You don’t often see a VC fund manager, a probiotics maker, and a concert pianist sitting side by side, discussing the merits of investing in Bulgaria. Yet, more than 200 Bulgarians and friends of Bulgaria experienced just that on November 20 in New York City.
What drew this disparate group together was RE:TURN, a long-term initiative to reconnect Bulgarians abroad with their birth country. RE:TURN is the brainchild of the Bulgarian Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (BVCA), representing Bulgarian VC funds, and was developed in partnership with ABF, the country’s largest philanthropic organization. Former Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev and his Solutions for the Future Foundation and the European Investment Bank were partners in the initiative’s East Coast tour in November 2019.
Elvin Guri, Kiril Petkov, and Lora Tchekoratova had different kinds of investing in mind. Guri has helped Bulgarian students pursue advanced education at the American University in Bulgaria and startups scale up for years. Petkov sells Bulgaria-branded probiotics on five continents, placing the country on the biotechnology innovation map; he then invests the returns in young scientists through the biotechnology research lab he opened at Sofia University last year with support from the America for Bulgaria Foundation (ABF). A Juilliard-educated pianist, Tchekoratova has devoted most of her free time over the past 15 years to promoting Bulgarian music in the United States and is the founder and main driving force behind Off the Beaten Path, a festival for classical music in the Bulgarian village of Kovachevitsa, drawing together renowned musicians from all over the world.
Tchekoratova, Petkov, and Guri may have had different stories to tell, but they all agreed on one thing: Bulgaria is worth investing in. There to help them spread the message were President Plevneliev; BVCA Chairman Evgeny Angelov, who served as deputy economy minister and is one of the chief architects of alternative financing mechanisms for Bulgarian businesses; ABF president and CEO Nancy Schiller, who spent the last 27 years helping to support private initiatives and philanthropy in the country; Pavel Kolarov, who sells Bulgarian yogurt in the United States; and Georgi Mitov, a partner in VC fund BrightCap Ventures, which supplies funding to emerging companies.
The speakers discussed Bulgaria’s transformative development over the past two decades as well as their own stories of involvement and return.
And it isn’t just them touting Bulgaria’s progress. Returning Bulgarians were the subject of a May 2019 article in the British newspaper The Guardian, which listed attractive employment opportunities and a vibrant social scene as reasons why more Bulgarians go back to than leave the country’s second city, Plovdiv, since 2017. New York Times 52 Places writer Sebastian Modak named Plovdiv as one of the places he would choose to live in, for the same reasons.
According to a December 2019 Financial Times report, the country’s tech sector attracted record investment in 2018. Moreover, economic data show that Bulgaria is the top destination for business process outsourcing in Europe (and third in the world) and the #1 global producer of lavender, herbs, and climbing walls.
Emerging businesses feel right at home here, too. A flat tax rate on business and personal incomes, the relatively low living cost, and the wide availability of funding (the country is the #1 funding market in Southeast Europe) have made Bulgaria “the startup capital of the Balkans,” with over a third of startups launched by non-Bulgarians. Perhaps unsurprisingly, InterNations ranks the country among the best expat destinations in the world.
Last but not least, civil society organizations in Bulgaria are making a real difference in their areas of work, helping to revive economically disadvantaged communities, deliver quality education to all, boost independent journalism, strengthen the judiciary, and promote good governance. While challenges remain, Bulgaria has become a better place to live and work as a result of their activities.
RE:TURN is a gateway to the myriad ways in which individuals can get involved in the country, with www.return.bg outlining specific opportunities. The INVEST section of the website will keep potential investors updated about the country’s thriving startup ecosystem, while those interested in long-term investment in the civil society sector should acquaint themselves with the organizations listed in GIVE. Career builders can learn about job fairs and other professional opportunities in WORK.
An additional 400 guests attended the RE:TURN events in Washington, DC and Boston, on November 18 and 21, respectively.
Earlier in the year, in March, nearly 500 Bulgarians and friends of the country came to learn about the initiative during its inaugural US tour in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. The West Coast events helped raise funds for an early childhood literacy project and a healthcare center for disadvantaged families in Bulgaria. We tell the two stories in the December newsletter of the America for Bulgaria Foundation.
For additional coverage of the events on the East Coast, please consult the ABF newsletter and the websites of the Bulgarian National Television and Trending Topics, official media partners of the RE:TURN initiative.