In a former ping pong table showroom on a busy street near Belgrade’s bustling central train and bus stations is Ryo Ragland’s coworking space and “anti-café,” Share Square.
By day, customers pay by the hour for unlimited coffee and make-your-own waffles as they work. At night, residents of the Serbian city have a community center that offers dozens of classes in eclectic topics like Japanese cooking, tarot card reading, calligraphy, and nature photography.
While at first glance Share Square seems like the kind of space that could be found almost anywhere—young people sitting in hip furniture at long tables intently hunched over laptops with the obligatory hip-hop jazz playing in the background—it is, in reality, a daring and innovative project. For Ragland ’07, it is the culmination of a lifetime spent community-building in some of the world’s most challenging environments. And he’s using his grit, focus, and diverse experience to do it in the most unlikely of places.
“People want to contribute to the community, but it can be prohibitive to discover ways how,” says Ragland. “I’ve always wanted to do development work in a more modern way, and bringing them together in a self-interested way through classes gives active citizens a way to congregate and mobilize.”
Ragland envisions Share Square classes as a real-world YouTube that brings together like-minded people: Instead of watching a video on how to make udon noodles, why not go to an inexpensive class and meet other people with an interest in Japanese comfort food?
And once he has those people together, he can leverage them and their shared interests for social activism through partnerships with NGOs (non-government organizations) and socially responsible companies, much in the same way that social-media companies use our “likes” and connections for marketing purposes. He’s creating a “physical social network” that gathers people. Rather than market to them, Ragland aims to motivate them to tackle the myriad challenges facing Serbia.
“People can participate in development if you can multiply collaboration opportunities,” he says. “It becomes a truly scaled development effort.”
Getting people together for the community good is a lot easier said than done in Serbia. The country’s sluggish economy, high unemployment, slide toward autocracy, and failing infrastructure all contribute to the persistent “brain drain” of educated youth, the very people who can drive the type of social engagement Ragland is seeking to create. Add to that a cultural malaise, a history of socialist state dependency, and a bureaucratic morass, and his ambition seems almost impossible.
“It will be a challenge, for sure,” says Stephen Donegan, Ragland’s friend and a former owner of a shuttered yoga studio in Belgrade who now lives in Geneva. “As Belgrade is pretty much a mono-culture, he stands out as a rare foreigner trying his hand at business there. But the magic recipe with Ryo is his naturally easygoing nature, his inventive mind, and his work ethic.”
Still, Ragland certainly has the wind in his face when it comes to building an activist community in Belgrade. Take Jelena Petrovic, twenty-two, an external-relations intern at Share Square. She’s young, well-educated, energetic, and deeply concerned about the direction of the country. But a lack of serious job opportunities has her now weighing whether to leave Serbia, even though she doesn’t want to. It’s telling that to her an outsider coming to help tackle her country’s problems—without being part of a major institution—borders on the unbelievable.
“The first question that popped into my head when I first met him was, what are you doing here?” she says. “You’ve had so much great experience in so many different countries and so many things that you can do with your life and you can go anywhere in the world, yet you came here to start this.”
Ragland has long been steeped in community-building and service. Three months after he was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to a Lebanese father and a Japanese mother, the family moved to a small village in Swaziland in far southern Africa. They were members of the Baha’i faith, a religion that emphasizes and practices equality and community through service and connection to others. As part of a Baha’i practice known as “pioneering,” his parents were the caretakers of a primary school and took part in other community-support activities throughout Swaziland.
Ragland spent his early years immersed in the Baha’i spiritual teachings “that inspire us to form deep and diverse relationships and build communities that nurture the well-being of all.” Those are lessons he took to heart, even though he is not an active member of the faith now.
“I spent a lot of time talking about spiritual topics,” he says. “I’m very cognizant of how the Baha’i faith helped form my worldview. My identity is inseparable from that.”
Perhaps even more formative was seeing the power of community in action. His family moved to South Africa just as apartheid was ending and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. All around him, South African society was rapidly changing, and community groups were a key part of that transformation. He saw, during those tumultuous times, how collective action could bring about common good.
Although he had a deep affinity for South Africa, he didn’t stay. He went to a Baha’i-inspired high school in the Czech Republic, a much different environment from South Africa. At home, his father was strict and, although Ryo was a high-achieving student, demanded a lot from him. He felt stifled. When he arrived in the Czech Republic, he began to come into his own. “It was there that I learned how to socialize,” he says. “I learned to appreciate the European café lifestyle.”
After finishing high school, he was determined to attend college in North Carolina to be near relatives still living in the area. Although he hadn’t followed the usual educational path—he was largely homeschooled in Africa, and he didn’t receive a traditional high-school diploma—he was accepted to Duke. Although he drifted away from the church, its core tenets of service and community remained with him.
“I was having a lot of spiritual discussions then,” he says of his time at Duke. “I was struggling with what I ought to be doing, what I should be aspiring to, and what I could do to actually create change in the world with what I had available to me.”
That came to mean a career in international development work. After graduating from Duke, he became a program associate in an election-support organization based in Washington, D.C. He quickly moved into the field in 2008 as a caseworker for the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration in Iraq. He interviewed refugees seeking resettlement for nearly two years before moving to an agricultural-development program in Afghanistan.
After several years on the ground in war-torn countries, he needed a break and entered a graduate program in France and the London School of Economics. After graduating with master’s degrees in public affairs and public policy, he returned to Iraq as a project manager with a UNESCO literacy program. From there, he began working for the UN’s World Food Program in Rome. Yet despite the prestige and relative comfort of that job, he began to question the effectiveness of large-scale international development work.
“When you are at the UN, you are the system, and it becomes much harder to reach the people that can really create change,” he says. “I wanted to get back to the street level, where the most change can take place.”
That’s when he decided to return to Belgrade, a city he had first visited as a study-abroad student. Serbia has long been off the international development community’s funding map, especially as more urgent strife racked the Middle East. Finding financing for projects was prohibitive. Ragland needed a way to support himself and his vision of more grassroots, community-based development, so he made another circuitous choice: He opened Marukoshi, a Japanese comfort-food restaurant, a seemingly curious choice because he had no real restaurant experience and Belgrade is a conservative culinary town that hews closely to tradition. The restaurant was a surprise hit with Belgrade’s fickle diners. But the venture became all-consuming.
“I thought I could operate the restaurant and use the profits to fund my development work,” he says. “But that turned into a full-time job, and I wasn’t getting to work on anything else.”
So, in 2017, he sold Marukoshi and opened Share Square with the proceeds. After six months of prep work, he opened the doors, to a mixed reception. The coworking space is going well, but the classes haven’t been as robust as he had hoped.
But things happen slowly in Belgrade; new concepts take time to settle in. Petrovic, the intern, acknowledges that. “Before I met Ryo and started working at Share Square, I wasn’t sure that people could make a difference in Belgrade,” she says. “Seeing what’s happening here is showing me that it is possible.”