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Meet Pavlina, Bulgaria Innovation Hub’s Director

At a tech event in San Francisco last fall, Pavlina Yanakieva met 91-year-old Pitch Johnson, one of the legendary first investors in Silicon Valley. He helped found some of the first tech startups in the Valley and biotech giants such as Amgen and Biogen Idec. Pavlina introduced herself and told him about Bulgaria Innovation Hub, a center that will help Bulgarian tech companies expand on the US market.

Pavlina is one of the dozens of people who turn to Pitch almost every day in the hope that he will notice their projects. Pitch has Bulgarian friends, and Pavlina knows how to recognize opportunities and speak convincingly about the causes she believes in. As a result of this encounter, Pitch invited the founders of Bulgaria Innovation Hub to a meeting. The initiative gained an influential friend.

Connecting people is second nature to Pavlina. When she hears about a new venture or opportunity, she always tells people who might benefit from it. She often introduces people with shared goals and interests. Pavlina developed this skill working in sales, marketing, and network development at some of the largest US telecoms. She even did a short stint at Google. A few years ago, she left the corporate world to pursue her true passion—communicating with people and creating connections between them.

As director of Bulgaria Innovation Hub, Pavlina will put her skill to use in the cause of helping Bulgarian businesses seek financing, mentors, and new markets in Silicon Valley. She talked about the hub and her personal plans in an interview for the America for Bulgaria Foundation's monthly newsletter. 

You will head the first organization in Silicon Valley that aims to facilitate Bulgarian tech startups’ entry on the US market. How exactly will Bulgaria Innovation Hub work?

Bulgaria Innovation Hub’s mission is to foster knowledge exchange and collaboration between the entrepreneurial communities in the US and Bulgaria. Our main objective is to lay the foundations for a long-term partnership between the two startup ecosystems in order to help Bulgarian entrepreneurs and promote Bulgaria as a technological destination.

Select companies will be able to use Bulgaria Innovation Hub's offices in San Francisco for meetings with clients, partners, etc. We want to promote a growth mindset and reciprocity both in our team and in the companies we will be helping. Participants should be ready to learn and accept feedback as well as share the lessons with other entrepreneurs, friends, and colleagues in Bulgaria.

What is Bulgaria's potential as a tech startup generator? What will the Bulgarian tech sector look like in five years?

There are enough prerequisites for the successful development of technology leaders in Bulgaria: capital, strong talent with advanced technical and business knowledge, entrepreneurial spirit, corporate infrastructure, low corporate taxes, and ambitious people willing to dedicate themselves to solving global problems. Unfortunately, Bulgaria is too small to be able to generate a large number of successful startups, but with partners like Bulgaria Innovation Hub, Bulgarian Entrepreneurship Center, Тelerik Academy, and venture capital funds like Eleven Ventures, BrightCap Ventures, LaunchHub, etc., we could make a huge impact. 

You've supported Bulgaria-related initiatives like Teach for Bulgaria for years. You also helped with the logistics for the RE:TURN event in San Francisco. What motivates you to help others?

I guess it runs in my family. My mother in particular always wanted to help people. Her father was an insurance entrepreneur, company manager, and healer, treating people from across Bulgaria. He and my grandmother worked hard and welcomed relatives and strangers alike to their home. Americans’ responsiveness and selfless optimism have also played a role in shaping my strong motivation to support worthy causes. People from different cultures and backgrounds have helped me a great deal here, and it is now my turn to pass on these values and knowledge.

RE:TURN is an amazing initiative that gathered the Bulgarian community on the West Coast and affirmed that the time had come to build longer-lasting, sustainable connections between Bulgaria and the United States. We are one whole, and Bulgaria will only prosper when both sides understand the value of cooperation. It is important to focus on the positive changes in Bulgaria. This is one of the main goals of Bulgaria Innovation Hub in San Francisco. I am glad that the RE:TURN events highlighted successful initiatives in Bulgaria’s business and social spheres.

Your daughter goes to school in the United States, so you have no direct stake in the cause championed by Teach for Bulgaria. Yet, here you are raising funds for Bulgarian education. You've also mentored teachers and students in Bulgaria. Why is this cause important to you?

The reason is simple: I feel it is my personal duty to contribute in a way that will help Bulgaria get ahead.

I found out about Teach for Bulgaria about three years ago at a meeting where the founder, Evgenia Peeva, talked about the organization’s mission to improve education in Bulgaria and give all children an equal opportunity for success. Until then, I hadn't realized how badly education in Bulgaria needed improving. I graduated from an elite high school and always valued the education I received, and when I saw the results of the international PISA survey, which depicted Bulgaria as one of the worst performers in education in Europe, I felt terrible. Education is key for success, and I strongly believe that Bulgarians abroad are just as responsible for building a better and more successful Bulgaria as Bulgarians in Bulgaria. If each of us contributed by donating money, investing time and skills, or mentoring teachers and students, we could go to sleep with a clear conscience that we have fulfilled our duty to society and Bulgaria. From personal experience, I can say that it really doesn't take much to ignite the spark of change—it just takes persistence and a leap of faith.

What is your philosophy of life?

I am a staunch supporter of lifelong learning. I am always looking for ways to improve and learn something new, so I can be more useful to my clients and friends. My experience has shown that this thinking is key for personal growth. Other factors include having confidence in your abilities and the courage to try something new, even if you aren't successful in the end. This is actually the essence of Silicon Valley and the mentality I want to encourage in the Bulgarian entrepreneurs I'm going to work with in Bulgaria Innovation Hub. Experience comes with action, risk taking, mistakes, the ability to try over and over again, and the perseverance to keep moving forward.

What aspect of your life is connected to Bulgaria?

My family, here and far, and most of my close friends are Bulgarian. One of my biggest dreams involves my hometown, Burgas. For some time now, I have been helping a few local organizations and entrepreneurs unite efforts to raise awareness among the citizens of Burgas of causes like education, music, and social engagement so that the city continues to grow as a hub for business and culture. I also want to start an innovation and entrepreneurship center in Burgas for children and teens that will give them hope for a better life in their hometown. 

Please finish the sentence: Bulgaria is…

Мy beginning, my soul, my true north.

Photo 1: Vassil Terziev, Ivan Dimov, Pitch Johnson, Pavlina Yanakieva, and Bogomil Balkansky 

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