Chicago partners with small eastern European startups to stop the “brain drain”

Slovenia erected a razor wire fence Wednesday along the border of Croatia to control the surge of migrant refugees. Just 13 miles northwest of the border, Varazdin, an inland city of 50,000, aims to stop another wave of emigration as their youth leave the city for jobs.

“There is a lack of jobs,” said Karlo Kukec, assistant manager for technologies at Techpark.

As of September 2015, the registered unemployment rate in Croatia was 16.2 percent, according to the Croatian Bureau of Statistics. About 60 percent of the unemployed have been jobless for more than a year and the youth unemployment rate (ages 15-24) is above 40 percent, according to the World Bank.

The Techpark building stood out from the neighborhood with its rectangular shape and the modern glass windows. In these 35,000 square feet of space, Kukec said there are already 35 companies and he is expecting to expand the space to 200,000 square feet in the near future.

“What we have to do is we have to incentivize people from Zagreb to come to my town, forms startups there,” said Kukec at 1871, Chicago’s entrepreneurial hub for digital startups.

Photo Credit: WorldChicago
Karlo Kukec on the right. Photo Credit: WorldChicago

Kukec came to the United States as part of the Professional Fellows Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The program pairs tech entrepreneurs and education leaders from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia with Chicago companies.

“There are less jobs than there are developers [in Croatia]. On the other hand, Chicago is the other way around, there are more job opportunities than developers, hence, the opportunity to cooperate,” said Kukec.

Kukec said his long-term plan was to create development teams in Croatia for the Chicago startup companies so the young workers are more likely to stay in the area and work remotely.

“It’s a small town, so a lot of their talent leaves to larger communities in Croatia or other places in Europe. We are trying to stop that, we are trying to prevent that from continuing,” said Keith Bradley, Managing Director of Blue 1647. Bradley participated in the reciprocal exchange to explore the tech scene in Croatia.

Photo Credit: WorldChicago
Keith Bradley sharing his exchange experience with the crowd. Photo Credit: WorldChicago

Croatia entered the European Union (EU) on July 1, 2013, as the 28th member state. This means workers from Croatia have free access to the labor market of 14 EU member states while 13 other EU countries require a work permit.

More than 15,000 people left Croatia in 2013, according to national migration data cited in research by The Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies. The research also indicated typical migrants to be young, unmarried and highly educated, and the main reasons for migrating are the poor economic situation, a better standard of living and gaining beneficial work experience.

“People were lacking the entrepreneurial experience, basic opportunities,” said Bradley.

Bradley said he was surprised to learn that Croatia never had a meetup group or hackathon, and the purpose of his visit was to educate them about these innovations so they “not only can join this market, they don’t have to move to do it.”

About 80 global entrepreneurs representing 70 countries came to 1871 on November 3, 2015, to network and discuss the topic: “Entrepreneurship as the Engine of Prosperity and Stability.”

Many entrepreneurs agreed with Kukec. They said investing in startup companies provides more opportunities for the younger generation to work in their countries.

Photo Credit: WorldChicago
Alejandro Gracia Romero on the right. Photo Credit: WorldChicago

Anastasia Gerali, designer and founder of Love From Cyprus, a women’s accessory brand, said most people at Cyprus work for the government because that was the safe option. She said, “it is healthier for them to start thinking about creating jobs, being short of independent of the system, as oppose to relying on the education system to prepare you for the workforce.”

“The most important thing is not the idea,” said Alejandro Gracia Romero, an educator at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “The most important thing is the last question that I ask my students: ‘Why are you not doing this? What is the thing that is stopping you from doing this?’”