A Transatlantic Exchange in Sofia
Chad O’Connor is a professor of marketing and communication at Northeastern University, and consultant globally. He is also a startup advisor for IDEA, Northeastern University’s venture accelerator program, and the university's Venture Mentor Network. As a lecturer he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in Advertising and Brand, Organizational Culture, and Crisis Communication. He served as a YTILI mentor for the host city of Boston, MA for the 2019 cohort. Learn more and connect with him at http://about.me/chadoconnor
On-the-ground experience is the best way to truly understand a place, its people, and its business community. The Transatlantic Exchange Component of the YTILI fellowship gives U.S. mentors the opportunity to continue to work with the European fellows that they hosted in their cities, to support them in growing their businesses, and to encourage entrepreneurial development in the fellows’ home communities. In this spirit, I planned the trip to Sofia, Bulgaria to link up with Teofil Shikov, a 2019 YTILI fellow to Boston, MA and founder of Out2Bound, a sales-as-a-service agency, which helps IT companies find new clients all over the world.
My late-night arrival in Sofia was more adventurous than planned. The plane had to abort its landing attempt just short of the runway the first time around, as the wind shear was too much. Thankfully the second attempt went somewhat smoother. As is not uncommon when a major city is at the base of a mountain (Mount Vitosha), the wind can be a bit of a wild card.
My first full day in Bulgaria fortuitously was the Bulgarian Liberation Day holiday, commemorating the sacrifices of Bulgarian, Russian, Finnish, and Romanian troops in the Russo-Turkish War, culminating in the 1878 treaty restoring Bulgarian sovereignty from the Ottoman Empire. In a week of wildly variable early spring weather, it was great to be able to do a sunny walking tour of the beautiful capital. The center itself combines architectural styles from Eastern bloc modernist to Viennese and everything in between. The tour guide noted that a major mosque, synagogue, and Orthodox church are all within sight of each other, a great point of cultural pride that showcases a desperately needed spirit of interfaith tolerance that other countries would do well to learn from.
That evening, my reverse exchange host for the week, Teofil "Theo" Shikov of Out2Bound, arranged a YTILI alumni dinner at Blagichka, the zero-waste restaurant of 2018 YTILI alumna Blazhka Dimitrova. There was excellent traditional food and conversation about the overall state of the economy and green initiatives here, of which Blazhka's thought leadership and execution are at the forefront.
Meetings were arranged with major organizations in the Sofia business scene. America for Bulgaria touted their many initiatives in economic development made possible through a multimillion-dollar endowment, funded by Bulgaria's profits from the end-of-mandate asset sales of a post-Cold War U.S. lending initiative to the Eastern Bloc countries. Arts initiative funding had been an important pillar of their economic development actions (seen as essential for restoring the attractiveness of run-down neighborhoods and smaller towns), until fairly recently, when there was a mandated shift toward funding retraining programs and helping the disadvantaged with business planning that would make further entrepreneurial loans possible.
Invest Sofia, the official government arm to attract national and foreign direct investment to the city, shared its vision for making Sofia more attractive. As low-cost airlines have made Sofia much more accessible, the airport's growing pains are almost over with a new terminal on the horizon. The subway system will also see a new line become operational (promised within the next year). Additionally, there is a massive parcel of industrial land in the north of the city that is up for redevelopment, representing a potentially transformative opportunity for the city. Although the city has rapidly grown at the expense of other parts of the country, city unemployment numbers are so historically low that private retraining academies are trying to create entry-level coders for the growing tech scene.
Attracting top talent from repatriation has helped somewhat in the effort to support the tech boom, but with an overall shrinking population, there is now a pressing need to attract more foreigners willing to live and work in the country. However, statistics say that Sofia has a large population that scores highly in English language, which may well be a key to attracting more residents and potential investment.
I next had the privilege of being able to present to a group of about 75 people at the ABLE Activator meeting, discussing branding principles and tactics from the biggest brands down to the personal brand level. It was great to have such a mix of entrepreneurs and young people from a range of backgrounds show up for this public forum. I encouraged them to use their networks to build each other's brands, just as I hope our network of YTILI entrepreneurs will do.
The next day started with a quick trip to the U.S. Embassy to give our thanks and regards for the continued support of the YTILI program. The rest of the day was spent fielding questions on marketing and organizational tactics with Theo's team at Out2Bound, as they look to continue the expansion of their sales-as-a-service model beyond Bulgaria. It was great to have the ability to do a dinner with the company leadership team as well to better learn about their goals, backgrounds, and culture.
My last full day in Bulgaria started with a small breakfast forum with ten Bulgarian executives, fielding questions from them on a range of business topics, with special attention to better understanding the U.S. market for those looking to expand there. Theo and I then made the drive to Plovdiv, an important 2019 European Capital of Culture designation. The revitalized town was full of great little shops and restaurants and bars, street art at every turn, and buildings that have some fantastic restorations or have been built new to serve as a throwback to older styles. It was great to see the structural bones of the old city, Philipopolis, upon which Plovdiv was built, by meandering our way up to the old Roman amphitheater.
At the end of the day, we made our way back to Sofia to meet Theo's wife and children, enjoy a finger-painting session with their young daughter, and share a snack of traditional small plates and a final celebratory toast. These were great final memories of my time in the city.
It was truly special to spend time in a country where I've never been before, and frankly one that many Americans don't even think about. One entrepreneur at breakfast said an American once asked him if they even had electricity in Bulgaria. Believe me, they have a lot more than electricity in Bulgaria; come see it all for yourself!
Many thanks to YTILI, GMF, the U.S. State Department, and Theo for facilitating a wonderful week of business and cultural exchange in Bulgaria.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.