Help Thy Neighbors… by Teaching Them Business Skills

If you are ever in the Zlatitsa-Pirdop valley, in the Srednogorie region, be sure to stay at Pavlina and Grigor’s family guesthouse, buy a delicious pretzel from Maria’s bakery, and gift yourself a T-shirt embroidered by Boryana, a talented local artist. Bring your kids along: they will enjoy the fresh air and beautiful scenery—either with you or in the company of friends at one of Magdalena’s sleepaway camps.

What do these businesses have in common other than geographic proximity and their mom-and-pop nature? They were all born or developed through BASE—Business Achievements for Social Entrepreneurship—a program offering free training to budding entrepreneurs on how to start a small business. A joint project of the Industrial Cluster Srednogorie Association and the America for Bulgaria Foundation, the program was launched in January 2018, and the first group to complete it is now a fact.

The BASE program follows a simple but highly successful model developed in the United States, where established professionals and entrepreneurs offer individuals from disadvantaged groups free help and advice. In a series of meetings, they pass on their experience and knowledge, starting from the ABCs of entrepreneurship—what business to start and how to make it a success where they live, how to prepare a budget, where to look for funding and partners, and what to charge for their services or products.

On April 26, the first BASE trainees presented their business plans in front of jurors and mentors in the village of Mirkovo. The winning projects were a private IT school, a guesthouse, and a summer camp for children. Besides certificates of completion, the finalists received financial support to move their projects forward.

Over three months, university lecturers, business representatives, and young entrepreneurs such as the maker of craft beer Ailyak (one of Bulgaria’s best) and the founder of Shushon, the only Bulgarian manufacturer of merino wool socks, volunteered their time as mentors in the program. Shushon founder Lukan Chervenkov—an avid mountain biker who started his sock manufacturing business partly to fulfill his own need for high-quality footwear—was born in Zlatitsa and didn’t think twice when he was asked to become a mentor. Georgi Hristov of Ailyak, who is based in Sofia, decided to support the project because he thinks it is a good idea.

The BASE model was built on the success of a similar program in the United States. Unlike its US equivalent, which targets economically vulnerable regions and populations, the Bulgarian program encourages entrepreneurship in small towns and empowers individuals who wish to live and work in their hometowns. The partnership between ABF and Srednogorie Industrial Cluster, which brings together local authorities and some of the largest employers in the region, may have brought valley residents a step closer to that goal.

“Closing ceremonies are very emotional events because, looking back, you can see how much you have achieved in such a short time. You have produced some great business ideas, and you have also made friends, and both are important ingredients of a healthy community,” said Schiller after awarding the big prize to Maria Raduncheva for her plan to provide programming and robotics education to children in the Srednogorie region.

Photo 1: Genoveva Ralcheva makes beautiful gifts out of discarded objects. 

Photo 2: Artist Boryana and her mother talk about their business plan.

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