How a Serbian War Journalist Became a Successful Entrepreneur in New York

What are the success stories that inspire us the most? Maybe entrepreneurs who have humble beginnings or quirky past jobs inspire us the most. Serbian entrepreneur, Aleksandra Scepanovic is one of them—her thrilling journey from the Bosnian war zone to a thriving real estate business is one of a kind.

Scepanovic’s career started off as a journalist in Sarajevo where she covered the Bosnian war for many years. Today, she runs Ideal Properties Group, a real estate firm with 250 brokers in Brooklyn, New York.

Her happy life in former Yugoslavia turned into a horror movie when the Yugoslavian civil war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992.
“I studied archaeology at university and I was really interested in becoming an expert in the Neolithic age,” she said. But she gave up on her career dream and pursued journalism instead. She joined a local radio station, which was highly critical of Slobodan Milosevic, the President of Serbia at the time.

“Milosevic gave a very stern warning they would not tolerate anything other than their own political views. They sent tanks into the streets of Belgrade,” said Scepanovic.

“I had no fear. And I don’t know if I would have the strength in me if I knew fear from the get-go.”

Like many young Serbs in Belgrade, she thought the war against the Bosnian Muslims was unjust. She realized she could not sit on the sidelines and pretend nothing is going on.
“There were a lot of skirmishes between the radio station and the regime. They were shutting down our transmitters, beating up journalists, and there were all kinds of aggressions,” she said.

She moved to Sarajevo (the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina) to cover the war from the side that was being wronged. Being a Serbian but reporting from the Muslim side of the conflict was a very difficult task but she loved the job.
“I had no fear. And I don’t know if I would have the strength in me if I knew fear from the get-go. Everything else gets eroded in the face of fear,” said Scepanovic.

While she was  there, she witnessed nearly three-quarters of Sarajevo being destroyed or damaged by shells and bombs. The Bosnian war that lasted three years resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths, according to the media reports.

After the Dayton peace agreement in 1995, Scepanovic worked for a few non-governmental initiatives and became part of the rebuilding effort in Bosnia. However, she felt unhappy.

“I did subversive things like reporting the truth. No matter what I did and how much I persisted, Milosevic was still there,” she said.
For Scepanovic, there was no real peace and no chance to bring back Yugoslavia. She realized it was starting to take a toll on her.
In one of those early days in New York, I found myself walking in China Town. It was a mind blowing experience.
— Aleksandra Scepanovic, Ideal Properties

“I needed geographical detachment so I came to New York to visit a friend in 1999. I never thought I would stay. I was convinced that I wanted to live in Amsterdam,” she recalled.

“In one of those early days in New York, I found myself walking in China Town. It was a mind-blowing experience, so different from anything I have ever seen.”

Scepanovic fell in love with New York. So she decided to stay and apply for political asylum.

A New Chapter in Life
Scepanovic enrolled in interior design program at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and found the real estate business very intriguing.
“There is a big fascination and obsession with real estate in New York, unmatched by anywhere else in the world. And I was attracted to it,” she said.
She first worked at a small Manhattan real estate brokerage firm. After gaining some experience in real estate she co-founded Ideal Properties with her partner in 2007.

They started at a time when the housing market was already beginning to collapse. People were panicking and many brokers were leaving the profession. But Scepanovic was not discouraged at all.  

“If you are paralyzed with fear, you will never find the inner strength. Just close your eyes and jump in with both feet. That is my entire philosophy,” she said.

Instead of focusing on Manhattan, they decided to work in Brooklyn, which they thought would be relatively safer and more resilient. They launched the business in a tiny room in one of the brownstone houses in Brooklyn with no initial capital.

“We used to have a cardboard on the wall. And many yellow post-it notes with apartment listings on it. That was our database,” said Scepanovic.
“We had this archaic way of doing business. But it still felt right. We were doing really well. We just persisted at it. Then things started to change.”
The research pointed us to Gowanus. It kind of reminded me of home.
— Aleksandra Scepanovic, Ideal Properties

To better address customer needs, Scepanovic and her team devoted a lot of time on research. They hired students from Brooklyn College to do data harvesting. After months of painstaking research, they developed a good understanding of demographics and housing needs of people in Brooklyn.
They opened their first office in Gowanus, which is the old industrial neighborhood.

“The research pointed us to Gowanus. It kind of reminded me of home. And I thought it was going to be the next neighborhood that would capture attention. And it did and it still does,” she said.

Today Ideal Properties is one of the largest, privately owned real estate firms specializing in premier Brooklyn neighborhoods. It has four offices in Brooklyn located in Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Gowanus, and Williamsburg. In addition to 250 real estate brokers and salespersons, the company has a team of in-house design, staging, marketing, and web design professionals.




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