Meet Nikolay Gerdzhikov (’13), who is an accomplished SEO specialist, co-founder of two companies and a former e-recruiter at AUBG. Back at our university, he studied Business Administration and Economics, co-established StartUp Blagoevgrad and was a dedicated member of the Broadway Performance Club. During his studies, Nikolay spent three summers doing Work and Travel Programs in the U.S. and his last summer before graduation as part of The Summer Entrepreneurship Program. In just a few months, he and his wife Angelina (Markova) Gerdzhikov (’15) will move from Bulgaria to the States. In this interview for AUBG Today, Nikolay tells more about his career and his student experiences and shares the reasons why he transferred to AUBG after initially studying in the Netherlands.
You first studied in the Netherlands and then transferred to AUBG. What was the reasoning behind your decision?
I graduated a high school in Plovdiv and I wanted to follow in my brother’s footsteps and study abroad. He studied and graduated in the U.S. and my initial expectations was to go and study in the U.S as well. However, I graduated high school a few months after Bulgaria got accepted in the EU and for the first time high school students in Bulgaria had the opportunity to go and study in universities in Europe. This was a great opportunity, I guess, so at the time I thought that I would go somewhere closer here in Europe, and I picked a university in The Hague, the Netherlands. I already had an SAT and I already had TOEFL and to be honest, I did not know about AUBG before I applied there. And during the course in The Hague, I met some people from Blagoevgrad, and I found out about AUBG.
Once you transferred to AUBG, what differences did you notice?
Well, let me start with the disadvantages of studying in Western Europe, so that we can have the context about why AUBG was a better choice for me at the time. The main issue with studying in Western Europe or in the States was how you can study while also trying to support yourself financially. In the U.S., I would have to work a full-time job while studying, which was what my brother did for four years.
Halfway through my first year in the Netherlands, I found myself working different farm jobs full-time. I couldn’t speak Dutch and these are the type of jobs available for students without professional qualification and without fluent knowledge in Dutch. I realized that perhaps I made a mistake in terms of the fact that I’m not going to get any experience as a student, it will be a constant struggle between trying to get to class, finding homework and lecture notes from colleagues when I can’t attend the classes, and at the same time studying and working full-time.
I did not mind work, I am a hard-working person, but I just realized that I can’t really be a good student and become a good professional if I have to work the fields full-time. And it had to happen to me to realize also what my brother has been going through all these years in the U.S., because we went through a similar experience. Well, for him it was not farm jobs because he knew English obviously but he was also working full-time while being a full-time student.
So this was the biggest obstacle and I realized that I wanted a more balanced approach, where I wanted to experience student life, I wanted to experience class activities, I wanted to have a normal youth, the best years of my life. I wanted to party like students and young people do. I realized that I would have to give all this up if I remain on this path in the Netherlands.
The school was okay but this was a very important consideration which I don’t think many students from my experience as an AUBG recruiter take into account. So I transferred to AUBG, I had all the necessary documents and it was easy, I just had to fly back. I got almost all of my grades transferred to AUBG, I think I got about a semester and a half transferred to AUBG from the grades I have earned. Thankfully, I have managed to keep up with school in the Netherlands so I got good grades.
The first difference I noticed at AUBG was student life, the fact that it’s actually a community lifestyle where you have your friends. This was not the case in The Hague where students were dispersed all over town, because the Netherlands has a very big issue with overpopulation and population density. So my first impression was like “Wow, this place is awesome, everybody’s here, everybody’s hanging out on the grass and it’s such a good community.” And the second thing that made an impression on me was how like-minded and motivated students are and the positive attitude that they have toward life. I didn’t feel that in The Hague. Some of my colleagues there would be in their 30s or a bit older people that had now finally had the time to go and do a BA. At AUBG, most of the students were out of high school or had a little bit of experience in another university, like myself, so almost everybody was around 20-years-old.
The third thing that made an impression on me was the academics. In The Hague there were classes of between 30 and 36 people, but most of the lectures were in auditoriums so we usually would be four or five classes together, or 150-160 people. In AUBG, most of my classes were with 20 or so people so there was a much closer relationship between the student and the professor.
Professors at AUBG will know you by name which was sometimes not a good thing, but most of the times it’s great if you’re prepared for class. And thanks to the liberal arts system, you can have students from different standings in the same classes, which means that you’re not stuck with the same group of 30 people that you normally are in high school. There is this mixture between age groups and students. There are sophomores, there are seniors that you get to meet and work with.
So all of a sudden, you know a very good percentage of the people at school, which was very surprising. In terms of academics, I really enjoyed the liberal arts system and how proactive the professors are, there is this personal and direct connection between the student and the professor. The professors were much more involved in actually understanding what you get and what you don’t get in terms of the material.
Beyond the academics, what was your experience with the student clubs?
Well, the first year specifically was a rookie mistake. As a freshman, you go and sign up for all the activities you can think of. And then by the end of the first or the beginning of the second semester you are left with one or two clubs. I started with the Debate Club, I was involved with the Better Community Club for a little bit, I joined the Hiking club. Eventually during the second or the third year, I got really interested in entrepreneurship. At the time, AUBG was just starting to put more emphasis on entrepreneurship as part the curriculum thanks to Professor Veneta Andonova who was teaching entrepreneurship as well as strategic management back then. She really pushed in that direction and managed to teach a very good course in entrepreneurship.
I got really interested in the topic and wanted to learn more so I started going to entrepreneurship conferences, but I couldn’t find any events on entrepreneurship in Blagoevgrad so I had to go to such events in Sofia and Plovdiv. I went to this conference called StartUp in Plovdiv and I was so impressed by its structure: it was a forum in which entrepreneurs would meet with different students and share their experience. It was very inspirational, I met and attended lectures with some of the most successful entrepreneurs of the time in Bulgaria. In the end, I realized that the event is actually a franchise of the main organization StartUp in Sofia and the guys that organized the conference in the Technical University in Plovdiv were actually just taking the franchise and stepping on that and building the event. And I thought: “Wow, we can have that at AUBG if there are more students that are interested in entrepreneurship.” At the time, this was just an assumption. Together with Ivaylo Shipochki and a few other students I got in touch with the main branch in Sofia, and we decided to do this in Blagoevgrad. We got the copyrights from the Sofia branch and we created StartUp Blagoevgrad.
I am grateful to AUBG for this opportunity and providing the conditions for me to start a club on my own and explore my interests. We got help from the Student government with the budget, we got a lot of help from the academic community, we got help from the then-Provost Sullivan. Most of the help we got academically was from our Professor Veneta Andonova. Our work aligned clearly with what she was doing with the entrepreneurship courses and the timing could not have been better. We got lucky in that regard.
I was also involved with the Broadway Performance Club. All my friends were there, they were taking acting and dancing classes but I didn’t feel that I’m very artistic, so I focused on helping with other things. I was helping with the lighting and the technical coordination backstage. I was very involved with the club and was going on tours with them, it was awesome. I met my wife on the musical! It was at times more fun than the StartUp club, but StartUp was more rewarding in terms of what you get to learn.
How did your career develop after graduation?
America for Bulgaria Foundation at the time was doing entrepreneurship programs in the U.S. which very much was tied with what was happening at AUBG in terms of entrepreneurship, with the students, and the curriculum and the StartUp club. So I got accepted for such an entrepreneurship program and I did that for a summer before graduation. After I graduated, I worked at AUBG’s Admissions Office for about a year and a half, and then I moved to Sofia and worked in one of the major SEO agencies in Bulgaria again for about a year and a half.
Then I started my current company, it’s called Conversion Century. Over the years, I managed to establish myself as one of the good SEO specialists in Bulgaria, I also started a second agency that we have been running with a partner from the U.S. for a few years. I’m also a student at the moment, I study Software Engineering at SoftUni. I’m almost halfway done with my Software Engineering Degree so hopefully early next year I’ll have that behind me as well. AUBG has really helped me in my career, especially with the fact that a lot of contacts that I have even to this day are from AUBG. And judging by my friends that are from AUBG, both those that stayed in Bulgaria and the ones that went abroad are doing super well. I don’t have friends that are unemployed or struggling financially. Most of my friends are in the process of buying expensive apartments or building houses for their families. I can’t think of someone that was with me at AUBG that is currently struggling financially, even though things are bad with the economy. Maybe it’s a bubble, but maybe AUBG has something to do with it.