Joanna Marinova (EMBA’21) and Slav Iliev (EMBA’21) have become the first Eastern European team to compete in the Rockefeller Acumen Academy Student Social Enterprise Accelerator. The two EMBA students entered the competition, which aims to solve a poverty-associated problem through social innovation, with a project that supports the financial inclusion of Roma entrepreneurs. The most vulnerable group in Europe, Roma people often face difficulties to receive financing for their businesses. Joanna, Executive Director at the “Lachezar Tsotsorkov” Foundation, and Slav, Retail and Network Manager Renault & Dacia, together with the Trust for Social Achievement (TSA) and their Junior Program Officer Lucy Georgieva joined forces to work on a solution to the problem.
A 5-week course, several assignments, a pitch deck, an interview and an 8-week accelerator later, the professionals have further developed their proposal to include “business services, training, legal consulting, as well as support services to complement the financing” of Roma entrepreneurs.
As they are now entering the final stage of the international competition, we spoke to Joanna and Slav to hear more about their experience with the social enterprise accelerator, their plans for the future of the project, and what internal motivators drive two busy professionals and EMBA students to dedicate their time and efforts to an important social cause.
Joanna: The Trust is an organization that I deeply admire for the bravery of their vision and their uncompromising dedication to reducing poverty and decreasing achievement gaps. Due to decades of failed policies, many Bulgarians have become cynical or lost hope that a change is possible and that is precisely the type of causes that I like supporting. Sarah, the Executive Director, shared with me that they are considering ways to create pathways towards financial inclusion. I shared in the belief that economic empowerment is at the foundation of sustainable success and gladly agreed to work with them to design a solution. Sarah came across the Rockefeller-Acumen challenge and I decided I would use my Public Speaking presentation at AUBG to pitch to my classmates so we could form a team and compete. It was largely met with skepticism, understandably so, but the few that showed support gave me the sliver of encouragement I needed to proceed.
Slav: Joanna’s presentation was really amazing. The problem it was addressing is widely underestimated. Poverty is a problem not only for those who are experiencing it but for all of society. I have been impressed by the success of several Roma entrepreneurs who completed a training organized by the Trust and then successfully started or expanded their own businesses. I believe that such examples are well worth the effort and that this success can be achieved by others if they get the proper support. The benefits of this support expand to create added value for all of society. So I decided to join and help Joanna with the development of this project. A talented young Roma woman who works with the Trust, Lucy Georgieva, also joined in to provide valuable support for the entire process.
Bakery owner Iliyan is among the success stories of TSA's work to advance the financial inclusion of Roma entrepreneurs. The 24-year-old business owner, who grew up in one of the most segregated neighborhoods in Sofia, succeeded in opening a bakery on his fourth try.
Slav: We started with the creation of an entrepreneurial Business Model Canvas. The biggest challenge was to determine what kind of financial products we want to offer. We decided to collect customer feedback by organizing interviews with prospects. We soon found out that our initial assumptions had to be adapted. It was not enough to offer loans, we had to provide complex solutions which should address specific needs. This is how we came up with the idea to offer business services, training, legal consulting, as well as support services to complement the financing. This became also our major take-away – the constant customer feedback is essential when it comes to new projects, so do the product-market fit testing over and over again until you create a solution that fits not your assumptions but your customers’ needs.
Joanna: Of course, we hope to win the challenge which will provide us with the capital to purchase software essential to collecting data that would feed into a risk-assessment algorithm. But these are details of a specific instrument, in this case, an MFA, that provides an opportunity for financial inclusion. Ultimately, it is the Board of Directors of TSA that has to decide how and if to proceed with the initiative. My personal hope is that regardless of which instrument for financial inclusion the board selects, we will keep the beneficiaries at the forefront, allowing their needs to lead the way as they have done up to now.
Part of the participants in the Rockefeller Acumen Academy Student Social Enterprise Accelerator
Joanna: Besides successfully completing the 5-week course, submitting all the assignments and a preliminary pitch deck based on which we were evaluated, we had an interview with a representative of the Challenge in Brazil before being admitted into the accelerator. I think our passion – our “why” was indicative that we would go through the process with purpose and humility. We all want things to be better and different but not all of us can clearly formulate the “how” and we had a well-defined idea. For us, it wasn’t about top-down solutions, but standing alongside those experiencing the problem. Additionally, our model is rooted in partnership with local Roma-led organizations which builds depth of expertise. Lastly, our theory of change revealed social impact reaching far beyond the individual.
Joanna: The accelerator took us from problem/solution fit to product/market fit, and finally to business model fit. The subsections included topics like creating a solutions map, value chain analysis, customer discovery, financial modeling, and many others. I found creating an MVP (minimum viable product) to be an invitation to put your hypothesis to the fire and to challenge your assumptions, which takes a lot of courage. It is also an iterate process that you continuously go through in order to hone your solution. For example, we were very surprised by how many potential clients saw higher education as a pathway towards financial inclusion and this motivated us to add educational loans to our services in order to increase educational attainment and answer this unmet need.
The EMBA impact
Slav: With our enrollment in the EMBA program at AUBG both of us met passionate people who want to develop themselves but also want to contribute to the progress of society as a whole. The networking of the program is key for the creation of innovative ideas for sustainable improvement of economic and social areas. The insights we get from the various courses gave us the confidence that we can finish the Accelerator course and outspread the idea to a “ready to market” level.
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