WorldChicago ProFellows Exchange Program - Spring 2019
Friday, April 26, 2019
Posted by: Kaylin Berg
Trisha Degg, VP of Talent Operations, ITA
In the spring of 2019, I had the privilege to be one of six influencers from the Chicago tech community to be chosen for a reciprocal visit to the Balkans for the ProFellows exchange program, hosted by WorldChicago and the US State Department. We spent 10 days with people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia and North Macedonia, exchanging ideas, sharing tips and tackling challenges with two conferences, presentations, workshops and meetings.
In the fall of 2018, Illinois Technology Association (ITA) and myself had been matched to host Natasha Lazarovska-Trajcheski, a professional fellow from North Macedonia. She spent five weeks being immersed in our community with meetings with leaders from the local tech community to take back ideas and projects to North Macedonia to better improve their local startup/tech scene.
While in North Macedonia, I was also traveling with Caitlin McAllister, Executive Director of Catapult Chicago, as her fellow, Ana Trpovska is also from Macedonia and Project Manager at CEED Macedonia. Natasha is the Head of Legal and Finance Dept, International Relations and Innovation Specialist for Fund for Innovations and Technology Development and Co-Founder of StartUp Macedonia. With her and Ana’s vast knowledge of the local tech community and many connections, they set up a very full week for us to meet with influencers locally to help bring best practices to the burgeoning tech ecosystem in Skopje.
Voogle and LEAP Conferences
Upon arriving in Zagreb on March 27, we were immediately swept to Varazdin, Croatia for a welcome dinner with the in-country host, Karlo Kukec and the rest of the Chicago fellows. We had a wonderful walking tour of the old town of Varazdin, learning about their lore of witches, followed by an amazing dinner. The next morning got an early start to head over to the Voogle Conference: Catalyzing Croatia, which boasted 250+ attendees from the Balkans region. Each fellow had a chance to do a 15-minute presentation on a topic of their specialty. At ITA, we focus on creating a stronger tech community through events, peer-to-peer connections and educational programming. I chose to share these best practices with the group. It was an engaged, interested crowd, asking a lot of questions of each speaker. After the presentations, we were able to sit in on the Start Up pitch competition, where 10 start ups from the region were able to pitch their idea to a panel of judges for a chance to win 10,000 euros. A short networking reception followed and a chance to meet with some of the locals and answer more questions. Afterwards, a few of the Chicago fellows set out to find some local fare for dinner. We stumbled upon a wonderful little spot, called Palatine, where we spent the next three hours eating, enjoying wine and getting to know each other better. Even talking through our own challenges in our roles in Chicago and offering advice and guidance.
The next morning, Caitlin, Debra Giunta, Heather Johnston, Corey Friedman, Jonathan Fritz and myself made the trip back to Zagreb to speak at the LEAP Conference, which had over 6000 people registered to attend over two days. Most of us were doing the same presentation as the day before, only to a much younger audience. The attendees at Voogle were young professionals and entrepreneurs, while the LEAP conference was made up of mostly students and fresh college grads, looking to learn more about innovation and network with others. That evening, the US fellows all met up together for a wonderful dinner and explore Zagreb with the locals before heading to meet up with our Balkans fellows in their home country on March 30.
To be honest, I was extremely happy to have Caitlin traveling with me to Skopje. Even as someone who travels regularly and has been to 25 countries, Macedonia was not on my travel list. I did not know what to expect, and frankly, had an impression of a pretty underdeveloped country with very little infrastructure. We arrived very late on Saturday night and in the darkness of the late hour, nothing was convincing me otherwise. The next morning (Sunday) was a free day, so our host, Natasha and her husband offered to pick us up and take us on a tour of the Macedonian countryside. Caitlin and I were pleasantly surprised! It was a beautiful drive through the mountains, with a stop at the Stobi archeological site. We also stopped and got a tour of a couple of local wineries. At the second, we were joined for lunch by friends and family of Natasha and got the true local experience of a Sunday in Macedonia. The day was filled with wine, wonderful food (that just kept coming!) and lots of laughs. The hospitality of these people was incredible. We were curious to learn from each other and the setting of the day was the perfect chance to do this. It was a perfect day and a wonderful welcome to the country.
On Monday, things kicked off right away. Caitlin and I had packed schedules, meeting with entrepreneurs, students, business owners, community influencers and the US Embassy to knowledge share.
I have an entirely new outlook on Macedonia, their people and the tech scene that is up and coming there. In conclusion, the foundation to build a strong technology community is there. There is a lot of activity happening, they just need some structure to collaborate more. My first recommendation for everyone I met with is to talk to one another more to idea share. ITA is built on the idea of creating a community to celebrate successes and discuss failures and this is not happening in Skopje yet. The second was to get more ingrained with the local universities. I had the pleasure of speaking to 50-60 students and there are some very talented young people in their own backyard. The perception of the business community is that all of them are leaving Macedonia for other places, but my advice was to simply give them a reason to stay! This was absolutely a trip of a lifetime and I cannot thank WorldChicago and the US State Department enough for this amazing opportunity.
Want to learn more about how you can get involved with this program and host a fellow? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.