Daniel Penev (‘16) on “The People Changing Bulgaria”
AUBG alumnus Daniel Penev (‘16) has been quite busy signing autographs, touring cities and giving interviews lately. Still, he took the time to come back to his alma mater and present his first book, “The People Changing Bulgaria,” Nov. 20 at Panitza Library.
A collection of 30 stories of remarkable present-day Bulgarians that comes 30 years after the collapse of the communist regime, the book aims to offer “a more positive, inspiring, constructive take on the situation in Bulgaria and provide a nuanced illustration on what is happening here,” Penev said.
To say that Daniel Penev is himself a person who is changing Bulgaria would not be an overstatement. At 26, he is a translator, marketing content specialist and freelance journalist who wrote for many Bulgarian and international media platforms, including BBC Knowledge, EurActiv.com and Balkan Insight. Upon graduating from AUBG, he has traveled the world to enrich his educational and professional background.
Many of the people featured in the book have themselves spent a substantial time abroad before deciding to come back to Bulgaria. They now live in big and small places in the country and work in a variety of sectors such as business, NGO, media, culture, sport and education. What unites them all is that “they all have some form of social engagement, a form of giving back to society,” Penev said.
“Thank you for having us back home,” Popkostadinova, who graduated with a major in Journalism and Mass Communication and a minor in History at AUBG, said. “AUBG is one of the very few places that I can very easily call home.” Popkostadinova is the person behind Loveguide, a platform hit among Bulgaria’s teenagers that talks about sex and relationships with openness, honesty, and positivity.
With years of journalistic experience writing for some of Europe’s most respected media outlets, Popkostadinova says she has always felt passionate about human rights. “And safe and satisfying sex is listed as one of the basic human rights,” she said. “When I came back home to Bulgaria after one of my very long adventures abroad, I looked at the education in Bulgaria and, most specifically, at the lack of sexual education at schools. I saw that even though Bulgaria was already in the EU, our statistics were closer to India and Pakistan rather than to the Netherlands, Germany or any other EU country.” The alarming statistics included a high number of teenage pregnancies, STDs and cases of sexual assault.
Popkostadinova saw the roots of the problem in the lack of sexual education at schools, combined with the fact that the topic is usually a taboo at home as well. She began solving the problem by starting a website with 300 short posts on topics such as safety online, recognizing sexual assault, changes in puberty, avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, and relationships.
At the end of 2016, Popkostadinova also launched the Loveguide YouTube channel that now has more than 40,000 subscribers and 6,000,000 views. The channel releases six new videos every month that feature popular Bulgarian actress Vesela Babinova who talks on topics ranging from sexual health to relationship advice and support for the LGBT community.
Most recently, the team of Loveguide has been working on launching an app where teenagers can find the answers to more than 200 frequently asked questions, can have a live chat with a specialist and can access a database of gynecologists, urologists, dermatologists, psychologists and psychotherapists.
Like her fellow alumna, Sophie Yotova also brings positive change to society through her work. She is the founder of culinary blog Foodie Boulevard, the author of the book “Delicious With a Smile: 123 Culinary Adventures,” an ambassador of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution initiative and an eating psychology coach certified by The Institute for the Psychology of Eating in Colorado, USA.
The Journalism and Mass Communication and Business Administration alumna says the goal of Foodie Boulevard is to “empower today’s busy people to embrace home cooking and inspire them to prepare delicious and nutritious meals quickly, stress free and on a budget.”
With more than 26,000 fans on Facebook and 10,000 followers on Instagram, Foodie Boulevard has helped a number of people embrace their relationship with food and improve their health.
However, food has not always been Yotova’s friend. “I struggled with a paralyzing eating disorder for a decade,” she said. “At a certain point you realize that when you have some challenges you can either overcome them or let them control your life. I decided to take my control back.”
All three alumni agree that AUBG played an important role in the success of their ventures.
“AUBG shaped my thinking,” Yotova, who was recently named one of Forbes Bulgaria's 30 Under 30 in the social entrepreneurship category, said. “It taught me how to learn. It taught me how to be curious beyond judgement.”
“It taught me to be resourceful and respect a deadline and that there is always a way,” Popkostadinova said. “And that you should try and try again, and analyze and calibrate everything that you do and at the end, most often, you will get there.”
“In terms of writing and in terms of interviewing and any kind of skill related to media and journalism, that’s what I got from AUBG and nowhere else,” Penev said. “I had really good professors, most of them from the U.S. and with extensive experience with journalism in the U.S. Inspiration, ideas, just the environment at AUBG was very nourishing so I am grateful that I got the chance to study here with an America for Bulgaria full scholarship. And I am really proud that three of the stories in the book feature people that have studied at AUBG.”
The third story is that of Telerik founders Svetozar Georgiev (‘00), Vassil Terziev (‘01), Boyko Yaramov (‘00) and Hristo Kosev who sold their company Telerik for $263 million to Progress Software, one of the most successful exits of a Bulgarian company in the past 30 years. They are also the people behind Telerik Academy and Campus X – two projects that are a big part of the reason for Bulgaria’s international success in the IT industry.
“The People Changing Bulgaria” also features, among others, Viber's Business Development Manager for Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the creator of the most famous Bulgarian site for video tutorials and tests for students, the person behind the largest media for positive news in Bulgaria, the most successful Bulgarian circus artist and equilibrist, an ultramarathon runner who runs in support of various causes and one of Bulgaria's favorite vloggers.
“There are many generous, kind, educated people here in Bulgaria and they decided consciously to stay here rather than leave,” Penev said. “And instead of complaining all the time or looking for excuses not to do something they just try to provide some kind of solution step by step. The purpose of the book is not to say that everything in Bulgaria is perfect and that we have no problems, it is to show that the solution and the social change is our responsibility and it is actually a never-ending process, a marathon and not a sprint.”
Nowadays, there are many opportunities to explore the best practices abroad and bring them to Bulgaria.
“The people in the book, while they are inspiring they are also very practical,” Penev said. “They now see Bulgaria and the region as a place where we have problems and challenges but also the space for solutions.”
Penev said that the book changed him as well.
“The process of interviewing all these people was like a therapy for me,” he said. “It is both humbling and inspiring seeing people who have done a lot in their area and continuing to do great things. And you see how humble and how generous they are both in terms of their time but also in terms of how invested they were with my idea.”
Penev said that while he narrowed the stories down to 30 as a nod to the 30 years of transition to democracy in Bulgaria, his list is much longer. He already has ideas on how to continue the project and is considering translating the book to English.
“I would absolutely want to distribute the book in my class,” said Professor Ronald Harvey, who helped establish the Psychology major at AUBG. “Because it might be one that can change the world.”