Inspired Leadership

Serbian Prime Minister has a Northwood Degree and a Modern Perspective

The Northwood Idea is literally changing the world, particularly in Serbia, where an NU grad serves as prime minister and is leading a push to modernize and Westernize her country.

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Ana Brnabić (’98) earned her degree through a cooperative program with Greenwich College in London, England, and spent only a few weeks on campus in Midland as a Northwood student. Yet she remembers well the lessons she learned during her time at Northwood, and applies them to both her vision for Serbia and her work as prime minister.

“It was a really interesting mix between business, economics, and politics,” Brnabić recalled during a recent phone interview from her office in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. “I like the fact that Northwood encouraged us to challenge some of the things that otherwise you would not dare to challenge. We had very open and frank discussions.”

Strong Ties to Serbia

I often remember the fantastic courses that I had from Northwood. It was time well spent, and a fantastic educational experience.

Brnabić was born and raised in Belgrade. Her grandfather had been an officer leading Yugoslavian Partisans who battled occupying Nazi troops during World War II. She was 5 years old when Josip Tito, leader of the Partisans and then president of Yugoslavia, died at the age of 88. Tito’s death set in motion the long and often bloody breakup of Yugoslavia into several independent nations, Serbia being the largest.

Serbia has several quality universities, but when it was time for Brnabić to begin her undergraduate career, none of them offered exactly what she was looking for.

“I wanted to study at an American university. I wanted to have an American bachelor’s degree in business, but I wanted to stay in Europe as well,” she said. “I found out about the Northwood University program in London, and I went for an interview. It was a very interesting program. I was always interested in politics, and Northwood provided that. One of my favorite subjects was the economics of public policy. That subject is something that was not available in terms of European degrees.”

In a version of the 3+1 concept, Brnabić took articulated courses at Greenwich College, then a set of Northwood courses while remaining in Greenwich, then finished by earning roughly a semester’s worth of Northwood credits during an intense two-week session in Midland during November 1997.

“The campus is fantastic. It was November, I remember, it was very cold, and it was snowing,” Brnabić said. “We had several lectures there. I remember Dale Haywood really well. He was very inspirational. I often remember the fantastic courses that I had from Northwood. It was time well spent, and a fantastic educational experience. It changed a lot of my thinking at the time, thinking about public policy.”

Taking on the World

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After finishing her Northwood bachelor of business administration degree, Brnabić returned to England to earn an MBA from Hull University, 200 miles north of London. Her subsequent business career included several entrepreneurial ventures, including as a founder and the first executive director of the non-profit PEXIM Foundation, which arranges opportunities for Serbs to study at Cambridge University in England and then return to work in Serbia. 

She also became involved with several U.S. consulting firms that implemented programs in Serbia financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development. She was the deputy director of the Project for Competitiveness Development, an expert in the Local Self-Government Reform Program in Serbia and higher coordinator of the Municipal Economic Growth Activity.
Then duty called.

In 2016, Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia’s prime minister at the time, asked Brnabić to serve as his government’s minister of Public Administration and Local Self-Government.

“I felt it was a real opportunity for me to directly contribute to the development of my country,” Brnabić said. “I really liked that, as the prime minister, Vučić made some very brave and very difficult decisions that would allow Serbia to continue to integrate with Europe.”
Less than a year later, Vučić was elected president, and Brnabić was named prime minister, to the surprise of many people. It transformed her, seemingly overnight, from virtual obscurity to international prominence.

A Clear Vision

It is stressful, and it is very difficult, but at the same time it is a very, very rewarding job.

As prime minister, her top two priorities are digitalization of the nation’s economy and improving education.

“Today, all of us are living in a very interesting time. The fourth industrial revolution is taking place. Countries have a chance to change their future, even countries that did not take part in the third industrial revolution,” Brnabić said. “We are living in the era of knowledge, and in terms of really being in on the innovation happening in the world today, countries like Serbia really need to change their education so that we can become a nation that values knowledge.”

A full, comprehensive plan for Serbia’s future is laid out in Brnabić’s keynote address to the National Assembly, part of the nomination process in June. It is ambitious, it is detailed, and it has many echoes of the Northwood Idea.

As you can imagine, work keeps Brnabić very busy. The little free time she has is spent with family, friends, and her partner. Brnabić is the first openly gay prime minister of Serbia and only the second openly gay woman to head any government across the globe. She also devotes as much time as possible to staying in shape, citing its importance in “mental discipline.” And for complete relaxation, she has two dogs, a stray named Leo and a Newfoundlander named Alabama.

I do hope that I can be viewed as part of a new identity of Serbia in the eyes of the world.