Students of the Summer Entrepreneurship Programme (SEP) at the University of North Carolina in 2010
Belizar Marinov, a third-year student at the University of National and World Economy, receives his award from Ivanka Tzankova (ABF Programme Director for Libraries and Education), and Christopher Medalis (Director, Global Scholarship Programmes, IIE).
A 23-year-old Londoner hangs outside the YMCA in New York late one summer evening in 1990. It's his first day in the Big Apple.
A young American approaches him – beaming smile – shakes hands and introduces himself as "Leonard". This immediately puts the Londoner at ease. Nobody called Leonard could possibly have bad intentions.
"Have you just checked in too?" he asks the Londoner. "This is my first time in New York. I'm from Oklahoma. Isn't everything so incredibly BIG?" he says, gawping wide-eyed at the buildings. "I'm staying on the top floor." (He gives his room number). I haven't had time to get some money. If you lend me $20, I'll pay you back tomorrow."
The British visitor obliged. Sadly, he never got his $20 back. "Leonard" was a native New Yorker and the YMCA, according to staff at the building, was his patch. Apparently his trick was well rehearsed and very lucrative.
New York, you see, is always a life-changing experience for first-time visitors. The sheer vastness, the diversity, the cosmopolitanism and the 24-hour excitement are all intoxicating. More than any US city, it captures the lure of the American dream, both the dynamics and dangers of capitalism. Inspirational, intimidating and infectious, it's been known to shift attitudes.
My immediate impression, however, was somewhat different. For the young Londoner conned out of $20 was indeed me. I had thought of myself as reasonably streetwise. But "Leonard" disabused me. Looking back, I was impressed by his cheek and his smooth-tongued professionalism. He was certainly more adept than your average London conman. It was my first exposure to the American entrepreneur.
Crossing the pond
If New York is a culture shock for a young Londoner, imagine what it's like for a group of young Bulgarian students heading on a 30-day entrepreneurship programme to meet the country's foremost business leaders.
The programme is run by the Institute of International Education (the IIE) in New York, the largest and oldest non-profit organisation in educational exchange, founded in 1919. The IIE administers 250 scholarship and fellowship initiatives, notably the Fulbright programme funded by the state department. The IIE has been working for the past year with the America for Bulgaria Foundation (ABF) on this summer initiative, a merit-based scholarship giving students their first taste of American capitalism.
The America for Bulgaria Foundation (ABF) assists in the development and growth of a vibrant private sector for the benefit of a free and democratic Bulgaria. Founded in 2008, the ABF is a successor to the Bulgarian American Enterprise Fund, an investment fund created by the US government acting through the US Agency for International Development. The grants provided by ABF will build on the legacy of goodwill and friendship that exists between the American people and the citizens of Bulgaria.
So it was that on July 1, university students, mostly in their second or third year of study, flew to New York, staying at the YMCA. (Did they meet a now middle-aged man introducing himself as "Leonard"?) There they learned how to write a business plan, acquainted themselves with the concept of leadership development and faced probing from some of the East Coast's top business leaders.
Naturally, the agenda included the essential New York sights: a Broadway show, Coney Island and Macy's July 4 fireworks (their trip coincided with the American holiday), among others.
Following their New York stay – and meetings with high profile business leaders – they travelled to Boston's Bobson College and the University of North Carolina, two of the best entrepreneurship business schools in the US to learn some academic theory.
The students were chosen after a careful selection process at 51 accredited Bulgarian universities. The IIE sifts through applications and conducts interviews, putting together independent selection panels. Potential candidates submit five essays on entrepreneurship and leadership. Their degree subject need not be a business course; ambition and drive, not just intellect, are vital prerequisite qualities. The trip does not count towards their academic degree but it is still an invaluable experience.
Of the 2010 SEP participants, 40 per cent were from the University of National and World Economy (UNWE) followed by 16 per cent from the Academy of the Ministry of the Interior and 16 per cent from Sofia University.
'Not a vehicle for brain drain'
Emil Levy is the programme manager for IIE. He joined in 2009 as programme manager for the Bulgarian Young Leaders Programme (BYLP). He stayed with the students throughout their five-week stay in the US. Emil, who is Bulgarian, finished high school in Sofia, then won a scholarship to the US, leaving in 1995 to attend Ohio's Bowling Green State University where he majored in history and Spanish and minored in economics.
Both Levy and Christopher Medalis, the director of the IIE's global scholarship programme, say the summer trip – and another (separate) year-long programme for Bulgarian students – are not meant to be a potential vehicle for brain drain.
"If they end up going abroad, it means that their talents and human resources are not being put to best use for Bulgaria, so we have built in certain aspects to ensure that this does not happen," says Medalis. "When they interrupt their study for a year to go to the US, we place them in diverse universities. We don't want to create a small Bulgarian community because that defeats the purpose. We want to immerse them in an American academic experience. We need them to serve as ambassadors to Bulgaria and befriend American students."
Even on the summer course students have enough time to discover what is it about American society that fosters entrepreneurship and makes it so business-orientated. The trip also offers many networking opportunities for young Bulgarians.
Levy sees himself as the "bridge" for the students. "Part of me is quite Bulgarian. I lived in Sofia until I was 19 but now, after 15 years in the US, I live in both worlds," he says.
He concedes that the idea of the American dream is perhaps more of a myth than it was, or at least the shine has come off the ball in the recent financial crisis. "But everybody who goes to the US, whether for tourism or for study, is so excited. Everything is so glamorous and the unbridled individualism – the belief that anybody can achieve success – is still there, although that very belief is, of course, a double-edged sword."
Suspicion of big government
Central to an understanding of the US is that the individual is seen as more important than the state. Even those in humble jobs have a surprising resistance to socialism.
"Those who are really poor sometimes vote against their own interests in the belief that one day they'll be extraordinarily rich," Levy says.
Medalis says that recent developments in the US confirm that ordinary people place self-reliance above the state.
"The US is focused on the individual; it's more deregulated and decentralised. That early pioneering spirit is part of our identity and it's still visible today. We saw that in the recent US election. People believed that the Obama administration had gone too far in impinging on individual rights. The extreme Right brands him a socialist but, of course, he's very far from a socialist. That's the kind of rhetoric we have, based on the vision of the US as completely free. Hence the Tea Party is able to convince some people that Obama is a radical Leftist."
Not a commercial
Levy says students should be shown both sides of the US. It's not just about indoctrinating them that the American way is best. It's about opening their eyes to a different world.
"We don't want this to be a commercial for the US," Levy says. "We try to be nuanced. Of course, students will note American individualism and exceptionalism and draw their own conclusions. What really struck me, however, when I moved there was that you can see people from the entire spectrum of faiths and ethnic backgrounds. Yet they all consider themselves Americans."
Medalis, too, stresses that the trip is not a sales pitch for the US. "It's not about saying the American way is the best way and you should adopt this for Bulgaria – certainly not – because our institute is all about international exchange, and our motto is 'opening minds to the world'. We're giving young Bulgarians the chance to examine the American model. We express that to them from day one, that they're there to look critically, to ask questions and compare the US to Bulgaria. But we do tell them to act as ambassadors for Bulgaria because – let's face it – many Americans are unaware of Bulgaria." (Levy agrees, recalling bemused reactions when he told Americans he was from Bulgaria. One person congratulated him on his country's coffee, obviously mistaking Bulgaria for Bolivia.)
As part of giving students a nuanced view, the bad side of deregulation is not overlooked.
"When we talk about independence and entrepreneurship, we also talk about the financial crisis," says Levy. "If you deregulate the financial markets, that can have its bad side. We took a tour of Wall Street and we ask students – 'what are the things that could have been prevented'? We encourage students to be discriminating, think critically and ask the right questions."
Competing with the best
So what is the overriding lesson that young Bulgarians derive from their trip?
"It's the belief that they're smart enough to hack it against anyone in the US," says Levy. "Among Bulgarians in general, because of historical reasons, there's an undercurrent of negativism, a kind of inferiority complex. It's one thing to think you're well educated in Bulgaria. It's something else to believe that you can perform at the highest level internationally. And what now comes across is that they believe they can do just that."
Levy says that on the final day students present their plans to business people. The audience includes successful entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and experienced board members of large companies.
"They (the business leaders) challenge the students because if you apply for funding then you will get asked tough questions. They learn that it's not all about theory. It's the practical application in classrooms."
Levy admits that some students could be tempted to leave for the US once they complete their studies in Bulgaria. Ironically, he believes that the best entrepreneurship opportunities are in countries at the transitional stage of development.
"Africa is the best place, as well as countries that have untapped potential and are on the verge of making the transition. There's so much more competition in the US. For every opportunity, there are thousands of people trying to grab it. In Bulgaria and in transitional countries you can be the first one to come up with an idea, run with it and get the biggest share of the market."
Medalis, in particular, is very well placed to compare the Bulgarian students to those from other countries, having studied in Austria and Germany and worked for long spells in the Czech Republic and Hungary. And he believes that Bulgarians compare favourably.
The 1989 generation
Most of the Bulgarian students on the summer trip were born around 1989. Unencumbered by the old communist mentality, they find it easier to embrace a different way of thinking.
Watching these students accept their certificates from the SEP in a ceremony at the Radisson Blu on November 6, you can't help but feel that doom merchants about Bulgaria's future are monumentally mistaken.
Students gave a slide show about their impressions of the US, complete with group presentations containing heir business plans. Everyone mentioned how their experiences Stateside had bolstered their confidence.
Preslav Mitranov, a third year student from UNWE, was happy in the spotlight on the day of the reception for the alumni students. Currently starting a new web-based media outlet for inspiration sharing, Preslav revealed how the experience had taught him the importance of "teamwork" and a collegiate approach. I learned that we can all do amazing things in a short time," he said, citing the importance of "hard work" as the salutary lesson.
Iliya Boyadjiev, who has just finished his third year at UNWE, majoring in international economic relations, said that the "positive thinking" of Americans had been the true revelation. Others commented on the ethnic diversity they had encountered and the sense of duty that American entrepreneurs feel – the importance of giving back to civil society and helping the underprivileged. Contrary to what one might think, the students gauged that the successful entrepreneur is not a ruthless money-grabber but rather a responsible citizen aware of the importance of running an eco-friendly and sustainable business.
For Yavor Kiryakov, a student of economics, political science and international relations at the American University in Bulgaria since 2008, the most important lesson of the journey was "how to work with people, work in teams and even overcome my own ego". Vladimir Grachki, currently a student at the South West University in Blagoevgrad, said that he had discovered that even seemingly daunting tasks were attainable. He also told how he had learned to make his business presentations more concise, shorter and to the point. Perhaps more importantly, he said he now knew what he wanted to do with his life.
The students' experience at Bobson College taught them the importance of pitching a business idea and holding people's attention. Venetsiya Netsova, now in her second year studying economics, said that she had learned how to write an effective business plan. "I've also learned that the idea isn't so important, but the leaders are," she said, adding that "experience" was the most invaluable lesson she had learned on her trip.
Elena Ilieva, a third year student at the American University in Bulgaria, majoring in business administration, political science and international relations, says that the course had taught her not only that she could give a presentation but that she could also do it "very well".
During their award ceremony the students were addressed by Tom Higgins, a longstanding (17 years) expat in Bulgaria who has launched the Empower Foundation, dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship among Bulgarians. Higgins emphasised to students the importance of keeping "enthusiasm" levels high as they get older.
If we return to the students in several years time (something like the UK's Seven-Up series of documentaries tracking the lives of young people, and revisiting them at regular intervals, would be revelatory) I'm sure we will find some famous names among them.
Ok, Leonard, my tribute to you was something of a barbed compliment. You could have done so much more with your life. I hope you didn't attempt your trick on the students. They're too good for you.