Originally from Kazakhstan. I came to Bulgaria in 2014 to study in the American University in Bulgaria Business Administration and Journalism and Mass Communication. Eventually, I decided to stay in Bulgaria after my graduation, moved to Sofia, and started adulting.
It was a struggle for me to get into a new community, to find new friends, to go to events that were held in English, because my Bulgarian wasn’t that great at the time. So I wasn’t actively looking for opportunities, but opportunities were looking for me. One day, as I was scrolling through Facebook, I saw a post by my friend talking about an intense entrepreneurship program. A program which introduced you to the world of entrepreneurship, new mentors, new people, new community… I was curious.
About ABLE Activator
A few years back, the America for Bulgaria Foundation created a program for young Bulgarian entrepreneurial-minded people to go on an entrepreneurship program in Babson college in the States and go through the process of creating your own business. This highly expensive, selective, and elite program aimed to create the necessary conditions for the people to stay focused and create their business within the short amount of time.
But in real life, that’s not how it works. You can’t just take a month off and concentrate on the business that you are trying to build. There is always something in the way: work, studies, relationships, social life. So can you learn how to create your business given these conditions?
That’s exactly what the ABLE Activator program set out to do.
The alumni of the entrepreneurship program formed an Association of Bulgarian Leaders and Entrepreneurs (ABLE). ABLE has multiple initiatives teaching entrepreneurship to different groups in society. The latest and biggest one, ABLE Activator, addresses students and young professionals – up to 35 years of age – to enroll in the 7-week-long entrepreneurship program along with 29 other people. I went through the program in the 1st, 2019 edition, and can proudly say that I came out of a better person than I entered it.
There are two stages of the process: an application form and an interview. With the perfect student mindset, I submitted my application exactly 2 minutes before the deadline. And hey, it still worked! I was invited to an interview with the ABLE team. Because I had problems with my documents at the time, I was back home, but the team was extremely accommodating and agreed to do a Skype interview with me. Despite some technical difficulties, the interview went really well. (And as an HR, I can tell the quality of the interviewers and the questions they ask.) The ABLE Selection Committee was extremely professional, asking important questions quickly and to the point. I was quite nervous, but I did my best.
Some time later, I got the much desired email:
It was time for a new adventure!
The schedule of the program is very well thought through: the first weekend we are taken on a surprise trip outside of the city.
Surprise trip. Outside of Sofia. With, like, 35 strangers that you have to… speak to.
Needless to say, the ABLE team knows how to make a good first impression.
We all met at the train station, and I was quite nervous, because I was the only foreigner there. Although the official language of the program is English, naturally, people speak their native language while making a small talk.
Fortunately, we did not have a lot of time to just hang around, because the team had planned some serious bonding activities for us.
I won’t be spoiling the surprises, but let’s just say that the principle of the train ride was that “being vulnerable creates trust”, and not the other way around. We had some deep talks and knew each other’s past experiences even before we reached our final destination. How’s that for developing your communication skills?
We were kindly asked to put our phones away for the whole weekend, which was a challenge for me by itself, and to engage with each other. We had to bond very quickly: and thanks to the organizers creativity, games and challenges, we did. Multiple games, late-night sessions, creative challenges and thought-provoking conversations: that was a mixture for an epic weekend.
The program continues…
The second and the other consecutive weekends were more topic-focused. Each friday we would gather at a new location, have a lecture by a famous founder, or investor, or a coach, do a workshop and say goodbye late at night just to meet again early in the morning.
The weekends, Saturdays and Sundays, were intense. There was not much time left for socializing and spending time with your other friends. But this program was designed especially for us to see what the life of entrepreneur was like. We got used to constant meetings, iterations, new ideas and lack of time.
We split into teams and each started to work on their own ideas. This was a challenge, too – 5-6 people per team with their own egos, ideas, ambitions and lives. This was a great opportunity to also learn to rely on each other and to work together. As we progressed through the program, we had to move through different stages. From the idea stage – sitting together and brainstorming – to iterating the idea with customers. We were going outside in the cold and literally stopping people on the street to ask them questions. Then we moved to perfecting the go-to-market strategy, value proposition and defining the problem. We had mentors to guide through the process and to question our assumptions. We had to change and adapt our idea over and over again, working harder than ever.
And all of that was for – spoiler alert – my favorite part of the program…
The last event was the most memorable one to me. Demo day.
Each team selected one person to pitch at the event.
One person from each team would present in front of 100+ members of the Bulgarian startup ecosystem: investors, entrepreneurs, presidents of organizations, business developers, programmers…
In our team, it was me.
We had two dry-runs prior to the actual pitching day, which were extremely helpful. The organizers gave us feedback prior to the pitches, which gave us an opportunity to rework our final story and tune the timing.
I was a bit nervous to get on stage in front of all those experienced and serious people to represent myself, my team, and our idea. It wasn’t perfect: some of the jokes didn’t work out as intended, my voice wasn’t as smooth as it should’ve been, the story I told wasn’t as compelling…
But I was happy.
At that moment on stage I felt an extreme adrenaline rush! My heart was pumping, butterflies in my stomach were ready to jump out. That was the most important moment of the program for me, and I was so happy that I managed to overcome my fears and present in front of all those people.
It was awesome.
I’ve never done anything of this scale before – and it was an amazing way to push my comfort zone to its limits, to test my abilities and, of course, learn.
ABLE Activator is definitely one-of-a-kind program. I can write a lot about it, but the best way to understand what I am talking about is to experience it.
After the Activator, I found not only 30 new friends, but 300 – because I got to join the amazing ABLE Community. Through that, I found a new exciting job, tried starting my own business – still working on that – and transformed my own image of myself. I understood that I could do so much more that I thought I would be capable of.
The people you will meet are as incredible as you can imagine.
You can be one of them, too.
Apply for the second edition of ABLE Activator by December 22nd, 2019 at www.activator.bg