Senad Šantić, the CEO of ZenDev, remembers playing as a child on the streets of Mostar, a city in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, and how everything changed when war broke out. “When [the] bombs would start falling, my dad would hide me behind the bed or under the table,” said Šantić, now 34, to Rest of World.
In 1992, conflict broke out between the country’s three main ethnic groups — Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats, and Orthodox Serbs — and Šantić and his family fled to Sweden. Six years ago, he moved back to Bosnia to start a software development company. He says many were surprised by his return — two decades after the war, most young people were still leaving Bosnia.
Out of 137 countries surveyed, the World Economic Forum ranked Bosnia 135th in its “capacity to retain talent.” Nearly half of Bosnians between ages 18 and 29 have considered leaving the country over the last year according to a 2021 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report. If emigration and low birth rates continue at the current rate, the population will halve in just under 50 years.
But tech is one of Bosnia’s few economic bright spots. Jobs in the industry tripled from 2012 through 2019, according to a report from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Many Bosnians who have returned from abroad are at the forefront of the industry, Damir Maglajlić, executive director of Bit Alliance, a trade group of Bosnia’s leading tech companies, told Rest of World.
Šantić said that what started as a personal decision to move back to Mostar has taken on a greater purpose: to stem the flow of young people abandoning the country. “If we want people to stay, it’s not about selling these youth the idea of patriotism and why they should stay,” Šantić told Rest of World, sitting on his office terrace. Behind him, red-roofed houses dotted the city’s hills. “Let’s build a place with better living conditions here in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
His company, ZenDev, is a software development firm, and one of several in Bosnia’s tech industry hoping to reshape a country still scarred by war. Maglajlić estimates that 40% of the country’s tech companies have been founded by members of the diaspora. They hope to curb the accelerating “brain drain” of young people leaving the country, and move past the interethnic strife that has plagued Bosnia for decades.
“There needs to be, I think, a revolution,” said Šantić. “At the tempo that things are going right now, I don’t think we’re going to be able to survive as a country.”
Šantić says he first got the “startup bug” in San Francisco, where he spent a year after college. After returning to Sweden, he founded LoopMe, a mobile app that helps teachers manage student assignments, in 2014. But he had always dreamed of returning to Bosnia.
In 2016, he finally moved back. With a childhood friend, Nikola Mirković, Šantić co-founded ZenDev, which started out writing code for multinational clients such as tech giant Emerson, telecommunications firm Ericsson, and manufacturing corporation Volvo. But, he says, his real goal was to offer young people better employment opportunities.
“The first thing that comes to mind should not be, ‘How can I go to Germany? How can I go to Sweden?’ But rather, they should be able to point to some companies here in Bosnia that are something that you want to be a part of,” he said.
At ZenDev, Šantić aims to foster a culture that transcends Bosnia’s ethnic divisions. “We try to be completely agnostic as far as your ethnicity,” said Šantić, who hires based only on merit, and who purposefully chose an office located between the Bosniak and Croat sides of Mostar.
His message seems to resonate with young people. In the last year, the company offered internships for the first time, and hundreds of people applied. ZenDev told Rest of World that their annual revenue more than doubled between 2020 and 2021, and their staff has grown from about 25 to 80 in the last two years.
After graduating from university, Tarek Stoper, 29, thought that his best chance for a good job meant moving abroad. Then, he discovered ZenDev. He liked the office culture and camaraderie, so he applied for a job as a software developer and has been working there for over a year.
“If I didn’t get into Zendev, I would probably be looking for jobs abroad at the moment,” Stoper told Rest of World, adding that he hopes to stay at the company for years to come.
Jobs that keep people in Bosnia for the long term are essential. That means Bosnian tech firms will have to move beyond outsourcing, and develop proper Bosnian products. Approximately 75% of all Bosnian tech firms provide services to foreign companies, according to the UNDP study. ZenDev is developing their own software applications, including search engine optimization and note-keeping tools for researchers.
“We just have to show more examples of products that are being built from this region that are globally recognized,” said Šantić. “And I think when we do that, other people will follow.”
Edin Saracevic, 57, fled Sarajevo in 1994 as Serbs laid siege to the city. He went to the United States and launched several successful tech ventures during the dot-com boom of the late 90s.
In 2013, he returned to Bosnia to found Hub387, a coworking space in downtown Sarajevo. He named the company after Bosnia’s international calling code — a neutral choice that avoids ethnic partiality and promotes a unified vision of the country.
HUB387 was the first coworking space in Bosnia, said Jovana Musić, the managing director, to Rest of World. “IT companies existed and they were doing their thing, but they were all working from some really crappy places, you know, like basements and abandoned apartments,” she said.
Like Šantić, Saracevic wanted Hub387 to be more than a business.
“Our huge hidden agenda was keeping people in Bosnia,” added Musić. In addition to providing a workspace, Hub387 hosts tech conferences and “hackathons,” and recently, led a training session to help Bosnian companies get off the ground.
An integral component of their work is Academy387, a learning center that offers programming courses, software tutorials, and graphic design classes. Musić said Academy387 aims to address the gap between what tech companies need and what universities in Bosnia teach.
Rešad Začina, 36, a co-founder of the Bosnian startup studio Ministry of Programming (MOP), told Rest of World that the keys to growing the country’s tech industry are talent and money. His firm, which helps entrepreneurs develop business ideas, build their companies, and secure venture capital, is doing both. MOP has developed 75 products and built nearly a dozen companies globally.
Launched in 2015, MOP now directly employs nearly 200 people in Bosnia — “not counting all the people that work in specific startups,” Začina added. MOP was cited as one of Deloitte’s top 50 fastest-growing companies in central Europe. By also funding foreign companies rather than just working for them, MOP flips the usual dynamic, giving them what Začina called “a seat at that table as underdogs.”
Last month, MOP moved into a new office with plush couches, an enormous terrace for parties, and a neon “Work hard play harder” sign on the wall. All that MOP has accomplished, they’ve done without any public funding, Začina said. He joked, “We live in a dysfunctional government, so we say we are the only functioning ministry in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
Despite a lack of institutional support in the past, Bosnian tech leaders agree that getting the government on board is essential. The IT sector can create jobs, Šantić said, but without changes to the education and political systems, people will continue to leave.
“Like, why are we doing all of this if five, 10 years down the road, there won’t be anything to work towards?” he said. Founders like Šantić believe that both local and national governments need to incorporate programming training at all levels of public education, as well as provide more funding for startups.
Every day on his way to work, he passes a row of crumbling houses. They are bullet-ridden, hollowed out.
“It’s actually the only way that I’ve known Mostar, because I was five years old when the war broke out,” said Šantić. “I don’t even remember what it looked like before that.”
The city recently deemed the structures a safety hazard, he said, and will tear them down to make space for new buildings. ZenDev’s trendy office stands across from these soon-to-be-demolished ruins.
“Obviously we can create our own bubble in ZenDev,” said Šantić, as he walked outside his office late one afternoon. “But if the problems are on a national level — and they are on a national level — we need to start thinking bigger.”
The reporting for this article was made possible by New York University’s GlobalBeat program.