspiring young entrepreneurs. In 2012, the grants approved by YEP helped some 350 young entrepreneurs start new businesses or expand fledgling ones. The program also works with local business leaders and employers, who share their wisdom with Kosovo's next-generation entrepreneurs, such as these three.
Sweet taste of success
Bleta Zeqiri has owned and operated Leonidas Chocolate Corner in Pristina since 2009, selling high-quality Belgian chocolates at two locations. She and seven staff people operate the candy booths. "Our chocolate products are a confectionary experience unique in Kosovo," she says.
She had an idea to sweeten up customers and sales even more. With a chocolate fountain, she could sell chocolate-covered fruits and pastries for weddings, birthdays, and other special events. Zeqiri was approved for a YEP matching grant, which she combined with funds she saved on her own to purchase and install the fountain. By moving into the special events market, she hopes to hire three more staff and increase her annual sales by 25 percent.
A cut above the norm
When Besfort Mehmeti and his friends were living in Switzerland, they took to cutting each other's hair to save money. Mehmeti found he had a talent for hair styling. When he returned to Kosovo, he went to work for a barber and opened his own business in 2010 in Pristina. That's when he learned about YEP.
Through a matching grant provided by YEP and his own investment, Mehmeti created a kid-friendly space in his shop decorated with dolls, toy cars and motorcycles, and an aquarium. Kids can play video games or watch cartoons while they get styled. What’s more, Mehmeti and other stylists dress up like cartoon characters such as Johnny Bravo and Aladdin. YEP staff have helped him think about growing his business in new ways. "Sales have now increased by almost 50 percent, and soon I will hire another employee," he says.
Business on a roll
Liridon Gёrguri of Fushë Kosovë/Kosovo Polje was a driver for an office and educational supplies firm in central Kosovo. He was promoted to sales manager but aspired to own his own business. In 2011, he founded Termofiskal with a plan to produce the paper rolls needed for the fiscal cash registers required by law.
YEP provided Gёrguri with a matching grant to get his idea rolling, along with some business advice. He describes the support as priceless. "It did not take much time to witness the value of the business plan as it helped me understand my business better [and] aided me in my loan application," he says. With a bank loan and YEP's help, Gёrguri has been able to purchase the machine for cutting the paper—the foundation of his business. "My experience with YEP has really given life to my idea and has paved my way to success," he says.