At ABLE Mentor events, Nikolay Nikolov usually sits in the audience, avoiding the stage and limelight. He offers quiet counsel when asked. His youthful appearance often makes him indistinguishable from the crowd of 17-18-year-olds in attendance.
Yet, Nikolay is the organizational virtuoso and strategist who makes the largest one-on-one mentoring program in Bulgaria possible. He is in charge of ABLE Mentor’s 30 volunteers, ensuring that each one completes tasks on time and within budget and is happy enough to stay on, and provides knowhow to a partner network that has taken the mentorship program to 10 Bulgarian cities. Skills workshops and trainings are a staple of every ABLE Mentor season. In early June, Nikolay presided over the closing event of the program’s ninth edition in his usual way—quietly and methodically.
Nikolay is modest about his role, saying it is mainly to “synchronize everyone’s goals and to prod people to get out of their comfort zones.” Yet, the results speak for themselves: interest in the program has been growing steadily, and more than 40 mentor-mentee pairs completed the program’s ninth edition. Volunteer coordinators are motivated enough to stay over several seasons, and former mentees return to the program as volunteers. In the four years since its founding by the Association of Bulgarian Leaders and Entrepreneurs (ABLE) with ABF support, the program has benefited more than 1,000 people in ten Bulgarian cities.
ABLE Mentor follows a simple model: it pairs a high school junior or senior with a mentor—a professional or an academic with experience in the student’s area of interest—who guides the student in developing a real-world project. The mentor provides advice, contacts, and support. Students gain experience and the confidence that they can complete something on their own. Some of the projects students have worked on include a food blog, a clothing brand, a DNA study, and a documentary about Vitosha Mountain.
Nikolay’s methodical approach to his work includes testing the ABLE Mentor model himself: he has been both a mentor and a mentee. He has worked with two students in the program and currently has a mentor himself—a Portuguese mentoring guru who runs a family program in his own country and is helping Nikolay identify ways to improve the Bulgarian program.
When he first came across ABLE Mentor, Nikolay was five years into a corporate career in finance, having graduated from a professional school in the city of Stara Zagora specializing in accounting and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in finance from the University of National and World Economy. His mentoring experience at ABLE Mentor was so positive—and he recognized that the program made such a difference in the lives of student participants—that he left his job at logistics giant GEFCO in 2017 to take the program over full-time.
Mentoring is a novel concept in Bulgaria, and one of the challenges Nikolay faces daily is explaining what it is. (To this day, he is not entirely sure his former boss understands what his new role is. And nor does his mother.) He is convinced that the program fills an important gap in the educational system in Bulgaria: it teaches students skills they cannot learn at school but are critical for finding a job or starting a project on their own. It offers a secure environment where young adults can get individual attention, develop their ideas, and practice critical skills. Above all, it gives them the satisfaction that they have created something before even finishing high school.
“The transformation in students over the three months of the program is incredible,” Nikolay says, and only by seeing the professionally crafted presentations and excited faces of the presenters at the season-closing event can you see just how impactful the program actually is.
Why don’t you find out for yourself by becoming a mentor in Season 10?