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Keeping It in the Family

May 3, 2021
Kenan-Flagler Business School
Three men sitting and laughing

Robert Ejupi '21 (MBA) of Sports In LLC and the managing partners at Black Bird.

Deciding to pursue his MBA was a defining moment in the life of Robert Ejupi ’21 (MBA).

Ejupi is the chief operations officer and chief marketing officer for Sport In LLC, a leading sportswear retailer and wholesaler in Kosovo. It operates franchise stores for Intersport – a major global retailer in sporting goods – as well as Nike and Buzz Sneaker Station.

When he decided to earn his MBA, he had been working at his family business full-time for over two years and taking on more responsibility. “I was involved in the business ever since I was a small kid, running the store registers and getting to know customers and the business up-close,” he says. “That sparked my entrepreneurial drive, which was further fueled by my experiences at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

Both his educational journey and family business took some turns thanks to COVID, but he successfully navigated it all, from his studies to the family firm to a new entrepreneurial enterprise.

Entrepreneurship Is a Family Enterprise

Ejupi’s parents started their family business the year before he was born in Pristina, Kosovo. They began with a few small women’s clothing shops and eventually moved into selling sporting goods.

Kosovo was a war-torn country during Ejupi’s early life. After it won independence in 2008, the family business blossomed. Sporting goods took off, and they signed franchise deals with Intersport.

With the company almost doubling in size every year, Ejupi decided it was the “right time to gain the skills and knowledge required to sustainably grow the business and continue to dominate the market for years to come,” he says. “That is why I decided to enroll in a top MBA program and learn organizational structure from the world-renowned faculty at UNC Kenan-Flagler.”

Leaving his home to earn his MBA was the hardest decision he ever made, but he says the value of what he learned made up for the time away.

Choosing UNC Kenan-Flagler

The quality of the curriculum played a major role in Ejupi’s decision to attend UNC Kenan-Flagler. He chose a concentration in marketing, and enrichment concentrations in entrepreneurship and family enterprise.

“My MBA experience was somewhat unconventional in that I knew all along that I was not going to recruit for internships, but rather leverage the world-class education and skills to apply into growing and leading the family business,” he says. “The courses, the faculty and alumni convinced me that UNC Kenan-Flagler provides an elite business education that would serve my purposes well.”

Ejupi found what he was looking for. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve left a class completely blown-away and buzzing from the knowledge unpacked in the lecture,” he says. “I could take concepts from class and apply them right away to my work at Sport In.

“Many of my most successful projects at our family business were directly motivated by the insights I gained from courses at UNC Kenan-Flagler. I’ve designed and implemented demand-predictive models, performed conjoint analysis, launched A/B tests – all processes that I wouldn’t have even thought about if not for my education at Carolina.”

He also found community. “The sense of community and emphasis on teamwork at UNC Kenan-Flagler is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Over the course of my two-year journey at Carolina I interacted closely with every single member of the Class of 2021, and formed meaningful relationships that will last a lifetime,” he says. “It’s the people that make UNC Kenan-Flagler so special. More than just outstanding professionals across industries, the Class of 2021 is full of passionate, caring and supportive human beings who have made these two years an unforgettable experience for me.”

COVID Disrupts, Not Deters

Just as the global impact of COVID-19 was becoming clearer in March 2020, Ejupi was about to board a plane for a spring break trip to Mexico when officials announced they would close Kosovo’s borders in the next 48 hours. He had to make a snap decision: “I had this gut feeling that I should just go back then. I realized classes might move online and I needed to help navigate the company through difficult times.”

So Ejupi took his MBA classes from Pristina and grappled with COVID’s disruptive forces on the family business. “You’re in the office all day, and then in the evening you’re taking classes, with assignments to do and papers to write. It could be overwhelming, but I’ve grown as a person.”

Their retail business entered uncharted territory: all stores closed for several months and revenue came in through digital channels only, he says.” I revamped our e-commerce platform and, in a matter of days, streamlined our order-fulfillment operations to serve more than 40,000 customers in April and May 2020. We kept the business afloat and ended up making 2020 a year of growth instead of contraction.”

Ready to Take on the World

Ejupi took on an additional challenge in this turbulent environment. He invested in Black Bird Marketing, a full-service digital marketing agency, and is a managing partner and chief strategy officer.

Founded by two lifelong friends, Black Bird services include digital strategy, social media marketing, web and app development, UI/UX design, branding and digital media buying.

“Black Bird was instrumental in Intersport’s digital transformation,” he says. “We worked closely to develop a cutting-edge sportswear e-commerce platform, and develop our digital marketing content and advertising strategy.”

As Ejupi’s interest in digital marketing grew, he became more involved consulting with Black Bird on strategy and operations. “We used Intersport as a guinea pig for Black Bird’s digital marketing initiatives. We ran countless A/B tests, developed audiences, and experimented with content and creative concepts – experimentation that paid off.”

Black Bird does work for leading corporations in Kosovo and has moved into international markets by developing websites, apps and digital strategies for startups in the U.S., Switzerland, Germany, Poland and the U.K. “Our vision is to partner up with the world’s leading brands to elevate their digital presence and help them reach their business objectives,” says Ejupi.

Ejupi feels prepared to lead Kosovo’s most comprehensive retail portfolio and a fast-growing digital marketing agency. He credits his classmates, professors and mentors at UNC Kenan-Flagler for “inspiring and guiding my entrepreneurial drive.”

His perspective on business evolved tremendously, from an expanded global outlook to “whole new way of thinking about family business.”

“I now feel competent and comfortable evaluating business opportunities and making prudent investment decisions,” he says. “I also am a much better team player and leader. I now understand the importance of surrounding myself with the smartest people possible and, rather than feel intimidated, use the opportunity to lead and inspire them to be the best versions of themselves and deliver outstanding work.

“I am looking to build global, powerhouse firms. That seemed like a dream prior to my UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA experience. Now, I’m well on my way and see my dreams manifested day-by-day.”

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