“Facing Success: On Challenges and Visions in the Business World”

Interview with Jelena Šćepanović

entrepreneur –

“Women are intuitive and spontaneous beings, and if they feel the need to venture into business, they should do so.”

Jelena Šćepanović, an entrepreneur, was an interlocutor for the Diplomacy & Commerce Montenegro magazine. Not only does Šćepanović define the standards of the hospitality industry in Montenegro with her business ventures, but she also sets new boundaries for sustainable tourism and entrepreneurship. With a mission to bring innovation and improvement to the hospitality sector, Jelena Šćepanović has founded several successful restaurants, including “Verige 65” and “NOA,” as well as the eco-village “Nevidio.” Besides being an entrepreneur, our interlocutor is also a visionary who constantly strives for improvement and innovation in her business ventures.

Restaurants “Verige 65” and “NOA,” as well as the eco-village “Nevidio,” are just a part of the business ventures under your signature. How did you start your entrepreneurial journey, and were there any obstacles you had to overcome along the way?

My entrepreneurial journey began earlier, at the age of 25, and was not related to hospitality. In fact, I was a pioneer in the Montenegro market regarding POS terminals for paying for various services. I remember entering the business world with a lot of enthusiasm, dedication, and passion, applying my extensive university knowledge in practice. Later, intrigued by the hospitality profession and with an infallible intuition that I could push boundaries in this area, I opened our first restaurant, “VERIGE 65,” with my brother Aleksandar. I believe that every beginning is difficult because it carries uncertainty, entering into something completely new, a bunch of administrative things that complicate the whole process, and finding the staff who will implement your vision and ideas into action. However, as in life, every obstacle and its overcoming is proving oneself in the business world, testing your strength and perseverance, strengthening self-confidence, and empowering your business reputation for all future projects and ventures. My business success is measured by the number of challenges and problems I have faced and overcome, which is why, today, when entering any new project, I do not feel fear but confidence and security in my assessments and decisions.

Trends in hospitality and tourism, in general, are changing faster and more than ever before. In your opinion, what are the key traits or skills that you consider necessary for success in the business world, especially as an entrepreneur?

I believe you must be a visionary, and it is imperative to desire to create and continuously improve your business. What makes me different is my curious spirit, which constantly listens to trends and innovations and implements them, thereby pushing boundaries in the field of hospitality. Lastly, the equally important skill is choosing the right people and managing your team.

For decades, tourism has been the most important economic activity in Montenegro. However, in which direction should the development of tourism in Montenegro continue, especially in the north of the country? Where do we stand in relation to the world?

Tourism is the most important economic branch in Montenegro, and I believe that it will continue to be so in the coming decades. However, in terms of a tourist destination, I am of the opinion that we still do not have a clearly defined direction. I would even dare say that the north of Montenegro has a more straightforward strategy than the coast. I believe that before setting a course, we need to see what we have at our disposal. When I say that, I mean people and workforce, infrastructure, and knowledge about tourism and marketing. So, we must go step by step, primarily to solve the big problem of the workforce. At the moment, I believe that 40 – 50% of the workforce is missing for this season, so the tourist offer cannot be at the level of leading world destinations that Montenegro is striving for. In the north, that percentage is much higher, but tourists are a little more understanding than on the coast, so this challenging situation is balanced. When it comes to infrastructure, you can indeed be the most beautiful destination in the world, but if it’s not easy and cheap to get there, guests will definitely choose another destination. The fact is that when you travel, you make sure that part of your trip is the cheapest and fastest so that you can leave more money for the hotel and more time for rest and visiting the destination. The third essential item is the marketing of a country as a tourist destination. Without proper marketing, it’s like winking in the dark. As someone who graduated in marketing, I will say that we are trotting heavily after many European destinations. You can see it best through the example of our neighbors, the city of Dubrovnik, which is practically on the border with Montenegro, and in terms of marketing, it seems like it is thousands of kilometers away from us. Finally, when hospitality and tourism are already the most important sources of income for our country, then we must devote much more time to the education and training of personnel in the hospitality industry.

How do you face the competition in your industry, and what strategies do you use to maintain your business’s competitiveness?

It might sound unusual, but I don’t look at people from the industry as competitors but as colleagues who, together with us, will raise the quality of hospitality in a place, city, or country, from which we will all benefit together. We have had such a business policy since the moment we opened our first restaurant, “Verige65” in Kostanjica, and when following our example, many people opened hotels and restaurants. We have achieved friendly and good neighborly relations with everyone, thus raising the level of hospitality in that part of the Bay of Kotor. The same happened with the Bistro & Bar “Kantina65”, which was opened in the heart of Herceg Novi at a time when the city center was entirely forgotten. Our vision, aside from making a profit, was to return the former, well-deserved splendor to the city center by investing in the surroundings of our restaurant. By raising the attractiveness of the place where we do business, we empowered others to open restaurants, cafeterias, and pastry shops. Now, in the multitude of other restaurants that have opened near us, we are doing just as well as when we were alone, only with many more tourists because that part of the city has become more prominent. Our strategy for a successful business is the consistency of our style and the uniqueness of the offer, listening to the market, and constant improvement, thus dictating trends. These are restaurants that convey a particular story and idea to you, concepts that are not copied but very personal, carefully and lovingly thought out. I believe that this is precisely what guests notice and what they always return to. And finally, indispensable marketing, with a special emphasis on social networks, to which we pay special attention.

What guidance or advice would you give to young women who want to start their business venture?

Women are intuitive and spontaneous beings, and if they feel the need to venture into business, they should do so. My advice is not to stay in the comfort zone because nothing significant or grand has ever come from it. As long as you are in the comfort zone, you are outside the progress zone. Do not be afraid to express yourself, your talent, and your entrepreneurial spirit. Everything approached thoroughly, dedicatedly, and with love must yield results.

How do you see the role of women in entrepreneurship, and what obstacles or discrimination still need to be overcome to promote equality in the business world?

I believe that women in entrepreneurship occupy a larger and more critical role than ever before. Their strength is reflected in the fact that they bring to entrepreneurship what it lacked – feminine energy, thereby building a society that is stronger and safer for themselves and other women. It paves the way for women’s economic independence, which is perhaps vital today. Women before us fought for many rights that we enjoy today, and now it is our time to fight for economic equality. The women I am surrounded by achieve this in a way that is inherent in us – empathically, with understanding, and with strong negotiation skills. Women today hold important positions, are ready to take risks and participate equally in business, balancing it with their private lives, which is a great challenge. As a result, the entire economy becomes an environment that understands women, one that will nurture their empathy and use it to the best advantage for the economy and its progress. When we talk about discrimination, it is perhaps most reflected in some traditional values that are, especially in Montenegro, inherited and often have no foundation in the modern life of women and, in my opinion, can be linked to a lack of education. The women I am surrounded by prove the opposite and, by personal example, change traditional views, becoming the most sought-after partners and employers of their male colleagues. I believe that personal example and direct education are the most successful ways to bring about changes in society and the economy. Montenegro is a society that is unique in itself, and changes are challenging to adopt, but precisely because of that, it is also a safe society and environment.

We live in a digital era. How do technological innovations and digital transformation affect your business and your approach to the market?

We live in an era that is more challenging than ever in terms of technological innovations and generally digitalization, so much so that the boundary between real and virtual life is somewhat lost, and innovations, to some extent, lose their authentic and original purpose. Of course, all this is additionally challenging in environments like Montenegro, which has relatively late gone through the transition process, and thus through all other processes that have already taken hold, especially in Northern Europe. We strive to implement all technological innovations in such a way that they enable us to protect the environment in the best possible way while still retaining what is characteristic of our society. Here, I particularly refer to “Eco Village Nevidio,” which is located in a rural environment that will soon operate sustainably thanks to certain technological innovations, yet the spirit of the times of our villages that marked our childhood has not been lost. Digitalization, which we primarily associate with digital media and marketing, certainly facilitates promotion and communication with potential guests. The traditional understanding of marketing has changed and requires us to constantly learn new skills, which personally does not pose a problem for me as I am someone who truly loves to learn and upgrade my knowledge and skills.

What are your plans and visions for the future of your business, and how do you see your company’s further development in light of changing market conditions?

First and foremost, I work daily on maintaining the quality of service in our hotel and all of our restaurants, which guests have come to expect and which I’ve noticed is the hardest to achieve in Montenegro. Regarding the eco-village Nevidio, we continue in the direction of ecological sustainability and all that it entails. This season, we will also be a location with electric charging for cars, as well as a point where visitors can purchase local Montenegrin products in our village store. Later, we plan to equip an accommodation unit for the workforce, which will solve the significant problem of finding it in the north of Montenegro. After opening the Bistro & Bar “Kantina65” in Herceg Novi, I decided to continue expanding this concept with slight modifications in the form of a self-service restaurant like the newly opened one in Djenovići, which quickly became a favorite spot for locals and tourists. The “NOA” restaurant in Portonovi has already become a recognizable brand that is ready for expansion to other cities and countries. In addition to all this, the fleet of speedboats, “Taxi boat65,” is growing, providing tourist transportation services by water in the Bay of Kotor. The next project we have been working on in recent months is related to confectionery, and I believe it will be a breath of fresh air in the market.