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Tina Odinsky-Zec: preparing the new generation of entrepreneurs in Croatia

Tina Odinsky-Zec: preparing the new generation of entrepreneurs in Croatia

  • Posted by: mentoring

Sometimes we have the feeling that academia is not ready to teach entrepreneurship. Rigid structures, vertical relations, grading-biased behavior of students who want to be as efficient as possible to get rid of activities as soon as they can. Tina Odinsky-Zec knows all that, and from her position at Zagreb School of Economics and Management, she challenges consolidated academic practices and tries to change the mindset of students towards entrepreneurship. How? By “getting them to think slower, giving them different creative hurdles to climb, different collaborative exercises in the classroom to make it fun, to make it team bonding and give space to ideas that otherwise would be unspoken”.

Her story with socially responsible businesses started when she was 5. “My father had a pharmacy that was born in the same year that I was and I can tell you that as much as he made profit, he have back to community. He was pushing healthy lifestyle. Even though he was a pharmacist, he thought people were overmedicated. He was always trying to balance the business with his mission towards community, so for me it was natural to always look at what businesses were doing for themselves and the community”. In our last talk in Croatia, we had the chance to speak to Tina and understand the dynamics that help shape the country’s new generation of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship-enablers. We heard her thoughts about the local ecosystem, what inspires her, the experience of teaching entrepreneurship in Croatia and the region, the importance of role models in the process and how she manages to “add fun to fundamentals”.

Local ecosystem

If you ask people, most will say it is not really good, but it is the case of the glass half full or half empty. I think it is half full. The outlook is very favourable, the greatest challenge for countries like Croatia is to look at what we have in abundance rather to look at what we don’t have, and this way we can solve a lot of problems. For example, we have a lot of water, if there could be more things done to solve problems using water, there would be even more ideas to solve problems. As a standalone market, we have challenges like any other European country, but when you look at things we already possess, you can come up with great solutions. We have world class locations, which has been used for movie industry; we have world class startups, like Photomath, Teddy The Guardian, Agrivi. Agrivi, for example, was created by an engineer who quit his job and wanted to go working in farming. He started with a blueberry farm in a very small plot, he saw difficulties and thought he would need an app to help him manage the production. He got other people to help him create the app and they scaled up super fast. They are based in a small town in Croatia [Kutina] and the app won a world competition for startups. Also, as many social enterprises you see, there are so many others hidden. They are doing their things, doing their businesses with their good core values, they probably don’t even know they should call themselves social enterprises. There is the seen and the hidden. I am grateful to have such a healthy ecosystem in Croatia. I moderated a workshop on social enterprise with the City of Zagreb with many different people in many different social sectors. I thought they just wanted to know more about the topic. But, not, I was surprised by how many of them want to work on their own business ideas. It was fabulous, it was so rocking in one afternoon. And again, this is under the radar, that the city officially supports this sort of activities. We run startup weekends for two years and supported it growing as a concept in other cities in Croatia and I call tell you every single time we run a startup event there is a social enterprise idea and usually they make it to the the top rank.

Experience teaching entrepreneurship in Croatia

The first time I taught entrepreneurship was in 2002 in Dubrovnik. On the first course, we had a module on social entrepreneurship and I invited a guest speaker from Zagreb. It was a program by UNDP and was directed to farmers so that they could measure their social impact, which they already had. We asked them ‘are you trying to develop a social enterprise?’, and their answer was ‘hey, no! we’re just doing our job!’

When I had the chance to move universities, I made sure that social entrepreneurship would be a part of it. No matter what, you have to package it right. We get students in their 4th year, they will graduate soon and they are concerned about finding a job, with the low employment prospects for youth. I like to motivate them with things they care about and whenever we hold brainstorming sessions to assess their main issues, I’m amazed how different they are. If they see their interests valued in the first weeks, then you’re really in a good spot. I always tell them that the easiest way to have ideas is to think about the problems they have and to search for solutions for them.

Fun to fundamentals

What we do in our basic course is teaching the fundamentals so that the students know them in 20 years from now. I can hardly remember my classes, but I do remember some sticky situations in the classroom, so i try to cause these sort of situations and what kind of things I can reinforce enough. If you break down entrepreneurship you have 6 basic things: background, idea, marketing, operations, finances and results. That is the way you can tell anyone’s story and we use these 6 anchors to understand the entrepreneurs. So, no matter if it is a guest speaker, TED Talk, a Shark Tank video, I ask the students to organize it this way, to break it down in these 6 topics. Even if we want to do serious business, we can add components of joy and fun so you can get humour in the process, because this is the only thing that can make life bearable: laughing of ourselves during times of stress. I’m also known for changing the dynamic of the classroom by changing the chairs setting. In prototype day, for example, we use a circle setting. That day, they have to bring a prototype, no matter what they want to make, it must be physical, using cardboard, tape, or whatever they want. In one of the prototype days, half of the class had one and half of the class didn’t. I brought cardboard, garbage bags, tapes and the ones that didn’t have a prototype, had 30 minutes to produce a wearable item using these components. I marched them all to the hallway, lined them up and, during the break, I was the mc for the prototype fashion show. It was memorable, a great teaching moment and I don’t regret that. Sometimes there is a little pain and pleasure together.

The importance of role models

When students start their course in entrepreneurship, which is a required class in the university, they don’t want to be entrepreneurs. Their perceptions about entrepreneurs early on is of unscrupulous millionaires, tycoons who abuse people but they are not thinking about the mothers and fathers who are doing 80-90% of the economy. One day a boy came to me and said ‘I can’t interview an entrepreneur, I don’t know any of them”. I asked: ‘what does your father do?’. And he was an entrepreneur, a lawyer who worked from home. Some professors disagree with me, but I don’t stick to a strict definition. However, the reputation of entrepreneurs is changing very rapidly in the country. because of this new breed of entrepreneurs who have a good set of values. They are showing that you can have an idea and that could be not only good for the country, but also good for the world. But you only build trust with the public when you show them evidence, for a while now there seems to be a good vibe and good ecosystem for that, but they just have to be patient until they are newsworthy and ready for the fame. The stories of entrepreneurs have to be told, and they have to be told fairly. It is tricky: as an entrepreneur, you want to have the media attention for your enterprise, but you have to temperate it with reality. You have to stay grounded. There is failure and failure is a strong word, but if you turn it into trial and error, that is what an entrepreneur has to do. It is also very important to have the freedom to experiment and an audience that allows you to do that; your early customers can give you critical feedback so you can modify and improve your idea.


There is an encouragement from the US and Europe to think about social and environmental problems as opportunities to be solved by businesses. The best ideas will come out as solutions for these problems in the communities, so it will be just common sense that governments will support these initiatives, especially since they have seen some models working in other countries. We had a wave of such activities around 2005, 2006, and now, a decade later, you have the legislation and finance to support it. Not necessarily have the right tools for the implementation of such policies, it is still a work in progress. And it is funny that some people late to the party have the biggest megaphones to scream. But whoever is coming is welcome, no matter who is first, it is about keeping it going. It is about people understanding, stopping moaning and start noticing how social innovation can solve problems; creating business models that last longer than the average business; planting the seeds smartly so the plants endure. It is about having the right models so there is advantage later. If you want to create a business that has longevity, you must not be thinking only about finance, but you also have to think about which larger social issues your product or service can help solve. There is a lot of potential, i’m thrilled to raise awareness about it and spotlight the ones who are doing good work.

Tina Lee Odinsky-Zec is the Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center at Zagreb School of Economics and Management

Author: mentoring
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