Jelena Djokovic Talks Busy Schedules, Childhood Education and What Makes a Good Teacher

MONTE CARLO AND LONDON VIA EMAIL: Jelena Djokovic is one of those people who seems to somehow eek more than 24 hours out of a day. The 31-year-old wife of tennis superstar Novak Djokovic is an entrepreneur, publisher, foundation director, business owner and, probably her most important job, the mother of a toddler son and infant daughter. Some days she is able to organize her schedule so that if, “seems a breeze” but others can be a bit more of a juggling act. “Of course, there are days that I don’t even manage to do half of what I’ve planned, and then tasks keep piling on,” she told’s Ginanne Brownell Mitic in an email interview. “I’ve learned to set priorities and I tend to hold onto them. That is the only way I can go to bed not having that guilty feeling that I didn’t manage all I planned for the day.”

Born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia, Ms. Djokovic—who has an undergraduate degree in business administration and a Masters in luxury management and services— is the CEO and co-founder of the Novak Djokovic Foundation, which was started in 2007 (then under the moniker of the Novak Fund) and has, since 2012, focused on early childhood education and development. Over the years the foundation has both built new schools and rebuilt others in Serbia, provided teacher training, parental support and, since 2016, funds a fellowship at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child focused on scholars who contribute to “science-based innovations” in early childhood development.

In 2015, Ms. Djokovic founded and published Original magazine, a monthly publication in Serbian aimed at teenagers and young adults on topics from politics to business, current events and the arts; the magazine has produced interviews with everyone from businessman Richard Branson to French actress Marion Cotillard.

Last year, not only did Ms. Djokovic and her husband welcome their second child, a daughter named Tara (son Stefan is three) but they also opened up a vegan restaurant, Eqvita, in Monte Carlo, where the couple lives full-time. Plus, she often travels with her husband to tournaments and events across the globe. Having grown up in a family where both parents worked, she said that having seen her mother be a successful businesswoman, “I guess I have that trait from her side.” She admits to being a workaholic but adds, “I’m just perfecting my skills so that I can be more efficient and at the end more successful in everything I do.” EXCERPTS.

BROWNELL MITIC: How do you balance it all and what advice would you give to other working moms who at times feel overwhelmed by all that they have going on in their lives?
DJOKOVIC: I’ve fostered a grand rule — when I’m lagging the most I slow down. For me, that is the only way one can stay calm and sometimes your schedule is something [out] of your control. With a bunch of smaller tasks encompassing my day, I try to stay organized as much as I can. In addition, I have a team of associates that I am very proud of and ever so grateful to have with me. Only with my team [can] I work on several projects at the same time and stay focused on each of them.

Why was early childhood education something that the Foundation was keen to hone in on and what have you learned over the last years since you started this work?
Novak and I were both very lucky to have love, care and support from the early years, and that along with the education we received, helped us get to this place in life. There are many children in Serbia who weren’t so lucky due to many hardships our country went through in the past 20 years, and our wish was simply to give back. Because we strongly believe that education can change the world, in 2012, we made a decision to focus our efforts on early childhood education and development, and the Novak Djokovic Foundation, as we all know it, was born. We know that this is not an issue many NGOs would choose to focus on because it takes many years to see the tangible results, but we are not the family of quitters. We accept the challenge this work brings and we welcome it. We believe the same holds true for any child: if we invest in their early years, support them, love them, care for them, and educate them, we can create a generation of winners regardless of their chosen discipline.

I have written and spent a lot of time writing about girls’ access to education across the globe. How much of an issue is this in Serbia, especially in minority communities? How can we inspire not only girls to stay in school but also for their parents (and brothers, communities and so on) to support their education?
This is an extremely important issue and I am personally glad that it has become a hot topic in the world the last couple of years. At this stage, our foundation also deals with enabling children, both girls and boys, to have equal access to education. Constant work with children is a must, as well as empowering their families, working on involving the local community and engaging the government institutions at the local level, which is important to the families we support. Besides, it has been proven that if the children are subjected to the process of education and pre-school in the earliest ages, the chances for them to leave school and stay on the [society’s] margins are reduced. Consequently, as a foundation, we have seen an opportunity to prevent these kind of unfortunate situations and we are working on many different projects.

In terms of preschools in Serbia, there are tens of thousands of children who simply do not have access to facilities because of a number of factors. How important is it for youngsters to have access to early childhood education and what are the Foundation’s goals with this?
Oh, it is incredibly important for them to have the right start. When loved, nourished and cared for in safe and stimulating environments, children develop the skills they need to embrace opportunity and bounce back from adversity. Currently, every second child in Serbia lacks access to this. Our goal is to continue to work hard and to partner with organizations [that] share the same goals and values with us so that together we can raise the preschool participation rates from 50% to 90% by 2030.

Does the Foundation plan to expand any of the already existing educational programs this year — renovating more schools, opening new preschools, helping support preschool education overall, and so on?
Yes, of course. Every year we try to do a little bit more than the previous year. As we grow as an organization, we realize that [opening] schools and educating teachers is just half of the job. In order to really be successful in what we want to achieve, we need to tackle other matters too so we can allow for the well-rounded upbringing of children. We also hosted a call for projects at the end of last year and we can’t wait to share the news about the chosen projects that we will launch this year. All in all, we anticipate a really busy but satisfying year and we hope these programs will bring us one step closer to what we wish to achieve.

Tell me a bit more about the Harvard fellowships–how did this come about and why was this something the Foundation felt was important to help organise and fund?
We launched the Djokovic Science and Innovation Fellowship at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University in 2016 because we believe that there is simply not enough research done on the topic of early childhood development (education included). Being in a position to help to contribute to the existent body of knowledge and to share it with practitioners and academics all over the world was something we believed was a logical next step forward. At the moment, we may be carrying out our programs locally in Serbia, but through advocacy and research we hope to bring about the change globally.

What has been the reaction from the students who read Original magazine? How much involvement do you have in terms of the content and subjects covered, and why was it important for you to expand into higher education?
Our desire and our profound mission is to help young people from all stages – we have a support project for each and every generation, and then for students and young people we have Original. The idea was for Original to be a project that would connect the youth, give them an opportunity to learn new things, encourage them with both life stories and case studies letting them hear experiences of successful people who they can then look up to, follow and learn from and finally to open the doors and introduce them to all the people that do so many worthy things but who don’t have enough or any media coverage. When we started, we didn’t know at all what was the situation in our country or for that matter the situation around the world: what grand startup projects there are, how many scientists are out there working hard on findings that will forever change the world, passionate artists that create pieces of art that are just breathtaking. Now we are sure that this is a project that has encouraged and helped many to find out about some of the common mistakes they were making. Getting them to know about some of the [life’s] most expensive lessons and that they can often be avoided.

What makes a good teacher? This could be in relation to a teacher in the traditional sense (in a school) or someone like a coach, a mentor or parent. 
I believe a good teacher is someone who is able to connect with a child on a more personal level; someone who is able to listen to them, to inspire them and to motivate them. There is a great Ted Talk by [late educator] Rita Pierson that left a strong impression on me. She said: “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” And I couldn’t agree more. But children will learn from someone who is their champion, who has their back at all times; someone who is kind, who makes learning fun and who challenges them to be the best they can be by leading by example. Then all of a sudden, learning is not a bothersome activity but an adventure of a lifetime – as it should be.

All photos courtesy the Novak Djokovic Foundation


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