Maja + Peggy Parfenoff: World Chicago

World Chicago is an organization that hosts international exchanges sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. They welcome between 800 and 1,000 emerging leaders annually from 130+ countries to Chicago, ages 15-50. The foreign visitors become Chicagoans, residing in the city between 5 and 45 days.

Since the exchange connects international visitors with their Chicago-based peers for an exchange of international best practices, Holistic Index is proud to have been able to host, Maja Jovicic, one of the fall fellows for 2018. Maja joined the company for 4 weeks and has been writing a series of blogs on her experience. Below is an interview she conducted with Peggy Parfenoff, President of World Chicago.

Peggy Parfernoff- President of World Chicago

Peggy Parfernoff- President of World Chicago

What was the inspiration for the creation of World Chicago?

World Chicago was created in 1952 as a program to provide Thanksgiving dinner to international university students in Chicagoland. That once-a-year holiday meal idea has grown to our current mission-driven organization promoting Citizen Diplomacy – bringing Chicago to the world, and the world to Chicago.

How does a fellowship actually work (in broad strokes)?

One of our flagship programs is the Tech Innovation & Entrepreneurship Professional Fellows Program. Our model brings 16 young professionals from Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia to Chicago twice-per year for a month-long “fellowship” with a Chicago start-up, entrepreneurship support organization or university. The fellows also live with host families to immerse themselves in Chicago culture. To ensure that our model is a “two-way” exchange, World Chicago will bring the host organization supervisors on a return trip to the Balkans six months following the fellowship.

The best part about our model is that it really works! The fellows return home inspired to make a difference: they encourage an entrepreneurial spirit in their community while building a regional entrepreneurship ecosystem. The Chicago hosts travel to the region and bring their expertise and entrepreneurial culture, creating a multiplying effect brings more businesses and change agents to the table. Perhaps the most lasting result we’ve seen is the alumni network that has developed. We have seen that our fellows ensure that the Chicago experience doesn’t end after returning home.

You’ve had a lot of fellows come through so far. What do you see in every batch? What do they have in common?

We have had 97 fellows come through World Chicago so far and what a great group of professionals they have been! Without a doubt, we are able to work with some of the brightest minds in Europe, and people with ambition and drive, defying stereotypes and creating a new image of The Balkans in Chicago and the United States. Every year, our fellows’ biggest takeaway is Chicago’s “Can-do” culture, and the sense that if you fail, you can just start over.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

It can be a challenge to find the right fellowship host organization for the fellow. We might find the right organization at the wrong time (it might be the organization’s “busy season”). For example, while many fellows have requested fellowships at social enterprises, we haven’t really found many in Chicago that are able to host. It’s an amazing experience for both the host organization and the fellow, so I’d definitely encourage people to reach out if they are interested in hosting! After all, Holistic hosted, and I hear it was to everybody’s benefit!

When you talk to potential fellows about Chicago, what do you mention as a key selling point? The pizza? The sights? The environment?

Chicago’s recent explosion in entrepreneurship successes helps sell the city for us! The vibrant, entrepreneurial community’s willingness to give back -- host fellowships, judge pitch competitions and provide connections – proves just how sincere and collaborative Chicago’s entrepreneurs really are to our fellows!

Culturally it’s not hard to sell Chicago, with the great sports teams, museums, and music. Our fellows not only fall in love with the architecture and beauty of our city, but I have had so many fellows comment on the city’s cleanliness. What can be a challenge is the commute – when you come from a country of 2 million people to Chicago, it can be a challenge to adjust to a two-hour commute – welcome to our world!

Peggy Parfenoff (left) with Maja Jovicic (right).

Peggy Parfenoff (left) with Maja Jovicic (right).

Read more about Maja’s journey with Holistic and World Chicago here.