Stewart Gray and Mathew Reiss have never been to Macedonia and knew little of its culture and business climate before a Peace Corps volunteer reached out, looking for MBA students interested in advising entrepreneurs there.
A few short months later, Gray and Reiss – both second-year students at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business – have helped a promising Macedonian entrepreneur take her venture closer to reality.
Peace Corps volunteer Kris Cuellar was looking for MBA students to advise entrepreneurs he was working with through a project called Co-Lab, a nascent startup incubator program based in Bitola, Macedonia. An inquiry to Darden’s Net Impact club found its way to Gray, who “grabbed the bull by the horns and brought the project to life,” according to Cuellar.
Gray, who came to Darden with a background in financial technology and insurance, had a long-standing interest in social entrepreneurship and was curious to participate in the venture creation process in a developing country. Similarly, Reiss, who came to Darden with a technology background and experience in venture capital, welcomed the opportunity both to share what he knew about starting a technology venture and to gain a better understanding of the challenges startups face on the other side of the globe.
“Coming into this, we’ve taken entrepreneurship classes, and we’ve worked on some of our own things here, but you just have no idea of the challenges someone is facing in a completely different startup ecosystem,” said Reiss, a fellow at the UVA Licensing and Venture Group’s Seed Fund. “That was part of the draw for me.”
Shortly after the first email exchange, Gray and Reiss began meeting regularly over Skype with Jana Jurukovska, a teacher who came to the Co-Lab with a plan for a crowdsourcing platform for helping local Macedonians pay for medical bills in the case of an unexpected emergency, similar to GoFundMe or YouCaring in the U.S. While she had a vision for her product and company, she had no experience in business, finance or management.
Despite her lack of traditional business training, Jurukovska said the regular meetings convinced her that her idea was viable, and that she had the capabilities to develop the requisite toolkit to get it off the ground.
“So far, the whole experience has been more than great,” Jurukovska said. “The project gave me an additional encouragement and assured me that anyone can start a business as long as they are willing to learn new things.”
“Our entrepreneur is a rock star,” Gray said of Jurukovska. “She has a good idea, she has a good sense of what she wants to do with it, and she has thought through a lot of the challenges.”
Gray and Reiss said the ideal mentor-mentee relationship took some time to solidify. As MBAs armed with a wealth of entrepreneurial theory and experience, the Darden students went into the program imagining they would be full of answers and solutions.
“Our inclination at first was to jump in and try to do everything.” Gray said. “We quickly realized we didn’t understand enough about Macedonia to do so, and that that strategy takes ownership away from Jana, which was the last thing we wanted to do.”
“You get excited, and you want to do what you can to help, but you’re not nearly as familiar with the business environment on the ground as they are,” Reiss said.
Instead, the pair suppressed their natural instincts and started advising less while listening more, enabling them to develop a deeper understanding of what Jurukovska hoped to accomplish. It also helped them identify what a successful outcome from their sessions could look like.
Along the way, they helped guide Jurukovska toward a viable business strategy, wrestling with fundamentals like pricing and customer acquisition strategy along the way. They also gained a greater understanding of the unique challenges involved in starting a business in a country like Macedonia, where roughly a quarter of the population is unemployed, according to Cuellar.
“I’ve been able to understand more than I thought I would about Macedonia, with Jana’s help of course,” said Reiss. “It’s kind of the case method mentality – becoming an expert in some new area very quickly. The environment is different and the answers may be different, but the questions you ask and the way you think through it is very applicable.”
Gray said a key takeaway from the experience for him is witnessing the global applicability of the business skills he has learned before and during his time at Darden.
“In a lot of ways, Jana is where we were when we were 22 and first learning how to make it work in the corporate world, but she’s doing it in a very different country. Still, at the end of the day, certain core elements of business sense are still core elements,” Gray said. “How you adapt those to global and international products and services, there is always some nuance there, but the lion’s share of the basics of business strategy definitely applies in Macedonia as much as it does anywhere else.”
Gray and Reiss have also worked with Cuellar to help bring some additional structure to the mentorship program. To that end, a second round of pairings between Darden students and the Co-Lab are in the works for the remainder of the school year.
“Not only have Stewart and Mat helped their Macedonian entrepreneur, Jana, but by providing me with feedback, they have helped improve the whole Co-Lab concept,” Cuellar said. “Moving forward, Stewart and Mat are leading the charge to add another Macedonian entrepreneur and additional Darden MBA candidates to the Co-Lab project.”
Gray and Reiss are careful not to overstate their impact, but each said they take satisfaction in making a modest, but tangible difference in the life of at least one burgeoning entrepreneur.
“I’ve always been interested in economic development and social entrepreneurship broadly, and I thought that this is a way I can help,” Gray said. “It feels really good to take our learnings and apply them to help someone else along a similar path, and it feels good to do it in a new geographic location that presents new and interesting challenges.”