Today, Aleksandra Scepanovic runs Ideal Properties Group, a thriving real estate firm with four locations and 160 brokers that sells and leases commercial and residential properties in Brooklyn, New York. But 20 years ago, the Yugoslavian-born entrepreneur was caught on the frontlines in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, she explains how she found inspiration in the midst of that war zone.
As told to Burt Helm.
In a war like the one in Bosnia, it's generally not the bullet that kills you. It's being unprepared: for the shelling from the tanks, or the guards at the checkpoints, or the freezing nights with no heat, running water, or glass in the windows. If you wanted to get somewhere and survive, you had to plan and think about all the little steps that you'd never think twice about normally. And you had to be resourceful. Looking back, I think that mentality has helped me a lot in business, especially in New York City, where the stakes are so high.
In my early 20s, I became a journalist, because, like many young Serbs in Belgrade, I thought the war against the Bosnian Muslims was unjust. I wanted to do something about it--to report from the side that was being wronged. So I joined B92, an independent radio station that had been critical of Slobodan MiloševiÄ‡ and the Serbian government. When the fighting started in Sarajevo, I went there to cover it.
It was difficult reporting on the Muslim side of the conflict while having a thick Serbian accent. Those people were being attacked daily by the Serbs, my countrymen. I guess it would be like an American reporting from the streets of, say, Kabul. You don't expect to be accepted very nicely, that people will welcome you into their homes and offer you sweets. And then back home you are considered a traitor for reporting on the wrong side of the war.
But I loved the work. There was this immediacy, this directness. You had to say what you meant, because you could be dead in the next 15 minutes. That's the one thing I miss about the war--how it obliterated all the bullshit.
After a while, the fighting wore on me. You would walk through downtown Sarajevo and the buildings looked like Swiss cheese from all the shelling. You could actually watch the sunset through them, individual rays coming through the holes. One building in particular really got to me. You could see inside this apartment that had a pink bathroom--the walls were painted bright pink, kind of homey. But the bathtub dangled halfway out into the open air. The room was mangled. That had once been part of someone's life. Where did the people go? How does life continue?
One day, while walking by that apartment, I decided that someday I wanted to create beautiful spaces for people. It would be my way of reversing what the war had destroyed.
When I went home to Belgrade, I felt like nothing was ever going to change. People would just say, "MiloševiÄ‡ has tanks out in the streets. What can we do? How can we have a voice?" I felt like, I'm fighting to at least tell the world what's happening!
By 1999, I just couldn't see myself living there any more. I traveled to New York City on a visitor's visa and applied for political asylum. I didn't see my mother or my brother for another seven years, but staying in Belgrade would have been impossible for me, emotionally.
A part of me was really excited to start anew. I liked the idea that I could be anybody I wanted to be, and I fell in love with New York City. I enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology and entered the interior design program. To make ends meet, I worked at a news clipping service, and then got my real estate license. I really fell in love with real estate. As a good real estate agent, you're also designing space--you're figuring out what could happen there, what kind of business a space could appeal to. Then you watch as that business, whether it's a cool shop or a fabulous restaurant, transforms the area around it. After I met my husband [Erik Serras], we both worked at this small Manhattan real estate brokerage for a while. But it had barely any training or support. We felt like we could do it better ourselves.
We launched Ideal Properties in 2007. Erik is a broker's broker, the diplomatic one. He can close a deal between two people who hate each other. He's involved in the sales process and managing the managers. I'm too impatient for that--I handle strategy and operations.
Before we got started, we did a lot of research. We hired students from Brooklyn College and a couple of other schools to do data harvesting. We literally had kids with little notebooks running around Brooklyn asking questions for almost eight months. We wanted to understand who lives in Brooklyn. Who are these people who are actually looking for housing?
We opened our first office in Brooklyn, in this old industrial neighborhood, Gowanus. Back then, people didn't care so much about the borough; there weren't so many listings. And Gowanus was all cement and bare walls and decrepit, empty buildings. It kind of reminded me of home.
Early on, I remember we rented this shuttered old building--it used to be a garage for the New York Daily News--to people who converted it into a rock climbing gym, Brooklyn Boulders. At first, it was the only open business around. But it made the area feel safe. And a while after that, another gym opened on the block. Then an event space. Then a boutique hotel. Instead of space being destroyed, it was flourishing. Building by building, we were bringing life back.