Avgustina Pasheeva (‘10), Business Development Manager at BIODIT: ‘The never-give-up mentality and critical thinking are the key components of success after AUBG’
Headstarter, a team comprised of Bulgarian high school students and mentored by AUBG alumna Avgustina Pasheeva (‘10), won first place at Teenovator’s national competition this May and will be going to the international contest in Slovenia. The students will pitch their project Headstarter.eu – a platform that helps young people find internships – in front of the Slovenian President who is hosting the competition.
Teenovator is an initiative that brings together entrepreneurs and high school students who want to find their passion and launch their first startup. Sixty students at the age of 15 to 18 from four Bulgarian high schools took part in this year’s first edition of the project that is part of an international network of high schools.
With over eight years of experience in the world of startups in both Silicon Valley and Sofia, Avgustina, Business Administration and JMC major back at AUBG and currently a member of the AUBG Alumni Association (AAA), joined Teenovator because she wanted “to give back to the community.” We talked to her to learn more about her entrepreneurship career, her experience at AUBG and her motivation to be part of the positive change in Bulgaria.
What is the aim of the Teenovator project and what was your part in it?
Teenovator is a brand new program in Bulgaria that originates in Slovenia. In Bulgaria, the first edition started during the academic year 2018/2019. The founder of the program is a Slovenian entrepreneur who studied in the U.S. and decided that in order to change the environment in Slovenia, he should build a program that is targeting high school students. In its essence, Teenovator is an entrepreneurship program targeting students in the 10th and 11th grade and the goal of the program, through startup clubs, is to inspire, educate and create the next generation of young entrepreneurs.
I became a part of the program as a mentor for nine months. Together with the other mentor at the school, we were meeting with the students every week. The goal was to introduce them to the startup world, offer our expertise, share our experience, so they learn from it and try first hand to build a company that eventually will generate revenue. At the end of the program, there was a national competition. All of the teams from the local schools from Bulgaria competed in front of a jury of investors and successful entrepreneurs, and the winning team is going to go to the international competition in Slovenia this September. There, all of the winning teams from all participating countries -- Bulgaria, Mexico, Hungary, the States and Slovenia -- are going to pitch in front of the Slovenian President who is hosting the event. The big award for the winning team is going to be a scholarship for a university in the States.
Tell us a bit more about your team’s project Headstarter.
My team developed a platform that is connecting businesses with students. The target markets are students at the age of 16 to 22 and businesses that are looking for fresh talent and are struggling to find it. So, essentially, it is internships.com for Bulgaria and the region. The idea originates from one of the team members who had experience with an education startup.
Some problems we identified are that while students want to gain practical skills, they usually don’t have a CV, don’t know how to write one and don’t where to look for internship opportunities. In addition, none of the existing products specifically addresses students at the age of 16 to 22.
Throughout the program, we managed to gather a team that built the platform, to validate the solution, to figure out the go-to-market strategy, sales and marketing, to start strategic partnerships and gain their first customers.
What do you think helped the team win?
I believe one of the reasons the team won the competition is that there is a shortage of talent in Bulgaria. It is a problem seen not only in the IT industry but also valid for every other industry in Bulgaria. Being able to solve the problem with the shortage of talent together with the fact that the team is composed of teenagers gives them a competitive advantage in spreading the word easily among that target group and gain traction.
Why is it important to have such projects in Bulgaria?
There are a few reasons. The first one is that entrepreneurship is a relatively new field in Bulgaria. Projects like Teenovator actually support, motivate and give reasons to talented people not to leave the country, to actually stay here and prove that with the right motivation, with the right skillset, with persistence and with stepping out of their comfort zone they can build a successful business in Bulgaria. I would like to believe that because of the journey we had with our students, they would prefer to stay and further develop in Bulgaria.
Promoting entrepreneurship through programs such as Teenovator is extremely important, as it provides youngsters with the opportunity to gain real-life experience from an early age, to encounter the difficulties of running a company, to learn how to work in teams and how to handle team dynamics, to understand marketing and sales processes. All those skills are essential and would give them a head start in their life after high school. Building a strong community of like-minded people with leadership skills can bring the needed social and economic change in Bulgaria.
What was your career path after AUBG?
My career went through a very interesting journey – from an investor to an entrepreneur. Soon after I graduated AUBG, I joined as an intern a Bulgarian startup company with a team of fewer than 10 people. Back then, I wasn’t familiar with the term startup. I was selected among 30 other interns and was offered a full-time job. Almost a year later I needed change, so eventually, my journey led me to become an early-stage investor in technology startups, working as an Investment Manager for a small Venture Capital fund, based in Silicon Valley. My job was to source and evaluate technology companies that our fund will invest in. I spent significant time in Silicon Valley and got acquainted with the astounding world of entrepreneurship, startups, technology, innovation investments, success and failure. We ended up investing in 20 early stage technology companies. I am proud to share that we already have four exits, and a few companies with a chance to become unicorns or public companies. During my investment career, I reviewed more than 6000 companies, I built a great network of investors, entrepreneurs, and successful people and I wrote a few due diligence packages that were used by more than 100+ angel investors to make their investment decision. I really enjoyed the work, I gained extremely valuable skills and knowledge that gave me a huge head start in my professional career.
During my early stage investment career, I also attended an entrepreneurship program, created and named to one of the most iconic VCs and billionaires – Tim Draper. Coincidentally, I was part of the same batch with another alumnus – Stoyan Mitov (’11). I met Tim Draper during an event in Silicon Valley where he offered me to join Draper University. As I have already had experience as an early stage investor, I didn't consider joining it initially. A few weeks later, Tim invited me, together with 30 of the most prominent Silicon Valley investors to judge the final pitch competition of class of autumn’13. After the competition I applied with a startup idea of mine, got accepted and became a student. So, I was a mentor and a judge and then became a student. The seven-week program is similar to Teenovator, though with a different target market and entirely done in Silicon Valley – we lived in a hotel that was reorganized as a dorm, we got access to a creative co-working space and we got the chance to meet with 50 of the most brilliant and successful entrepreneurs who came to do one-hour talks. Just as an example, the previous batch went on a tour at Tesla and met with Elon Musk.
Usually becoming an early stage investor is preceded by being a successful startup founder or a management consultant from a top tier company. With me, it was the other way around – I first became an investor and then an entrepreneur which is quite uncommon. In 2014, together with the founder of the VC fund, we actually started our own startup based in Silicon Valley – a video chat company for enterprises that is currently growing and expanding. I left after three years and I currently work as a Business Development Manager at a Bulgarian hardware company - BIODIT.
We develop and manufacture security, access control and time attendance products and solutions, based on biometrics. Our goal is to offer the highest level of security and convenience, combined with state-of-the art technology for impeccable identification and verification by getting rid of plastic cards, chips, keys that are obsolete, inconvenient and insecure.
How did your AUBG education and experience prepare you for your current career?
I believe there are a few things: first of all, there is a joke around non AUBGers that AUBG is a “mafia” [laughs]. This seems to be exactly right because the alumni network is very supportive and strong. Almost every single business meeting I go to, I can easily find an AUBGer working in the company - operations, sales, marketing, C-level executive or CEO. Networking is definitely one of the best assets of AUBG. Another important skill is the ability to work in teams, as the majority of the class projects were team-based. Being resourceful, facing hard challenges and finding creative solutions to problems are things I learned back then.
AUBGers are preferred employees because they know how to keep deadlines, how to work in teams, how to take responsibility, how to communicate and how to offer solutions and I am not an exception. All those skills, combined with perfect command of English, critical and analytical thinking are key to success after graduation.
You chose to stay in Bulgaria. What are the opportunities here?
There are opportunities everywhere, however usually people choose to focus on the negatives in Bulgaria. My perspective is just the opposite – all wrong things are actually opportunities for well-educated professionals like myself to step in, take responsibility and change the environment. Bulgaria is right now probably one of the best countries to live in, to work at and develop as a professional, and that is even proven by data. Last year, 25 000+ Bulgarians came back from abroad to work and live here. The shortage of talent especially when it comes to business professionals is huge, hence there are multiple opportunities for development.
I have spent a significant time living in the States, and while the career opportunities there are amazing, the social life, the people and the environment are totally different. Whatever you do, at the end of the day you are going to feel like a foreigner. I am glad that the majority of my close friends from AUBG stayed here and together, we can try to bring the needed change – socially and economically by leading by example. I do miss the States, though bringing successful people, practices and knowledge back here will eventually help our country prosper and I am looking forward to being a part of that process.
Interview by Dimana Doneva