An innovative, all-female technology program at the University of Belgrade, School of Electrical Engineering, in Serbia is giving women the confidence and skills to pursue their dreams. As the ICT sector expands, opportunities for women will increase and their talent will play a key role in the continuing development of the post-war economy in Serbia. The F_Email Project brings together a diverse group of women who have not been able to find work to become a sought-after network of ICT professionals.
The idea for the F_Email project came from Mladen Koprivica, a Cisco Networking Academy instructor at the University of Belgrade, School of Electrical Engineering. After the breakup of Yugoslavia and wars in the 1990s, the Serbian economy had begun to stabilize and Mladen saw opportunity. “According to the EU Grand Coalition on Digital Jobs, there is a gap between available IT jobs and people qualified for them,” he said. “To support the development and modernization of Serbian economy, it is very important to have educated people. There is a need for women to take greater participation in IT jobs.”
At the university, many women pursue degrees in areas where no jobs exist or under-represent their skills and talents due to a lack of confidence. Ana Mari Brnabic graduated at the top in her class in art restoration, but spent years looking for work. Marija Martinovic and Smilja Filimonovic both had transportation engineering degrees, but could not compete with electrical engineers for ITC jobs. They were underemployed, Marija as a shop assistant and Smilja in a computer repair shop.
In 2006, Mladen partnered with Cisco to launch the F_Email Project: a competitive IT training program for a carefully selected group of women who face significant obstacles to employment. By combining the technical skills taught in Cisco Networking Academy courses with soft skills training in a small group setting, he hoped to help the women bring their strengths and talents to the developing ICT sector in Serbia.
Cisco provides the Networking Academy curriculum, online assessments, and lab simulations while the university leads workshops on how to write a CV, interview, and communicate professionally. The women work together in the hands-on lab to develop their skills. “We were so astonished with what we learned there,” said Marija, a traffic engineer. “My friend brought her son to the computer center on weekends, because she had no one to care for him. We spent almost every weekend there. It was amazing because we were able to work on real equipment, to connect stuff, to troubleshoot, and because of the people I met.”
“It is rough in the Serbian market,” said Nada Krkobabic. “Unemployment is high, especially for ladies without experience.” Nada lost her IT job with a real estate company when the market crashed in 2008. She found the F_Email project, sharpened her skills and is now a Networking Academy instructor and an IT administrator with a local mobile communications company.
More than 150 women compete each year for 16 spaces in the intensive 8-month program. Selection is based on a mix of criteria, including how long they have been looking for work or have been unemployed. “We are looking for ladies who have the drive to complete the course,” said Tijana Marjanovic, marketing and PR with Cisco Serbia and a founder of the project. “Women who are looking for something that will change their lives.”
The result is a mix of career starters with technical skills and career changers with backgrounds as diverse as IT analyst, mother, artist, language professor, and architect. Within each class there are often no common bonds but one: they desire to learn and better themselves personally.
“I was always supported, there was never a time I was alone and my confidence soared,” said Smilja. She found her dream job at a managed services company as an engineer working on voice and video conferencing solutions. “Every day I have a smile…I don’t know what would happen to me if I didn’t go through the training. Without Cisco Academy, I don’t believe I would have this job.”
“It was like starting from zero, again, at 34 years,” said Ana Mari, the artist. In the F_Email Project, she discovered how her art restoration skills could translate into a technology career. After years of rejection, she is now working in the IT industry in Serbia. “It was really frustrating. But I’m happy, really happy with my job, my colleagues, and my new friends.”
Beyond technical expertise, the program emphasizes career development through soft skills training. Participants learn to position themselves for a career, not just a job. When Irena Jankovic, the soft skills instructor, begins her first workshop, the women are skeptical. They do not recognize their strengths or know how to present them to potential employers.
“After the first day, they have a totally different approach to their CVs,” she said. “I teach them to use what is unique to them to help employers understand what is different from others.” For example, Mirjana Mihajlovic had worked as an Italian translator for an engineering company when she discovered a passion for networking and won a spot in the F_Email Project. Irena showed her how to highlight the Italian language and IT connection to show her unique skills. Today, she is a systems and network engineer in ICT services.
Irena encourages women to put their own priorities first and focus on career goals. Snezana Lukic, a postal worker for 22 years with an interest in technology, realized that she had to speak up for herself and her career goals. “I learned that I should not be self conscious,” she said. “I learned how to present to people what I already know, that I am sure about myself and willing to learn more. If I don’t tell people, they won’t know.”
“As the gap between qualified people and available jobs grows, women must take a bigger part in the IT industry,” said Mladen. “Some of the most popular IT jobs did not exist 5 years ago when we started the program. We have seen that an IT education can be very powerful.”
Despite the global recession hit in 2008 and an unemployment rate around 20 percent, the women in the F_Email Project have found work. In the first 5 years, 83 women completed the F_Email Project program and 70 percent of found jobs. According to Nada: “We have a linguist who is a systems administrator and an architect who is working as a systems engineer at a public university. Our best student this year has a social studies background.
Zlata Vipic exemplifies the enthusiasm and attitude of the Serbian post-war economy and the growing ICT sector. She joined the F_Email project at the beginning of her career and chose to take the Cisco CCNA exam. The CCNA certification gives her an edge with customers and colleagues at the manages solutions technology provider where she works in sales. “When I told my colleagues from Network Operations Center that I had a CCNA, they said, really? You? When I call now, they answer, they are more respectful,” she said.
“I don’t worry about my future anymore,” said Ana Mari. “I know what I would like to do and what my goal is.” Her confidence extends to her two sons, 11 and 7, who she encourages keep an open mind about their interests.