Jelena Hrnjak, Bagel Bagel: Social mission in social entrepreneurship is the main incentive for perseverance

KoRSE blog Jelena Hrnjak_Bagel Bejgl

The Internet and education are flooded with tips and guidelines for starting a sustainable business. We often hear that they are indispensable elements: good ideas, risk management skills, investment capital, and everything else, including strong nerves and boundless perseverance. However, the social enterprise Bagel Bagel also proved that the love for food and the social mission in entrepreneurship were the most important and almost sufficient element for civil society activists to start a sustainable entrepreneurial business.

As Jelena Hrnjak, the representative of Bagel Bagel, claims, the recipe for their persistence was the idea to generate profit through entrepreneurship, which will succeed in contributing to the development of the program of the non-governmental organization Atina, which fights against human trafficking and thus contributes to our entire community.

About how the development of this great initiative went, why the food industry and pastry production, what is the mission of this social enterprise and why it is important for both business and community, do people understand when they buy or order in Bagel Bagel to help solving a serious social problem, how the COVID-19 crisis affected the work of this social enterprise, how social enterprises function in Serbia without a regulatory framework and why it is important for the general public to recognize the benefits of this business, we are talking to Jelena Hrnjak, Bagel Bagel and representative of NGO Atina in a new blog post within the “Story with Social Enterprises”.

In our previous blog, we talked about what is “social” in social entrepreneurship and how to achieve a social mission through doing business in the market. This time, through a practical example of social entrepreneurship, we will show the connection between sustainable business on the market and contributing to the development of society.

CoSED: Hello Jelena! For starters, how did the idea of starting Bagel Bagel come about? How do we try to show people that “social” in social entrepreneurship is the idea of contributing to solving a recognized problem in the community, please tell us in what way and what problem you are trying to solve?

Jelena: The beginning of Bagel Bagel is actually the maturing of many years of experience in the work of the non-governmental organization Atina, which has existed for 17 years and which primarily dealt with the fight against human trafficking and the protection of women’s rights in Serbia. As trafficking in human beings and gender-based marginalization and discrimination are difficult to separate, we insist on systematic efforts to improve the position of women. Consider also that trafficking in human beings is not just a crime, but a completely wrongly organized society based on inequality, racism, misogyny, and gender inequality. At the core of human trafficking is precisely the society that allows power (economic, political, social) be it an individual, the state or capital, the exploitation of people, mostly those who are multigenerational on the margins of the same. Here, in most cases, we are talking about women and girls, in the most extreme cases, the exploiters believe that they own them and that they have a full right over their lives. In order to help women and girls who were in a situation of trafficking and exploitation to overcome trauma, it was necessary to build a comprehensive, supportive and long-term program. It is through working with women victims of trafficking that we have noticed that we can provide psychological and sociological support, legal counseling, as well as a physically secure space for women, but that economic independence is what helps women get out of violence and start building a life they deserve. We needed to create conditions for our users to be professionally and economically empowered. That is how the idea of ​​launching an entrepreneurial initiative that will first help our users financially and the development of the NGO Atina came about.

CoSED: So Bagel Bagel arose from the need to improve and in some way continue the program of the NGO Atina, which deals with the empowerment of women victims of human trafficking, but also women who suffer other forms of discrimination and exploitation? Which women are we talking about?

Jelena: We like to emphasize that we are primarily a women’s entrepreneurial initiative, because our social mission is aimed at improving the position of disenfranchised women in our society, especially women from vulnerable and marginalized groups. When you look at our society, women as a whole are systemically discriminated against. In the context of economic independence and women’s participation in the labor market, women under the age of 30 and women over the age of 50 have the biggest problem finding work. When all that is taken into account, and look at women who are not educated or do not have work experience because they have dedicated their lives, for example, to raising a family, but want or have to earn a living in later years, the problems double. Finally, when you consider subgroups such as women victims of trafficking, women victims of domestic violence, Roma women, LGBTQ women, women from the countryside, it is clear that the circumstances of life that did not affect them further complicate work and social integration and push deep on the margins of society. We cannot shut our eyes at this huge social problem that permeates the daily lives of all of us and we must fight with our example to affirm women’s work and achieve gender equality. This is the core of the activities of the NGO Atina, and thus Bagel Bagel.

CoSED: Bagel Bagel contributes to the work of the NGO Atina by providing opportunities for users to get a job. Do you train women in work in Bagel and do they later manage to change jobs?

Jelena: Actually, we like to say that Bagel Bagel is a resource center for girls and women who want to be involved in the food industry, because the basic idea is for our customers to go through training in work, not just making pastries, although we do not neglect that technique. It is also important that the recipe is specific, but our users also master the basics of business – communication, correspondence, part of the finances, etc. It is this set of skills that help them get a job after a period of participation in the work of Bagel and in other companies and enterprises. Bagel Bagel is precisely their safe place where they learn to demand the equal treatment with full right, inclusion in society, and the right to a quality life like everyone else. In addition to encouraging and empowering them to fight for their well-being in this community, we also work with socially responsible companies that give them the opportunity to try out other professions, after their engagement in Bagel. One of our greatest efforts is precisely the effort invested in sensitizing the economic sector and assuring that we are mature enough to give up harmful stereotypes and prejudices and to fight together for a better community. In addition to the economy, we also managed to conclude a memorandum of cooperation with the Faculty of Media and Communications of Singidunum University, with the aim of providing free access to higher education for all women and girls who are in our programs. The way in which Bagel Bagel contributes the most to the work of the NGO Atina is the redirection of the realized profit to the financing of the program of the NGO Atina. In this way, we manage to ensure the sustainability of social services that we provide through the NGO Atina and continuous support and assistance to our users.

CoSED: You mentioned that you didn’t have entrepreneurial experience when you started Bagel Bagel, why did you decide to make pastries and the food industry to start a business?

Jelena: We love a good and tasty snack – it’s a secret! In fact, there is a moment of togetherness in food. As they say, it is sweetest to eat in company. The sense of community that is created is extremely important to us. It is associated with the need to share everything, good or bad and to work together to make us all better – both individually and in the community – solidarity is our foundation. So we chose food. Along the way, our product has developed into a very tasty salty and sweet pleasure, which is produced from selected varieties of homemade flour, and additives are chosen among the highest quality foods. Finally, we brought a new trend to Belgrade, because the bagel is actually the original pastry of Jews who lived in Poland, and who continued to make them after emigrating to America, where it became popular as a pastry that is an integral part of their daily lives.

CoSED: You informed me that Bagel Bagel turned 5, right during the COVID-19 crisis. What is your work experience so far? In what ways has this social enterprise managed to help women with various disadvantages? What were the biggest challenges along the way?

Jelena: Yes, we marked the 5 years jubilee of Bagel’s work during the COVID-19 crisis. We are happy that we managed to adapt as much as possible to the new circumstances in that period. It was very challenging to mark the jubilee like this, because we had to modify the business plan overnight, but we succeeded mostly because Bagel Bagel has a quality and dedicated team. In the beginning, we dedicated a lot of work, nerves and time to get acquainted with the concept of entrepreneurship, given that the entrepreneurial spirit is not nurtured in Serbia. Moreover, the circumstances of Bagel’s origin were specific.

It all started in 2014 in the midst of the migrant crisis, fiscal consolidation, and the ban on employment, which further aggravated the position of women, who are certainly almost always in the status of hard-to-employ. It was clear then that for reasons of improvement, but also the survival of the program of the NGO Atina, we must devise a way to generate funds for the development of the program. On top of all that, the NGO Atina was one of the organizations that played a key role when it comes to helping women and girls who suffered violence during migrant flows. We have decided that due to the financial sustainability of our already developed programs, we must embark on the dynamic waters of entrepreneurship. One of the great experiences was the process of deciding on the establishment of either a new segment of the program within the NGO Atina or a completely new legal entity. Five years later, it turned out that the establishment of a new legal entity – Bagel Bagel was the best decision, because in addition to being less risky for the NGO Atina if it turns out that our business venture is not a good way to finance the program, our decision managed to make Bagel Bagel a valuable example of sustainable social business in Serbia. The biggest challenge was to explain to the state, during the registration of Bagel, how a civil society organization founded ltd. and what we do with that profit, if we do not plan to generate it as our own earnings, since it is the state’s only purpose of business – which is a very aggravating factor.

CoSED: Many people are troubled by the idea of that synergy of social activism and business in the market. The NGOs Atina and Bagel Bagel are an illustrated example of that synergy. You also mentioned that there was a misunderstanding about this type of business when registering Bagel Bagel, can you show us what the establishment looked like and how people around you reacted to that idea?

Jelena: Yes, the NGO Atina is the founder of Bagel Bagel and even the Tax Administration, at that time, was very confused when we applied. I remember well that attitude “how an amoeba like an association of citizens can develop” His Highness ltd.”, and in fact, it is a completely legitimate right and is in accordance with the law. It is clear from this perspective that unfortunately knowledge is limited, that prejudices and resistance to the civil sector are still ingrained, and that in addition to the lack of knowledge our society suffers from a lack of innovation and openness to thinking outside the existing framework. It was further unclear how profit could be in the service of supporting the work and development of citizens’ association programs that directly provide social services to beneficiaries. I think that even today, most people do not understand this paradigm of business in the service of solving a social problem. In Serbia, the dominant understanding is that profit serves individual gain, and it is difficult to show people that giving and investing in the community for an individual brings much more benefits than earnings alone. Simply, the recipe is clear, you have to give to get it, and above all, it is a feeling of solidarity that once acquired, later is difficult to return to the idea of ​​exclusive satisfaction of individual needs. It is important that we change our consciousness and make us close and important to each other, and that through cooperation and nurturing togetherness, all of us individually get better. In addition to everything, Bagel Bagel helped us to place very important topics in the public, such as human trafficking and violence against women, and how we can all fight against it together. Although Atina has existed for a long time, in a way it is quite limited in communicating that topic in public, because it automatically requires a lot of details, and the women for whom we exist must be protected from that kind of bareness. Bagel is the one who was built on the community of NGO Atina, and managed to contribute many times over in our long-term work and commitment within 5 years to the Atina’s programs and struggles for the improvement of the women’s position in Serbia.

CoSED: What did you find to be the biggest stereotype when it comes to social entrepreneurship? Do people know how much they help people around them when they buy Bagel Bagel products?

Jelena: There are a lot of stereotypes and prejudices and somehow it seems to me that this is exactly the consequence of resistance to novelties and changes in the thinking of the majority in our society. De facto, one of the biggest stereotypes is based on the adjective “social” in social entrepreneurship. That prefix carries with it the connotation that something is cheap and of poor quality. So we have to try three times harder on the market, to satisfy even the most discerning client with the quality of our products and services. In this way, we not only promote Bagel, but we also promote the idea of ​​women’s social entrepreneurship, which makes a huge contribution to solving social problems. So, people first of all demand quality and we understand that and above all we manage to provide that, and then they are glad when they hear that they managed to help someone by buying our pastries.

When it comes to stereotypes, I have to share one anecdote. As part of the improvement of production, we decided to procure a special bakery oven for the bagel, which is quite expensive and not easy to procure. When we finally got to one of the suppliers, in the first step we communicated who we are and what we do, because it seemed completely normal. However, the reaction of the suppliers caught us by surprise, because it was literally based on the fact that they did not want to negotiate further, because he believed that we would demand either something free or special conditions. For us, at that moment, as already formed entrepreneurs, it was very confusing. In the end, we had to convince him to give us that oven at the price he offered, and we were happy because we were able to produce a larger number of bagels and improve the recipe, which resulted in even more satisfied customers. Simply put, in the future we most hope that people will get rid of these enormously harmful stereotypes and prejudices and think in a common sense, developed and solidary way.

CoSED: Perhaps the COVID-19 crisis is in a way an opportunity to better perceive and promote social entrepreneurship as a business that de facto helps the development of society and supports the idea of solidarity. We have already written about how social enterprises managed to appear on the front line when it comes to providing assistance during the crisis, as well as to have the ability to adapt precisely because they are guided by a social mission and not just generating profits. What is your experience?

Jelena: COVID-19 caught us all by surprise and definitely made us have to adapt quickly in order to survive. We had to change our business plan overnight and instead of selling in the store and doing catering according to some already tested dynamics, we tried other options. We are the first social enterprise to register on online food delivery platforms: donesi, glovo, wolt and the likes. However, if it were not for the NGO Atina and the community of people who enjoy our food, and recognize the importance of the whole story, it would be much harder. The challenge with online platforms is that the dynamics of ordering and production is completely different, yet our profit has so far been generated 30% through the store, and 70% through catering and both do not require product production in 30 minutes. But certainly, that was one of the ways we adapted to the new circumstances and for now it’s just fine. In the end, Bagel was sustainable until the crisis, which I am sure helped to survive during the crisis.

CoSED: And how has COVID-19 influenced women from vulnerable categories to whom you provide support and assistance?

Jelena: Conditions have drastically worsened. Many girls and women who were hired with us, and later got jobs in other companies, were the first to be laid off when the layoffs started. Many of them certainly work 2-3 jobs in the gray zone and 72% of them have lost their jobs. What turned out to be the most important thing for us was their trust in us and their readiness to turn to us for help, and they did that through our SOS number, and we were then able to support them. The general lock-up due to the COVID-19 crisis has again set back the circumstances of life for women. You know how, the state brags about how there were fewer reports of violence against women during this lockout and they interpret that as a positive thing because people were referred to each other. We know from practice, and based on previous experience, that we cannot take such an optimistic position. The reality is harsher and more difficult, because in fact women were demoralized and much more insecure to report violence because the big question during the crisis was what kind of protection they would be able to get and what would happen if they had to return to the same apartment and continue to be with the bully 24h. In the end, it was harder to report violence precisely because of the presence of the perpetrator throughout the day and night.

In order to help women and girls who were in a situation of human trafficking and exploitation to overcome trauma, it was necessary to build a comprehensive, supportive and long-term program – that is how the NGO Atina launched the social enterprise Bagel Bagel.

CoSED: When it comes to the state, how do you view the official measures to help companies to “survive” the COVID-19 crisis?

Jelena: The payment of the minimum fee is fine, but the support is by no means enough. You pay the minimum wage to the employees, but that is not enough. The next and most difficult thing for a company is the cost of rent, utilities and taxes – these are all things that represent fixed costs and those costs must be covered, and the question is first of all, how when there is actually no profit? The state must design long-term help and support, not only for companies, but also for those organizations that help vulnerable groups. The action of the state in crisis is nothing particularly different from its absolute inertia outside the crisis. As far as assistance to natural persons is concerned, the state did not mean persons with unregulated administrative status at all, i.e. a large number of those who are not recognized by the system, do not have an ID card, and cannot receive even that 100 euros of state aid. This crisis has shown again the unfinished system and the great social and economic gap among the citizens, and confirmed that in the end, those who are disadvantaged regardless the crisis suffer the most again. We hope that something may change in the planning and management of policies after this crisis, and that it will be more sensitive to the recognition and affirmation of the activities of social enterprises and more efficient and continuous support to address the most vulnerable in society.

CoSED: What do you think the state should and can do for the development of the social entrepreneurship sector in Serbia?

Jelena: Recognition of social entrepreneurship and various measures, as well as the adoption of the Law on Social Entrepreneurship would facilitate social entrepreneurs and develop the sector. This would enable easier understanding of social entrepreneurship by citizens, but also by the entire public administration, where there would no longer be any doubts and dilemmas such as we had when registering. Our attitude towards the state is constructively critical, it is simply difficult to accept that reality that the state is extremely resistant to changes, new things and where there is a huge inertia and the need to maintain the system in the status quo. For example, the NGO Atina is a licensed provider of social services and beside the issuing of a license, the state has completely left us in the lurch. Thus, the state clearly shows that it does not intend to financially support the development of services for the most vulnerable in our society, as well as that innovative and quality service is not its priority. We are always spinning in the same circle, the system must change in favor of the individual, and we must defend the state from irresponsible government. Finally, in addition to social entrepreneurship, there are many challenges that the state deals with in some way, that are still very problematic – systemic discrimination, exploitation, and marginalization of women. Chauvinistic excesses in the media are justified; and violence against women is allowed to be communicated in such a way that responsibility is placed on women – victims, and not completely and meaningfully, on perpetrators. Take a look at this election campaign, again, the issue of women’s rights, if at all, was mentioned incidentally and “by the way”. It is the state that has the power to rank this topic highly when it comes to improving our community and to really help systemic change.

CoSED: Could the COVID-19 crisis also be a chance for the development of the social entrepreneurship sector?

Jelena: I want to optimistically believe that this current crisis will still be a chance for overall changes and further development of the sector, as well as other segments of society. Crises are the ones that point to the shortcomings of the system, require quick adjustments and consideration of further conditions for survival – that is why they usually represent a good ground for change. One of the main questions for both society and the state is whether we can imagine how much social services will cost in the future? Can we understand the relationship between the civil sector, the state and the economy, what kind of development we imagine and what we really need as a society? These are some things that I expect to be placed high on the political agenda, and then I hope as a topic within the entire society. In the end, I hope that the citizens will first of all see the importance and benefits of social entrepreneurship for the development of our community.

NaIn the end, the salty and sweet pleasures in Bagel Bagel really represent the satisfaction of all gourmets, and the social mission of this social enterprise initiates action and develops a sense of solidarity. Therefore, if you want to enjoy good food, and thus become part of our solidarity community, the bagel at Knez Danilova 39 at any time of the day is a great opportunity to do so! 🙂The Coalition for the Solidarity Economy Development has launched the first blog on social entrepreneurship in Serbia within the project “Fostering the development of social and solidarity economy” in cooperation with the Heinrich Boell Stiftung – Belgrade Representative Office.

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