Zora Colakovic

Investigator and Attorney

Zora Colakovic is an international investigator and lawyer who has had a career spanning two decades and five continents. Zora is passionate about contributing to justice and accountability and uplifting the next generation of fact finders. Zora is currently building a mentorship program for aspiring international investigators.

Zora is an investigator with a home base in California. After cutting her teeth on almost every type of investigation, she specialized in complex organized crime, street gangs, and serious violent crime. Zora was judicially appointed on high profile criminal cases such as those involving the Aryan Brotherhood, MS-13, and Mexican Mafia. She also investigated sexual crimes and complex financial crime. Much of her work consisted of interviewing tough people about tough subjects. Then Zora set her sights on an even more challenging level of investigations involving crimes during wartime, usually alleged to have been committed by government or military officials.

Inspired by international law, Zora devoted herself to becoming a qualified lawyer and shifted full-time into the international sector. From 2015-2016, Zora was based in Central America and Africa advising prosecution teams on cases involving war crimes, From 2017 to present, she has been working in Africa, Asia, and Europe as an investigator and legal officer in the United Nations system.

Zora has multiple degrees with Honors, including a Juris Doctor specialized in International Criminal and Human Rights Law and Criminal Justice. She has also participated in many overseas intensive programs and trainings in international law and investigations.

Zora is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, American Society of International Law, and California Association of Licensed Investigators.

Where did the idea for your career come from?

When I was growing up, I found the concept of the Taoist scholar warrior very appealing – the idea of developing yourself intellectually, physically, and spiritually and applying this to worthy causes to help others. Many of my choices were guided by this archetype of the international explorer or adventurer.

After some years in academia and on the road to becoming a professor, I decided that I wanted to apply my natural curiosity to active inquiries involving current events. It was a love of researching and asking question, and the process of uncovering information, that has always resonated with me as a daily practice.

Most experienced investigators have tried almost every type of specialization, as had I at the point that I started my own business: security, transporting troubled adolescents, surveillance, insurance fraud, domestic and child custody matters, undercover cases, employee theft, civil litigation, accident investigations, wrongful death cases. But as I developed my own practice, I quickly found that I preferred a focus on international matters and criminal cases, and if a case had elements of both, even better.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I am a goal-driven person, and usually have a list of projects to work on, both professional and personal, short-term and long-term. Although I do the day-to-day required tasks, I also keep my eyes set on the more holistic vision and direction.

I typically have vivid and interesting dreams, so I let myself enjoy as much sleep as possible. My day might involve gathering evidence in the field or interviewing witnesses, or I may be in the office where I focus on research, analysis and synthesis, and writing reports or legal documents. There are brainstorming meetings with team members and guidance and feedback to give supervisees. Usually I am also busy planning or executing a field investigation. I also am always in the process of upgrading my skills with certifications and trainings.

For leisure time, I do my best to keep in touch with beloved family and friends. I also always try to improve foreign language skills, so I often have online lessons. I find I am most inspired and happy on the move to an international destination, which I do as frequently as possible. I also like to spend time in green space and fit in outdoor activities like scuba diving and skiing.

Lately I’ve had more time to reflect and have been gathering and synthesizing material for training and writing projects and devoting time to more creative or meditative modes.

How do you bring ideas to life?

The best way I’ve found to incubate and discover an idea is through connecting with the right side of the brain. I was doing this in one form or another throughout my life, using symbols, art, or music to inspire and shape my direction and spending time in silence with no distractions to welcome and experience a moment of insight. Those moments of self-discovery are priceless steps forward to foster an idea.

Sometimes thinking too hard about something doesn’t get you anywhere (and I’ve been frequently accused of overthinking). Best to set the issue aside and with a fresh start, an idea or insight might flit its way into your awareness.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I find the ongoing growth of international legal standards and institutions fascinating. These are relatively recent developments that allow for an exciting evolution of consciousness about how humans should treat each other and the world.

Just in my generation, I’ve seen sea changes against previously accepted practices such as corporal and capital punishment and discrimination based on sexual orientation. Another exciting recent concept is the human right of access to science. I believe there will continue to be opportunities as a more global network builds widespread norms and the institutions to support them.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I have always been compelled to search for and take on challenges, pushing myself past my comfort zone. This has indeed led to a lot of discomfort, but also to tremendous growth and increased capacity. Since I often head into unfamiliar territory, I also ask for advice and stay open to the learning experience.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Be more patient, focus on the long game, and don’t be so disappointed or self-critical when things don’t happen quickly. This is especially true of “dark nights of the soul,” those times when ideas and transformations are percolating and incubating. It can be highly uncomfortable, even agonizing, but afterwards there can be a huge growth spurt. Those dark periods are necessary to push you to do things you never thought you would be willing or able to do.

As an example, it was just at the time when I was the most successful in my career as a California-based investigator that I began having existential questions about my direction. It took some profound self-reflection to launch myself into a law degree later in life, but the decision paid off big-time.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Having a wholesome small town Mid-western upbringing, I had to do the best I could with limited means and develop some street smarts to navigate shark-infested waters. My reaction to big talkers is usually skepticism, and I am unimpressed by people who are famous, have titles or Ivy League pedigrees, or otherwise come from privilege.

I resist the impulse towards cults of personality and find that people who are humble, thoughtful, and observant (along with a few scars earned while making their way up from the bottom) often have far more knowledge and insight worthy of consideration. So always good to reach out to the quietest and least self-aggrandizing person in the room.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I am always reinventing and challenging myself with new projects and learning. I try to be flexible and switch gears as needed.

It’s always best to have many irons in the fire, assuming that of 100 things attempted, only one thing may work out. That one thing is all you need to move to the next level. Try not to allow rejection or failure to discourage you, but instead focus on making the next attempts. Resilience, persistence, and determination are key. Some luck and good timing helps, of course, but you have to try to make that luck by being receptive to what is out there and willing to learn and absorb lessons.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Investigations tends to be referral-based, so I grew my investigations business in California by consistently producing high quality work. To grow my business, it was important to build and maintain my reputation for professionalism and solid results.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

At times I struggled with self-confidence, especially about enforcing the value of my time. Doing pro bono (free) work for a worthy cause is considered an ideal practice in law and investigations, but not to the point of being used unfairly. I oriented my business to contracts and appointments with government or non-profit entities, which was a more comfortable fit for me. It helps to keep in mind the old adage to always know thyself…

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

On visits over the years with family in the Balkans, I have often wondered why fruit brandy (pear, apple, peach, and especially apricot) has not been marketed and distributed more in the U.S., when fruit-flavored vodka is everywhere. I’d also like to see wider distribution of Eastern European wine varietals such as vranac.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Years ago, my husband and I got married in Bali in a ceremony on an elephant. During the trip, I bought a winged red lion statue, which the shopkeeper told me was carved 50 years ago by her deceased husband. We were in Bali again recently when I spotted a winged white lion of similar style. When talking to the shopkeeper, I realized who she was, and I showed her photos of her husband’s red lion where it stands motivating me in my home office. It made us both emotional. Every time I look at the two lions (now both in my house), it reminds me that even if people come from very different backgrounds and cultures, they can still share a connection that defies time, distance, and origin.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I’ve been living outside the U.S. for several years now in challenging conditions and find that WhatsApp is the nimblest way to communicate securely on slower connections. I use it for remote witness interviews and meetings when other software collapses, and it’s my go-to app for messaging and calling family and friends.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Scholar Warrior: An Introduction to the Tao in Everyday Life by Ming Dao-Deng. The concept is about balance in life and recognition of all aspects of being human.

What is your favorite quote?

I grew up with an immigrant father who is a very practical guy. When I was a kid, I asked him about the purpose of life.

With a thick accent, he said: “The purpose of life is to pay the bills, and to pay the taxes.”

This never fails to make me laugh. But it also makes me appreciate the sometimes-forgotten ethic of honoring commitments and contributing a rightful share to the common good…

Key Learnings:

• Be ready to reinvent yourself and change directions. Always keep yourself open to new challenges and learning.
• Keep many irons in the fire. If you keep knocking on doors, one will open. Resilience, persistence, and determination are key.
• Take big talkers with a grain of salt and be street smart about claims that sound too good to be true. Instead, consider the wisdom of the quietest people in the room.
• Keep high standards for your own conduct. Keep your word, honor commitments, and contribute to the common good.