May 10, 2019

Majlinda Ruhani believes entrepreneurship is key to a thriving Kosovo.

Though Europe’s newest country has made great strides in the 20 years since it won its independence, many Kosovars still struggle to find work. The unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent and more than 50 percent of youth are unemployed — forcing many to leave the country to find jobs.

Ruhani wants to turn that around. As the head of incubation at VentureUP, an innovation and entrepreneurship center at the University of Prishtina, Ruhani equips students with job and soft skills training, including the skills they need to launch startups and, ultimately, transform their country’s economy by creating new job opportunities.

“Entrepreneurship is one of the solutions to use all the potential we have with the youth of Kosovo,” she says.

Ruhani represents a new generation of Kosovar leaders that World Learning supports through the Transformational Leadership Program — Scholarships and Partnerships(TLP), funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Since 2014, the program has awarded scholarships to promising young Kosovars to pursue their studies in the United States. It has also strengthened the capacity of the University of Prishtina to prepare students for the modern workforce.

TLP has been a catalyst for Ruhani’s work as well. VentureUP was conceived by the program’s advisory committee, and it is run by a cadre of talented TLP alumni. Ruhani is one of them — and she credits her scholarship with sparking a passion that changed the course of her career.

Discovering entrepreneurship at Willamette

In 2015, Ruhani was pursuing a career in finance when she won a TLP scholarship to the Master of Business Administration program at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.

Willamette seemed like a perfect fit: Not only is the university known for the strength of its finance courses, it also places a premium on experiential learning. Ruhani was curious about the active, hands-on approach to learning. “It’s something that we’re missing here,” Ruhani says. “Our country is new and we’re still developing in many areas, especially in education.”

She didn’t realize that experiential learning could transform her career goals.

“That was one of the most difficult but at the same time one of the most amazing experiences,” Ruhani says. “It’s exciting to be able to go through the first stages [of a project] no matter if it’s business or an NGO. You have so many challenges, and that’s what makes it really interesting.”

Bringing knowledge back to Kosovo

After completing her MBA, Ruhani continued exploring this new world of startups and entrepreneurship as a consultant when she returned home to Kosovo.

Ruhani fell in love with entrepreneurship through one of Willamette’s signature programs, a two-semester course in which students team up to offer consulting services to nonprofit clients. Her team helped the Salem Parks Foundation develop plans for fundraising, marketing, and more. Ruhani was excited to help the organization launch initiatives like its now-annual Walk in the Park benefit.

“I feel like this area is one of the most interesting areas in the business world,” she says.

Her skills were in demand. Organizations across the country hired Ruhani to research donor communities, analyze their business models, and offer plans to expand their services. She saw how entrepreneurship could spur job creation firsthand through her consulting work with an NGO called E Shpis, which employs marginalized women to bake and sell traditional Albanian delicacies.

Ruhani loved that her consulting offered the opportunity to work with different ideas and perspectives. “My main goal was to get an understanding of the business culture here to identify the trends and all the changes that we’re going through as a country,” Ruhani says.

She’s optimistic about those changes. Ruhani says she now sees more companies in Kosovo creating partnerships with international organizations. Those partnerships force companies to meet the standards expected in more developed countries. “[It’s] really good for Kosovo,” she says.

Fostering entrepreneurship among Kosovo’s youth

As the new head of incubation at VentureUP, Ruhani looks forward to passing her knowledge along to the country’s next generation of entrepreneurs.

Founded in late 2017, VentureUP aims to connect University of Prishtina students to the working world. It offers experiential workshops to develop students’ soft skills as well as the technical skills they need to succeed as entrepreneurs. It introduces students to ways they can use innovation to make a difference in their communities and promotes research and development opportunities at the university.

Through the incubation program — which is just now getting underway with its first cohort of 10 teams — Ruhani and other staff members will guide students in turning their business ideas into reality. June Lavelle, a business incubation consultant in the United States who has created incubators around the world, donated her time and expertise to help develop VentureUP’s program.

VentureUP will offer working space, mentoring opportunities, and trainings on how students can get their startups ready for the market. The incubator will also host events so students can network with potential collaborators and investors. “Youth in Kosovo really need this kind of opportunity,” Ruhani says. “We’re trying to help them as much as we can.”

TLP’s robust alumni network has helped make this all possible. Many of VentureUP’s staff members — including CEO Fis Malesori — are TLP alumni. Like Ruhani, these alumni returned from their scholarship programs not only with technical expertise but with a vision for Kosovo’s future. “It’s amazing being part of the TLP community, because pretty much every member of this community acquired a lot of knowledge through their studies,” she says. “They are so eager to apply that knowledge and make things better here.”