More and more startups from all over Central and Eastern Europe are making their way to Austria and see it as the perfect place to start their business in the west. One of them is JAMBA from Bulgaria. The young company supports people with different types of disabilities and health restrictions to attain key competencies, soft and professional skills in the Information and Communication Technology and Artificial Intelligence sector. Its goal is to act as a bridge between people with disabilities and employers, supporting professional development and job placement.
Aside from Hungary, JAMBA has also expanded to Austria. Iva Tsolova, the founder of JAMBA, talks about why she chose Austria for the expansion and how she managed to establish a business in Vienna with the help of the Austrian Business Agency (ABA).
JAMBA was originally founded in Bulgaria and has since expanded to Hungary first, then to Austria. What made Austria such an attractive destination for your second expansion?
My home country Bulgaria is the place where, together with my co-founder Joana Koleva, we launched JAMBA in 2017. We are happy that in 2019 we had the opportunity to replicate the project for the first time in Hungary. At that time I was living in Germany myself and then for family reasons I moved to Vienna and continued to live here. I knew from friends beforehand that the city is very cosmopolitan, offers a lot of opportunities and therefore the entrepreneurial scene is developing very fast and there are many different support programs that make the new start easier.
During the first eight months, I had the opportunity to get to know the local entrepreneurial and social entrepreneurial ecosystem and to meet a lot of people. I am most grateful to have met my wonderful colleagues Selma, Laura, Selin, and Joachim here, with whom I share a very similar vision of life and values. They also believe in the mission and purpose of JAMBA. This was the thing that motivated us to start developing the project together in Austria.
What were the biggest challenges when expanding to Austria?
We started the development of JAMBA in Austria in April 2020, which was literally in the middle of the pandemic. It was very challenging as the only possible way to work, and communicate and reach the main target groups we work with (people with disabilities/chronic diseases and employers) was online. For a startup project, this is really challenging, especially because of the lack of face-to-face contact with the disability representatives, it takes time and a lot of effort to build trust and a solid community. But it has forced us to be creative and look for different ways of communication.
In addition, from a cultural point of view, Austria is very different from Bulgaria and Hungary, and also in terms of the level of social and economic development. In the other two European countries, we are pioneers, whereas here there are organizations, most of which are even subsidized by the state, offering similar services. Therefore, after conducting extensive research, we have found a suitable niche with exceptional potential, namely the ICT and AI fields. Thus, we pivoted and decided to focus on capacity building and preparing our talent for digital jobs of the future.
How did the Austrian Business Agency (ABA) help you in your expansion?
Early on in the development of the project we had the opportunity to meet two representatives of the Austrian Business Agency, Birgit Reiter-Braunwieser and Peter Löschl, who helped us with a lot of guidance and ideas, from the right approach to the Austrian market, to how to find potential partners, clients and also potentially primary funding opportunities that would help the project start in Austria. We are happy that shortly after that we applied for and received support from the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (Die Österreichische Forschungsförderungsgesellschaft FFG).
We are also happy to partner with the Vienna Business Agency (VBA). This year we participated in the ViennaUP Conference, where we had the opportunity to present JAMBA’s activities, and we were showcased as a successfully replicated project in Austria.
We are also currently implementing a really cool project called FemPreneurship Academy which is supported by VBA and the U.S. Embassy in Austria. It is an accessible 6-weeks entrepreneurship programme whose mission is to equip females with disabilities and mothers of children with disabilities from Vienna with the knowledge, opportunities, and mentorship necessary to propel an idea to fruition.
A lot of startups in Austria depend on talent from other countries, some of them even outside of the EU. Can the same be said for Jamba? How many „locals“ work for you in Austria, and how many foreign talents?
Austria and especially Vienna are extremely cosmopolitan and diverse. In the beginning, when I moved here I was very impressed by the fact that I hardly heard any German language when walking around the city, attending events, or meeting new people. There are people from really every part of the world and it is this diversity that I really like.
The JAMBA team in Austria is very diverse and brings a lot of experience from different areas, also carrying a personal mission while working together to reach inclusion. Our core team is actually just mainly foreign talent – from America, Turkey, Croatia, Germany, and Bulgaria. We also have a wonderful team of volunteers who also have a very diverse background, people with and without disabilities/chronic illnesses, some are locals but others come from countries such as Germany, the Czech Republic, Colombia, Bulgaria, and others.
The same can be seen with the talent we work with, maybe it has to do with the diversity of our team and the fact that we speak different languages, but besides people with disabilities/chronic illnesses who are local, we also often have talent with a migrant background.
Austria often has the reputation for being a gateway between CEE and Western Europe. Is that also your experience? Do you plan to expand further into Western Europe, using Austria as a platform for expansion?
Yes, definitely! JAMBA’s approach has proven to be successful and we aim for further expansion. Our accessible and innovative platform can spread quickly and we customize our replication based on local reality needs. The countries where we want to scale are Turkey, Germany and Switzerland, Romania and Croatia.