The hardest things Branko Vojnovic has ever done have also been his best. Today, he’s dedicated to rewarding those who overcome tough situations
Branko Vojnovic remembers the time he tried to buy flour in Tokyo.
The young Toronto native had taken the plunge: it was his first job overseas — really overseas — working in procurement for a retail distributor of beverage and healthcare products.
“It was my first time away from home,” he recalls. “It was so hard being in a completely different place, without friends or family there to comfort me.”
Home was 10,000 kilometres away. He thought some home cooking might do wonders to make him feel better and needed flour as an ingredient. But language skills got in the way, as they often did in those days: he found himself surrounded by roses and orchids.
Though he frequently felt alienated and lonely, Vojnovic persevered through his first business stint. He began to enjoy himself and while learning about a new culture. He learned to meet the challenges of daily life in an environment entirely foreign to him. Simply put, he grew up.
Since graduating from U of T Scarborough in 2000, Vojnovic has encouraged others to meet their own challenges head-on. He established the Branko Vojnovic U of T Scarborough AccessABILITY Award, and for the past 17 years has donated $2,000 annually to its support. The prize recognizes the achievements of students who both self-identify with special needs and exhibit a passion for learning.
Perseverance is a trait Vojnovic inherited from his parents, Zoran and Branislava. Both grew up in the often-fractious former Yugoslavia, and left in the early 1970s to establish a new life in Canada. They came with their son Igor, and had very little money; Branko was born several years later.
“And now we’ve done a kind of switch,” says Vojnovic. “They’re all living in North America — and I’ve come here.”
“Here” is Belgrade, a city Vojnovic had learned about while growing up in Toronto, but didn’t visit until he took a vacation there in 2006. At the time, he was performing audit and advisory services in California’s Silicon Valley for the company he currently works for, KPMG. While in Belgrade visiting relatives he’d only known through family stories, he found himself wandering around Serbia’s ancient capital and thinking “I could never live here,” he recalls. “And in this particular area? Never.”
But two months later, after some intriguing business conversations had changed his mind, Vojnovic settled in Serbia, in the exact area where he said he’d never live. Today, he’s a partner in KPMG’s Belgrade office. He’s also married to Milica, the father of one-year-old twin boys Oliver and Maxim, and couldn’t be happier.
It wasn’t always so. When he started at U of T Scarborough, Vojnovic planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and study dentistry, and ultimately take over the family practice. But no matter what he did, he couldn’t get his grades where they needed to be.
“At first, science seemed like it would be a simple answer,” he says. “If I wanted to go down that route, everything was ready for me. But as we know, sometimes the simple answers are not necessarily the right ones.”
Vojnovic did end up with a BA and a minor in biology, but he knew that a career in dentistry would, for him, be difficult and unfulfilling. He suspected he might be better suited to a business career, especially one where he could indulge his love of travel. So he decided to scrap his previous plans and embarked on an entirely different course.
With the help of professors whom he describes as “wonderful mentors,” he found that the private sector was exactly the right path. Later, in Serbia, he earned a master’s degree in business. Vojnovic attributes some of his success to luck. “But you also have to see the luck,” he says, “and be able to grasp it.”
The recipients of Vojnovic’s award all share his core values of resilience and willingness to learn. We have all surmounted some kind of challenge, whether physical, mental or emotional. Most academic awards commemorate traditional markers of achievement, such as good grades, which AccessABILITY Award recipients often earn. But this award is different: it’s chiefly concerned with the difficulties students face on the way to getting those marks, and the strategies they devise to resolve them.
Those difficulties vary in nature. The award is given to an undergraduate student who meets specific criteria, including special educational needs due to a disability/challenge as defined under the Human Rights Code. He doesn’t see that the challenges presented by a traditionally defined disability have to present an insurmountable barrier to goal-setting and achievement.
Vojnovic says that the efforts of students who rise above their challenges should be recognized, made public and set an example for others. He says the nominations can come from a third party. “That’s the whole point of recognition: that somebody else sees your drive and enthusiasm.”
In his work at KPMG, Vojnovic sees himself as that third party. He takes care to exercise “servant leadership,” a concept described in a 1970 essay by business theorist Robert Greenleaf, whereby power is shared instead of exercised from on high; the servant-leader puts the needs of others first and helps to develop the skills and abilities of employees.
Vojnovic’s employees often grapple with challenges, a problem he himself has faced, and one common to many students. Globalization has permitted many of us to travel and work on many continents, learning about different cultures. But as Vojnovic has found, that can be isolating, too.
And yet, he contends that the hardest things he’s ever done have often been the best, exhilarating in terms of personal growth. With time, the challenges became easier. “Going out of your comfort zone can be liberating,” he says.
“The first international move is always the most difficult, because you don’t know what to expect. But the second, third and fourth are much easier. You learn it’s not that bad to be alone; that you will meet new people; and that no matter where you are, the fundamental base beliefs that people have in business tend to be quite similar.”
This year, the recipient of the Branko Vojnovic AccessABILITY Award wasn’t able to thank Vojnovic in person: living so far away, but it has become a tradition that his parents attend annually the award ceremonies to further support the meaning of the Award. So she sent him a thank-you by video.
“That really touched my heart,” he says. “It’s when I see the impact that giving can have.”