Dragana Čalija

Knowledge and Persistence Against Prejudices: Dragana Čalija

Novi Sad is identified as the main hub of the IT industry in the country and region, and it ranks first in the development of this industry in Serbia. Therefore, it is not surprising that the interest of young people, especially future students, for numerous courses and faculties focused on information technology, is growing. One of the most important centres of this type of education in the region is the Faculty of Technical Sciences in Novi Sad. Each year, around 2000 students enrol in the Faculty of Technical Sciences, which is a record number at the University of Novi Sad.

  A large number of IT companies in our city, which are mostly focused on foreign cooperation, speak in favour of this. One of such companies is SaintDi, led by the young and charismatic Dragana Čalija. Although it seems the developmental path of her career wasn’t turbulent and that she knew what she wanted to do from an early age, Dragana’s story speaks of important crossroads you have to overcome during that developmental process. Being a lady in the world of entrepreneurship, and a young one at that, she encountered various obstacles and made some big decisions. That’s why Dragana Čalija is one of those women who break down the prejudices with the strongest weapon – knowledge and persistence.
It seems the Faculty of Technical Sciences (FTS) has never been more popular than in the last couple of years, especially your department – Computing and Informatics. What were your motives when you were applying for the faculty and what do you think about the fact that a lot of young people are choosing this profession? On the one hand, what attracted me to the FTS is my passion for mathematics, physics, electrical engineering and computers, which I was good at throughout primary and high school, with various competitions and awards confirming that. On the other hand, challenges keep me going, and I thought of Computing and Informatics as quite a challenging and demanding department. Enrolling in this department was the only logical choice when my interests and my wish for pushing my own boundaries consolidated. I’m glad to see more and more young people choosing this department, since it is our reality and our future. It gives you good perspective since it provides people with nice incomes, whether they live in Serbia or abroad. Also, this profession allows a dose of flexibility that doesn’t exist in other professions, such as working from home, which is especially helpful regarding current epidemiological situation. You can also work for an international company, choose interesting projects, modern companies with the majority of young people of similar mindsets working there. All in all, there are a lot of advantages in the IT industry that young people noticed and now want to be a part of. You were a university teaching assistant, you might have become a professor even, but you chose a more uncertain path. Why? Academic career and entrepreneurship are quite different. Both careers demand a lot of work and investment, but also different preferences. In my case, these two professions went hand in hand for a while, but that couldn’t last forever. When the company reached certain level and began to grow, I needed to invest more time in it. That’s when I had to choose the direction I wanted to go in the future, and honestly, it wasn’t a tough decision since the entrepreneurship was the only logical outcome. What defines me as a person is dynamics, energy, lots of ideas, ability, agility, which are all the characteristics of an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is uncertain, but it’s also what matches the essence of my being. If you love what you do and if you believe in yourself, everything is possible, and I’m an example of that   You founded the ‘Saint Di’ IT company seven years ago, in your twenties. What is your background story as an entrepreneur, what was it like when you started? My career goes far back. I believe the entrepreneurial skills start appearing in a person’s early age, as for me, it became apparent in my childhood when I sold the fruits my parents grew on their own and continuing in high school when I gave folklore lessons to earn pocket money. When I was in university, those tendencies and skills started to become more clear. I managed student projects, which both teaching assistants and professors noticed, encouraging me with positive comments. In my third or fourth year of studies I started educating myself in the field of leadership, PR, communication with people, public appearances, management, etc., because I knew the faculty would only serve as a good place to start diving into entrepreneurship. Upon graduating, I knew that I needed certain experience and connections in order to open my own company, so I got a job in a big company where I expanded my network of acquaintances and I learned how companies and private sector function. At some point I even had side jobs because I wanted to start creating the base for my own business. People around me constantly kept motivating me to dive into entrepreneurship because they thought it was something I would be good at. The kind of freedom you have when you’re an entrepreneur is what made me decide I definitely want to become part of it. When I opened Saint Di, the workload wasn’t immense, people would usually call me asking for help or advice on how to put their projects into action. Things like these gave me confidence and proved me that I can do it and that entrepreneurship is the right thing for me. How would you explain to a layperson what you and your team do, since you operate in London as well and you’ve founded OrderEngine, which helps people in catering business? Saint Di consists of two parts. One part is what we call ‘outsourcing’. I would explain this as service-oriented programming – just like when you hire someone to paint your apartment because you don’t know how to do it yourself, you can also hire us to create a software for you. First someone has an idea, be it an app, website, software solution, and then they hire us to implement that idea. The second part of our company is our product – the OrderEngine application. This app is created for catering industry. In short, OrderEngine connects catering facilities with their distributors and allows them to explore and find everything they need in an easy, fast and efficient way.
Do you think there’s still room for labels such as ’a woman in IT’, do you feel that the moment has come when it doesn’t matter who does a certain job anymore, or do these stereotypes still exist in our region? Women leaders in IT services is still a rare thing, even though women simply working in IT isn’t. In this respect, what other abilities, apart from technical ones, should a successful IT leader possess? Such labelling was widely spread in the past, i.e. more than it is nowadays. Changes started to occur when the IT industry opened positions more suitable for women such as graphic designers, social media marketers, product owners, scrum masters, as well as project managers. I’d say there’s still a stereotype about women who are computer programmers, but that will change too. Good news is there has been more and more women doing computer programming and being part of the startup scene. Although rare, it’s not unusual to see a woman owning and launching a startup anymore. Globally speaking, more attention is being paid to the quality of work rather than who is doing it, and such mindset is becoming more common here too. Women are overtaking leading positions in IT, althought it’s still rare to see something like that in this part of the world. From my experience, in addition to technical skills which are a big plus, a woman in a leadership position should be determined, prudent, she should believe in herself and stand up for herself, she should also like dynamics and should be flexible. There is a saying we should all keep in mind when someone makes an unnecessary comment: it fell on deaf ears. Looking back, would you change anything in your business journey It’s very difficult in the beginning when you’re all alone, i.e. when you start a business on your own, because each part of the business is up to you. One thing I would change is having a mentor – I believe it would’ve been easier for me if I had an experienced mentor whom I could ask for advice, otherwise the learning process is very slow because the only way you learn is from your own mistakes and by trusting your intuition. You fail several times until you learn, but, if there’s some extra support and someone you can communicate with, it makes it all incomparably easier. What are the biggest sacrifices you had to make, considering the fact that you’re a successful yet a very young entrepreneur? In the beginning, when the business is just starting to develop, it’s inevitable that you’ll work 24/7, which some people might perceive as giving up your private life for work. I don’t look at it that way, because, to me, it’s about happiness and enjoying what you do, which I am. It’s about living your dream and building your business. Later, when the company becomes more stable, you can think about some kind of balance, but it’s a spontaneous thing anyway. What I think I sacrificed is my academic career, but that too was more of making a strategically important decision for a company than a sacrifice.
You were born in Bačka Palanka, but your student days and your job connect you to Novi Sad. What else do you love when it comes to Novi Sad? I think a sentence that best describes this city is – Novi Sad is a city that meets citizens’ needs. It’s big enough to have everything you need, and yet it’s not too big, so it lets you feel closeness and connection to other people. I love its greenery, parks, the fact that it’s clean and well-kept, but also the fact that a lot is invested in culture and infrastructure. Novi Sad is always vivid thanks to all the activities and events happening throughout the year. And yet, it makes you feel calm. I think, in this city, there is something for everyone. What are your favourite places to visit in your free time? Are there certain events or festivals you never ever miss? I really like nature and I feel good when I take the time to go to Fruška Gora. Also, as a former kayaker, I love the river and the view of the city, it calms me down, so I like exploring little nooks where I can relax. In addition to nature, there are many cafes, restaurants and clubs where I feel at home and where I like to spend time with my friends. As for the events and festivals, I always go to the Exit festival, Street Musicians Festival and Cinema City. The fact that our city organises events throughout the year is just amazing. Author: Leona Pap Photo: Vladimir Veličković

Povezani članci