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Tesh Ekman

The term brain drain, on a global scale, is most often used to describe talented, young, educated, working age people from places such as China, India, and Eastern Europe who leave their home country for greater opportunities in the Western world. 

However the term can also be applied domestically and regionally within the U.S. as well. A simple Google search of the term “Cleveland’s Brain Drain” yields several results for articles on the subject. These topics range from exploring what can be done to make people stay to how to attract that talent from elsewhere. 

Aleksandra Brankov was a prime candidate to be yet another talented local to leave the area for the greener, plumper pastures of a bigger, more cosmopolitan city. Against all odds, she not only decided to stay here, but also started a coffee subscription service called Cafilia which focuses on local establishments. 

Photo credit: Bounce Innovation Hub

Brankov is a child of Serbian immigrant parents who married and settled in Cleveland in 1980. By the time she was born in Parma in 1987, the family was well established in America. At the same time, the culture of and connection to their Balkan roots was still very important in the household. 

Brankov’s first language growing up was Serbian despite being a Northeast Ohio native. English was a second language she learned through TV and going to school. Part of her old country upbringing was also her parents’ desire for her to take a specific career path. 

“They really wanted me to be a dentist,” Brankov recalls. “I started doing predental, but I love people, inspiring them, bringing them together, connecting them. I can’t really do that in a dental office. I can talk to them but they can’t talk back to me.” 

As Brankov continued with her undergrad at The University of Akron, she couldn’t help but feel she had to do something with her multinational background. She switched to an international business major and graduated in 2009. With the economic crash of 2008 just a year earlier, the timing to find a new career for a recent grad was tenuous at best. 

Brankov made do with the situation and found work with the Cleveland Council of World Affairs, a local non-profit organization that organizes cultural exchanges with other countries. Coincidentally, one of the projects Brankov worked on involved a contingent of Serbian professionals who came to Northeast Ohio to review waste management and recycling practices in the U.S. 

The post graduation stint in the local area was short lived. Brankov moved to the U.K. in 2010 where her Serbian fiance (who she married the same year in Cleveland) had lived for more than a decade and was already a citizen. However, another move occurred once she finished her study abroad program in the London suburbs. This time she left for Spain. Brankov applied to various business schools and was thrilled to be accepted into the world renowned and highly reputable Instituto de Empresa Business School in Madrid. 

After the year-long graduate program finished in 2012, Brankov and her husband felt their time in Spain wasn’t done. She also wanted to become fluent in Spanish, making her trilingual. 

For the next four years, Brankov started on her career with roles in business development at a German-based startup and another consulting firm before leaving the Iberian Peninsula. That departure brought Brankov back home to the Cleveland area. The move to Northeast Ohio was intended to be temporary and just a place to make a pit stop before settling down in a bigger city like Washington D.C., Chicago, or New York.  

As Brankov job hunted between 2016 and 2019, she noticed that Cleveland had changed a lot since 2010. Her hometown had changed with several development projects and a burgeoning food scene. Cleveland had grown and become more cultural. The decision was made to try to network locally and see what opportunities might arise. The idea for Cafilia struck Brankov in February 2019 during a retreat in the wilderness outside Toronto when she noticed how attached people were to their Yeti cups and other refillable containers. 

“I got this big flip chart board thing out and started writing all over it,” Brankov explains. “It ended up developing that weekend of having a coffee subscription where you buy the mug, access to subscription. And then where you can get filled is exclusively local coffee shops because they’re the ones who need it anyway, right? Sending this foot traffic and visibility to the local shops that actually most of the time have better coffee anyway and you’re being sustainable.” 

The idea developed quickly. Brankov pulled on her business experience to hash out further details and decided to move forward in June 2019. With the education and the experience she gained abroad along with what she learned from various international businesses executives, Brankov yearned to use that knowledge to become an entrepreneur. While there was still much she wanted to learn through her career journey, the timing was right for her to try something new and start her own venture. Brankov did her homework up front in terms of market research and business analysis prior to determining a launch date. 

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“I interviewed 70 coffee drinkers in a month just by going into a coffee shop and literally walking up to them and asking them if they wanted to do an interview with me,” she states. “I connected with many different coffee shop owners to also see how their operations work as well as see what they thought about the idea. Is it something they would like and would it benefit them? By 2020, I ended up registering the company and buying the domains in February and so I was getting ready to probably launch by April or so but of course the pandemic hit.”

Hygiene became a major focal point as COVID-19 swept into frame. An April launch was a no-go. However, Brankov was undeterred and launched a pilot in July with five local coffee shops on board as part of the subscription network – The Root Café, Caffeine, and Burning River Coffee in Lakewood; 3-19 Coffee in Ohio City; and Café Phix in Midtown.

As we peek a gaze into a post-pandemic world with vaccination numbers rising, spaces slowly opening up, and the weather improving, Brankov is confident of Cafilia’s prospects. At the same time, she also knows she has to keep on her grind and use the smarts she gained overseas with her international education and experience. 

“I have a two sided platform – shops and subscribers,” Brankov explains. “Create more supply with shops and using social, email, etc. to get word out to people to subscribe. [Based on research], I target 24-40 year-old millennials who love local, love coffee, and love sustainability. It’s a perfect concept for that age group and target. They love the idea.” 

The imperative for success is to grow both the network of coffee shops and number of subscribers. With the current number of local cafes at 18 and growing steadily, the rest of Spring and Summer 2021 will be a good bellwether to see if this concept can take off.

Brankov intends to use Northeast Ohio as a proof of concept, with the hope to expand the idea to other cities and communities around the U.S. While it once seemed like a foregone conclusion that Brankov would move on from Cleveland, the home roast is on for now. 

Want to learn more about Cafilia? Visit becafilia.com for more info on the local coffee subscription service.

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