Career with many faces
What is the most valuable thing you learned from participating in the Next Generation competition?
- The other finalists in the top three, as well as the judges' high scores, showed me that I might be going in the right direction. When I was talking to the others during the awards, it struck me that they both spoke so passionately about their work that I got passionate too. I felt like buying their products even though I don't need them. This passion is what we have in common. Maybe there was no need for so many phases and interviews, the passion and the sparkle in their eyes was noticeable at the first meeting.
Your career started in consultancies like Parole M and Deloitte. How did you go from there to the idea of social entrepreneurship?
- Very early in my career, I worked for a year on the Fatherland Front programme at Nova TV. There I met many children from institutions who had fallen into difficult situations, and it made me think that the furore after showing them on TV lasts 2-3 days, the police and social intervene for some more time, and finally everything dies down, it stays the same. I started thinking how I could change it. Then I started looking for a job in my specialty - finance, but what burned me then remained, this hunger to change something in the lives of children not for a few days, but for the long term.
Is that where your choice of the specific cause - children in orphanages - came from?
- Yes, that's really where it started, but the entrepreneurial side of me came through from the very beginning, i.e. the attitude to try and find a solution. Quite naively, my initial idea for a solution was to give books to children, expecting them to sit down, read them and be fine. The very first few times we saw that no one was reading these books. Again, the entrepreneurial thing is to change the model when you feel it's not working. So we started bringing in volunteers to interact with the kids to become their friends. And then it worked. If you don't have the entrepreneurial spirit, no matter how much empathy you feel for what's going on around you, you're not going to change it. You can sit down and cry, but that's it.
How exactly is the work structured at the foundation?
- At this point in the foundation, there are already a lot of processes and a lot of structure, more business. I'm in charge, and we have an office with two or three people, depending on the period and the workload, who deal with organising everything. We also have 16 teachers who help the children with reading, writing and arithmetic. We work with 18 homes and each home has a coordinator who takes care of their 20-30 volunteers. In this way, we have created a fairly stable structure that can grow very easily. Every weekend we travel to some of the homes. So if you volunteer, you're guaranteed a trip and a meeting with the kids once a month.
What stages did the development of the foundation go through?
- On July 2 we had a birthday - we turned 8 years old. In the beginning we started quite volunteer - for the first 4 years we had no funding, all volunteers shared the fuel money, we would get together in one car and go round the homes. It was all very romantic and clean. At some point, when the volunteers became too many - 50 - 60 people per month, we had to think about how to transport these people more efficiently. We subsequently applied for funding and were approved. Since then we have not had a problem with funding precisely because we showed in the beginning that we were doing it selflessly. I myself have always been a volunteer and have never received a salary from the foundation.
How do you select the volunteers?
- Anyone can volunteer, the only reason we turn someone down is if we think they may pose a threat to children. The meetings mostly happen in the home or a convenient location in town, this way we aim to open the door of the home from the outside in, to bring the community in to them to break down the barrier that separates them from us. We have a theme to the event, but it's usually all very loose - to break the ice, we often play a sport, then disperse and the volunteers hang out with their fellow kids and talk about their grades, books, read write, discuss various issues, etc. The kids are used to the idea that we are friends, and it keeps them from expecting "Will you pick me up?" We also employ a local teacher in each home we work in, who visits twice a week for two hours and reads and writes with the children. The point I see is for a child to interact with a volunteer, it's important to have a personal connection and contact. That way the communication becomes sustainable and long lasting. If that foundation is gone tomorrow, the friendship between the child and the volunteer should remain. I don't care how many friendships we have completed on a project. These children need support in the years ahead. Working with them is a long-term commitment. A lot of people shy away from that. But the truth is that nothing happens necessarily, it is free - who when and how they can. And it is this freedom that makes the whole structure sustainable.
How do you finance your activities?
- I've always said that if you do something good, at some point people start looking for it and finding money. Volunteers even help with funds themselves. It's a valid test of the market principle that if society needs something, it always finds a way to continue to exist. As a business person I find it very difficult to seek money for free, I can't snap my fingers and beg some company for a donation. I know it's not shameful when it's a cause, but I can't. So I'm wondering how to get it. I've thought of a thousand models of social entrepreneurship. One of the most advanced ideas was a social farm that would employ young people coming out of institutions. My latest idea is an IT software development company where the foundation is the main owner - childish.eu. If this idea really takes off, and it already has orders for several big sites, the dividend income could sustain the foundation.
It came to me from a model that is particularly popular in the Nordic countries and especially in Denmark, better known as Foundation-Owned Social Enterprises (FOSE). An example is Villum Fonden - the foundation owns a huge global roofing company, better known for the Velux brand, with annual profits in excess of €100 million. Most of this profit goes to the foundation. I was very inspired by this model and I think I can adapt it for Bulgaria. Our tax legislation does not encourage this kind of financing, but this does not prevent a foundation from owning shares in a company, as long as this can only bring it positive returns in the form of a dividend.
What are the challenges for the NGO sector in Bulgaria?
- I see that people are too project-oriented, they focus more on the reporting of activities than on the meaning and outcome of those activities. If you go into business just to make money, it doesn't work. But if you do business because you want to solve a problem for people, then things work. Measuring the actual impact of your activities is also very important to see if you are doing something with too much money and effort. But you can't measure anything if you don't know what problem you're solving in the first place.
You're also the chief operating officer of JobTiger. How does your working day go at the company?
- I have been at JobTiger for 2 years. I'm involved in the operational side of things, with a lot of financial work. Each manager moves their projects independently, I only have to step in if there is a crisis situation or if we have something new going on. When you're in a small company, you can see the whole picture and you often have to deal with everything - hiring people, finance, budgeting, strategy, business development, change, operations, even changing offices.
How do you juggle your work alongside the foundation and your duties at PocketTiger? Do they interfere or help each other?
- During my eight main work hours, I'm at PocketTiger. On weekends, I work a lot for the foundation. But in general the two help each other a lot - for example, through the network of contacts I have through the foundation, I can keep in touch with all sorts of people on projects I'm running at PocketTiger. Conversely, my work at PocketTiger helps me structure the foundation with a business mindset, not just as a cause. If I have to do the financial report for a project, I can do it with my eyes closed. That way my work day comes out to about 12 hours instead of 16, because one helps the other.
You also have a published book of poetry. Poet, social entrepreneur, business leader - which role do you feel closest to?
- 3-4 years ago I had a terrible dilemma about what to choose to do with my life. I was constantly hesitating which direction to take. Now I have calmed down and made peace with all three things. I can see that one cannot do without the other. It's the foundation that really gets me, because it's a cause, even an institution that many people already know and work with. It gives me immense pleasure to see how the children already know the volunteers and have friendly relationships with them. It's the closest thing to me because it's something that I've created and I can see that it's very much alive and that it's grown more than I have. I look at poetry as a hobby, it's my shadier side that I don't show as much in either of my two jobs.
Looking back, what would you do differently?
- I look at things philosophically and I've always said that whatever I've done, I've done it with the knowledge I had at the time. I feel lucky to have created something that changed our environment in some way. I never thought Give a Book would become a foundation, it happened organically. All my steps have led me here, none of them I would erase.
Where do you think this do-good culture that seems to drive your career so far comes from?
- The giving, the giving of time have always been close to me. My parents are the kind of people that have always helped someone. That's what I grew up with and used to - that when you see someone in need, you're going to help them. Not that it's some scary kindness in me, it's just part of my life, a natural habit.