This is a story that demonstrates that it makes sense to dream and to have wishes, to trust yourself and your knowledge and skills. Emina always wanted to work with children, to be a teacher, and she pursued an education to that end. After completing her studies, and numerous attempts to get a job, she decided to stop waiting for her chance, but instead to create one. That is how „Abakus“ was formed, an institution originally intended as a place for school children to spend time after class, while waiting for their parents. And, several years later, they now have a kindergarten, and from this season, even a nursery. She did not imagine their development along these lines, but she addressed the needs of the parents, who have so satisfied with the services provided by „Abakus“ that they kept asking for additional services.
I already did two stories on public kindergartens, and it was interesting to observe the differences between them. The projects that, for the most part, supported rehabilitation and development of public kindergartens are not normally open to private ones. They are always rejected with the same explanation – that they are private. Besides, In Zenica, the situation is such that the price per month is the same both at the public institution and at „Abakus“ – 160 KM, but public ones are subsidized from the budget with as much as 340 KM. This is something that I believe can be seen as a rather skewed market competition.
Emina Talić Hakanović:
My name is Emina Talić Hakanović. I have a master’s degree in classroom teaching, and I set up „Abakus“ at the age of 25, after receiving 37 rejections to my applications for teaching jobs.
Even as a kid, I wanted to be a teacher, from the very first grade of elementary shool, and I developed my career with this objective in mind, I graduated from the appropriate university department, passed the volunteering and state examinations and subsequently applied to each and every job announcement available. Since there are really so many of us on the Employment Bureau’s records, I got 37 rejections and somehow I spontaneously reached the idea that I could create a job for myself, by myself. And now, „Abakus“ has been in operation for 10 years, we have 14 full-time staff. Every month we call 4-5 associates, depending on the needs of our beneficiaries’ parents.
In 2008, when „Abakus“ was set up, we began by putting in place an extended stay program for school-age children. As I went to school to be a teacher, this was the age group I felt most comfortable with. And the original idea had been for this to be an institution exclusively for schoold children, that we focus only on children aged 6-12. And that was how we operated for seven years. It was a small team of people – two teachers, a cook, and I, and we functioned like that for seven years.
Then, in 2015, it so happened that there was a really great interest of parents for us to expand our services to include pre-school education. This was a particular wish of those parents who had three or four children, and they found it impractical to take school children here, and pre-schoolers somewhere else, and at the same time they were satisfied with our work. So, since September 2015, we expanded our activities to include pre-school education, we established a junior and senior kindergarten groups and in this way we increased our turnover by 70%, which also meant the number of staff and the number of beneficiaries of our services.
In September this year, again at the insistence of parents, we moved the age limit down to 12 months, and, since September this year, we have a nursery program, and we started working with the children of 12 months to three years of age, and this is currently our greatest challenge and something we enjoy so much at the moment.
I found your mode of choosing your employees interesting, because, as you wrote in that status post – you do not take recommendations, applications nor through any third-party connections, but you have a system of your own?
Well, that Facebook status of mine was entitled, „A job announcement without fixing“, because I wanted to send a message to many people who are unaware how „Abakus“ had emerged and for what reason, why I do not employ in such a way, so they call me and say that so and so is either my cousin, or a daughter of someone important – I simply had to, because I met so many people, and in these past ten years so many people met me, and whenever there is a job announcement, I get so many messages with these appeals that constitute no relevant recommendations.
In „Abakus“, we want to have really high-quality staff, we want to improve all the time, we want each team member to shoulder his or her share of responsibility for their work, because that is the only way for us to go forward and offer quality to parents. In other words, that is the only way I can guarantee for people who work here. I often say to my colleagues – anything any of them does here goes on my CV as well, if we want to look at it that way. We really take good care when we choose future employees, and at the time when that status was put up, we had six open positions, exactly because we were expanding our operations to the nursery program. And we literally every day received calls, emails and messages with content that provided no relevant input.
Naturally, we receive all submitted applications, we analyze them, take into account all properly styled recommendations of previous employers. Even when we shorlist candidates, we call previous employers, trying to find out who worked well, we even hold a second round of interviews. Educators sometimes even have to carry out demonstrations at our institutions before we make the final decision. And then, during this entire process, which takes so much enregy and time, you still keep getting messages to hire this one, or that one, and that is taking so much time.
So, with that status post I wanted, once and for all, to explain to a lot of people why such faulty application cannot pass. I myself struggled to provide high-quality work in the market, first to create a job for myself, and I would be trampling over my own principles if I did anything else.
Were there people who were offended afterwards?
I noticed that it had the desired effect – the volume of such messages fell off considerably, although some still came. Some people told me that they now understood, that they did not have any idea, that they were unaware of the path I had to take, that they did not think that I ever got a job application rejection, things like that. That I had always been successful :D
How difficult is it to survive as an independent woman entrepreneur nowadays?
We are self-financing, and it really takes a great deal of effort to guide the entire undertaking in the right direction, in the sense to provide high-quality professional work and fit it all into a budget you have available and have prices accessible for parents. In the times we live in, when the salaries in Zenica are quite low, and where our standard is really lower than it should be, it requuires a lot of imagination, creativity and passion to get a satisfactory result, i.e. to make parents satisfied and to keep it going, somehow. And yes, we also regularly meet our financial obligations to the state, to our suppliers and to our employeess.
But now, ten years later, I feel that this experience, in the sense of running this institution for 10 years, gives me a sense of security, meaning that we overcame various crisis periods, from the time of establishment, and at certain points in our operations, so now we can even anticipate certain problems. Now we are much more careful when we plan investments, more careful when we plan costs, to avoid being late in our payments to others.
What are your plans for the future, where do you see yourself in 5-10 years? In which direction will the „Abakus“ develop?
Well, in the introduction I mentioned that the „Abakus“ had been conceived as a very small and modest institution. Actually, originally all I wanted was to be a teacher for 40 years of my working life. Then I had imagined the „Abakus“ to be very humble and small, and to be a small team of people. Everything else that happened, expansion of the „Abakus“ into an institution that employs so many people – that was never the plan :D So, when people ask me about my plans – I had situation in my life when things wen much better when I planned. I have a feeling that, when we make plans, we restrict ourselves. So I keep my future outlook flexible.
I have a kind of vision that the „Abakus“ should be a successful institution, that we should continue to enhance quality we offer, to improve working conditions for staff, we seek to improve quality in every sense, to be a desirable employer to potential employees, and the best kindergarten for parents who opt for this kind of service.
And, after these 10 years of work, one of my personal goals is to strike a certain balance between the business side and the personal side. So, that is my goal now. I’m a workaholic, and during these past ten years I really spared no effort. There were days when we continued working all day. When you are an entrepreneurs, you worry at 11pm whether the pipes in the kindergarten might rupture, because the temperature is -20 degrees Celsius, then you get there at 11pm, and increase heating to the maximum to prevent that. Certainly, you keep in mind the costs and your main idea. However, after 10 years, the „Abakus“became a recognizable and stable institution, with quite a few employees. So, at the moment, I would somehow like to strike a balance between the personal and the business side of life. Certainly, I’ll continue developing the „Abakus“ to the extent possible. But, whatever I say, I have a sense that I might only limit myself, because all this that happened had not been planned at all.
If there is a message I can send to young people, about the recipe – the recipe is proactivity only. When I was unemployed, when I kept receiving all these rejections, I tried to attend all those free trainings. I though that, if I can’t get a teaching position, it would be a pity if I do not do anything. So I sought to obtain additional education in economics, because somehow I kept receiving offers for jobs outside my profession, which were related to administrative work. And I saw this announcement for the Entrepreneurship Academy, and looking at the modules I realized that it offered a great deal of economic topics, which could be useful to me if I wound up as a secretary, or something like that, because anything is better than just staying at home. So, seeking to get additional education, when I graduated from the Entrepreneurship Academy, I actuall got the idea to create a job for myself.
I had gone to the academy with one objective, but walked away with something quite different, and yet the proactivity was crucial.
Same with the „Abakus“, I imagined it as a modest institution, but everything else happened spontaneously. So, we obviously have to be proactive so these opportunities would keep happening. Those good opportunities we didn’t plan for.
Have you ever thought about leaving BiH, particularly in those periods when you looked for a job and kept receiving rejections, and what do you think what could lead young people to stay?
I never though about leaving the country, and I do not know if that can ever happen. Again, I must say that we can never know what the future might bring. I am really attached to my family, my father passed very early, so I would find it very hard to leave the country, as my mother would then remain on her own. My sistes is a student in America, so I am bound to stay, and I see myself here in the long term, also on account of other family members and our kin.
But I discovered the difference between the life in BiH and abroad when my sister and I got our master’s degrees at the same time. Then I realized the difference and thought that the people who were leaving might be right. Previously I had though they were wrong, that they could not find a better life anywhere, that one should stay in one’s own homeland. I never imposed this on anyone, nor did I try to persuade anybody that I was right, but it was my personal view that here life was good and nice, and that one could make it work, as I made it, in the sense of fulfilling some of my own potential and ambitions.
However, since my sister and I got our degrees within a space of two months, I realized how enormous was the difference between what America offered her and what my country offers me, as someone who was a successful student, with high grade average and who enrolled in master’s studies although I did not need it for my business, I wanted the master’s to upgrade my knowledge. My sister, in the course of one year of her stay in America after she got her degree, the university where she worked and studied paid for her to travel to conferences all over the world and present her thoughts from her master thesis. All her costs were paid, conference fees and she would also get a honorarium for presenting at a conference. And we all know what is the situation with investment in young people in our country, in people who offer new ideas, who conduct research. For me, if I wanted to present my master’s thesis, I would need to pay myself both the cost and the conference fees, and certainly I do it on a volunteer basis.
I noticed this difference, because it happened within a brief period. She was in a country in which she had not been born, she was a foreigner here, but that country had more respect for what she was doing than BiH would.
But I still see myself here, and I am really satisfied with what I achieved. Certainly, if young people want to leave, and they can find better opportunities abroad, I support that. I realized on this example that it could be better somewhere else. But, if they can find, in some way, some space for action, they should be proactive, they should dare to act, be brave, take risks. They should not pay much attention to what people around them are saying. There are always people who will say discouraging things and send some negative messages. It was the same when I was starting. They asked me how I dared to do something like that, and similar questions. Such things will always happen, and one should not pay attention to them.