This fall will mark the 20th anniversary of the first refugees from the Bosnian war arriving in St. Louis.
We’re continuing our ongoing look at their experiences in this country with a story about business, more specifically, business and cultural identity.
Many of the early Bosnian entrepreneurs catered to other Bosnians in St. Louis.
That’s starting to change, though, as Bosnian business owners search for success by connecting with the larger community.
Have you ever asked yourself: “Could I completely start over?”
Not just find a new job, go back to school or carve out a new career.
I mean completely start over, like new country, new culture, new everything.
Ibrahim Vajzovic says of all the new stuff, the hardest part is learning how to communicate.
“For older people we were a little bit scared to say something if it’s not correct,” Vajzovic says.
On a recent afternoon Vajzovic is driving around South City where he and many other Bosnian refugees first settled almost 20 years ago.
Before the war Vajzovic was the director of a large public transit agency, his wife was a successful business attorney. But those careers where lost in the wreckage of the Bosnian war.
He landed here in 1994, spent a decade working his way up in a printing shop. Slowly he scraped together enough money to start buying beat up houses.
Today, he’s branched out from real-estate and has an insurance company and trucking business.
Over time, Vajzovic says he’s created 50 jobs, almost all of which are filled by Americans.
“I want to succeed, I want my children to be successful and I want to be very valued member of the community,” Vajzovic says.
What Vajzovic is talking about, connecting with the larger community, is an evolution for many Bosnian business owners.
Moving Beyond The Niche
“Early Bosnian Businesses catered specifically toward Bosnians,” says Akif Cogo, a young guy dressed in all black having coffee at the Bosnian owned Korzo Café.
Cogo runs the website STL Bosnians, and he works sort of like an informal documentarian, charting how the community has changed over the years.
Early on, he says, many Bosnians worked as independent contractors, fixing up homes or driving trucks.
Those efforts often turned into small businesses, but were focused heavily on serving the Bosnian community.
Fast forward to today and Cogo says the Bosnian business community is entering a new phase.
“Most of our businesses today are not what they used to be at first,” Cogo says. “That is, they are not niche’ businesses just for the Bosnian community, but rather, they spread out to serve everyone else who might be interested.”
Cogo says even though many older members of the community have cracked the code of American entrepreneurialism, that’s not always what they want for their kids.
After struggling to carve out a new life, he says many parents push their children to find success in more mainstream professions, like medicine, law or computer science.
Even so, there’s plenty examples of younger Bosnians who say forget it; I’m going to be my own boss.
Business Is Business
The compressor on a cooler full of sodas in the back corner of Mr. X Pizza sounds like its working overtime.
A late afternoon rush has simmered down and Yasmin Islamovic is taking a break.
Islamovic and his two brothers came here with their mom 19 years ago, their father was lost in the war.
Now, he helps his big brother run this little pizza joint.
He says look, business is business.
“We are Bosnian, so you can’t really just get rid of that, you know,” Islamovic says. “But we would like to be known as a pizza place, not a Bosnian owned pizza place, if you know what I’m saying.”
Islamovic says he has to get back to work; there are orders for the Mr. X calling card, a massive 30 inch pizza.
He says, yeah, they do have one Bosnian specific topping, everything else, though, is the usual.
You see, Islamovic says they want to expand one day, and just like any other business, they need as many customers as they can get.
Follow Tim Lloyd on Twitter: @TimSLloyd