Professor Evelina Van Mensel: ‘My heart really goes with AUBG’
Professor Evelina Van Mensel is going to teach Marketing Research and Social Entrepreneurship at AUBG next semester. She got her Bachelor’s degree from Portsmouth University, which is where she first got interested in Mystery Shopping. Following her graduation, she has both managed her own business and has established and led the business of a major global marketing research provider. Professor Van Mensel obtained an Executive MBA degree from AUBG in Sofia, and has now joined the university as a faculty member. Read our interview with Professor Van Mensel to learn more about her extensive experience in marketing research, why she feels so strongly for AUBG and what she enjoys doing in her spare time.
What are the three most intriguing things the AUBG faculty, students and staff should know about you?
The three things I hope that the AUBG community knows about me is that I am very passionate and devoted to the university. My heart really goes with AUBG and I keep coming back in all forms as a student, as faculty, as a participant in different events. Everything that has to do with the University gives me great pleasure. Another thing is that I have a great passion for Social Entrepreneurship – something that started from my AUBG studies, and because I am not really [a social entrepreneur], I try to do everything to promote the concept and I just started my PhD on the topic. So, probably that’s also linked with something the community should know and that's very important for me. The topic of my dissertation will be ‘Developing a Model of Implementing Social Entrepreneurship in Business Organizations.’ Hence, I would like to reach out to the community, to both social entrepreneurs and to representatives of business, to contact me for my research so we can work together on a model, which would be very important and hopefully can solve some important social issues.
What is the adjective that best describes your personality and why?
The adjective that best describes me would be passionate as I really burn in everything I do, especially in those things that I take to heart.
When did you first become interested in Social Entrepreneurship and Marketing Research?
In both topics - during my university studies. First, during my Bachelor studies, I got acquainted with Marketing Research. Back in 2006 I was graduating from Portsmouth University and we had a project on Mystery Shopping. I was so fascinated with this type of research which really helps companies improve customer service that I decided to start my own company. So, I founded one of the first specialized mystery shopping agencies in Bulgaria. I started right off university. And, ever since then I’ve been working in the Marketing Research sphere – mostly in mystery shopping, but also in other services. My company became part of the biggest global mystery shopping provider and for some years, I was managing the Center of Excellence of Operations here, in Sofia. Then, going to the Executive MBA at the American University in Bulgaria is where I actually heard about Social Entrepreneurship. That was already five years ago and ever since I’ve been looking into ways to start switching from purely business and Marketing Research more into Social Entrepreneurship, teaching Social Entrepreneurship, promoting Social Entrepreneurship. We even had a university club with my cohort and we run a few events on popularizing this topic, together with a project on coaching high school teachers. So, the university definitely shaped my business future. It all started there.
Tell us a bit more about your EMBA experience and winning the Outstanding Academic Achievement Award.
That was such an emotional moment. The Executive MBA was one of the best decisions I’ve had in my life because in my professional life, I was managing people for years, but didn’t really have the Master’s degree. So, I was looking for a program at a really high level, for people who already hold managerial positions. And, this was the best fit I could find. It was also here on the market. That’s why I chose this program and what it gave me was so much more – a broadening of the horizon. For me, it was mostly the topics we covered in Leadership, Business and Society, and Social Entrepreneurship that really switched my perspective from purely business, running a business, managing people, to how we are all responsible leaders -- each and every one of us -- and that change is in our hands. I felt so powerful and this is something so precious that the program gave me. So, apart from giving me this holistic practical view on business, as a business person now I also have the academic background to be even better at my job. The EMBA also gets you in a room with a group of like-minded people who have the same challenges like you do. During the studies, we would work in groups constantly and we would share with each other our own experiences, we would help each other and to this day, we are very close friends and we get together often. And those are very valuable contacts, I think, the most valuable in my life so far. This is the point where I fell in love with this university – those studies. And especially when I first saw Burlesque by the Broadway Performance Club on campus, so mesmerizing!
About the award, I didn’t know much about it. One day we had classes in Human Resources with Professor Miree and she just came up with this certificate and said, ‘This award for Outstanding Academic Achievement was unanimously granted to Eva.’ I will always remember this moment. I was so honored by the fact that all faculty would just choose me and then she would explain why – because of all my devotion to the program, to the academic progress of the program and also for helping my colleagues with organizing the work. It was also from my colleagues, a very important recognition for me. And, then, I had to be on stage to receive it from Professor Miree and that was very special for me. It’s a day I will always remember. And, now, this year, I get to be on the other side with all the faculty sitting with their robes on stage. It is going to be very emotional for me.
What was your first work position? How has your career developed since then?
Shortly before graduating, there were a few things that were going on. I was pregnant and I had started my own company with a Croatian partner that I found because I thought I can’t start Mystery Shopping Business without knowing anything, without having a software. So, I found this partner. She gave me the know-how. She gave me my first clients. I was in class actually when my first big client called me by reference from my partner and we had this very elaborate conversation where I acted as if I was in business for years and we were agreeing on terms already. It was very funny because I was in class and I had to go out. I was so young that I didn’t have a clue and eventually we would sign the contract here, in Sofia, at Mc Donalds near NDK because she didn’t have an office here and neither did I. I really cherish this memory and my first client to this very day.
Basically, I have been my own boss since then and I haven’t really had to apply for jobs or anything like that. Hence, I’m not the best career consultant, like how to perfectly design your CV or anything, because in my life someone would always call me to do something. My first client called me. Then, my future boss called me and asked if I would be interested in becoming part of their big group and running the Operations Center in Sofia. And, then Professor Rossen Petkov called me and said, "Would you be interested in teaching Marketing Research?" So, I’ve been very blessed in this regard. However, I did some things so I can ensure I will be top of mind for people, like always striving for excellence in my work, going the extra mile and providing even more value than was asked, being a part of major international organizations and taking great care of my clients, partners, colleagues, employees. I believe all my efforts and my life-long learning attitude have helped me tremendously in having my biggest dreams come true. And, maybe, also the firm belief in the Law of Attraction has played a crucial role.
You have an extensive marketing research background of 15 years, in which you have managed both your own business and have established and led the business of a major global marketing research provider. How has your career prepared you for teaching?
Tremendously, actually, because I bring all this practical experience that students need in the classroom. In my classes, I would constantly give examples of my work as there are so many - I have had my own business, I have managed someone else’s business, I have the whole 360 view on the pluses and minuses of both. Sometimes people come out of university like I did and they are thinking, ''I want to start my own business. This is so great. This is awesome, I get to be my own boss.'' But then I talk to them about all the sleepless nights I’ve had because I didn’t have a single project but I still had to pay people. It’s this type of holistic view on things I have that really makes me valuable for my students. The only thing I still need to work on is my academic research, which is now underway. So, once I also have this, I can be a full-time professor at the university, which is eventually my goal that I am striving for. Then I believe I will be able to bring the highest value possible to the classroom.
Why did you decide to become a professor and what led you to AUBG?
Apart from my passion for the university, I also worked on selling our post-graduate program – the Executive MBA. So, for a year, I helped with that only to be able to be back at the university in some form because you graduate and then it’s all over. For me, I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted to come back at some point. I’ve never thought I would start teaching, actually, until Professor Petkov called me. I really think he is the one to take the credit and I am so grateful for that. We’ve also been discussing Social Entrepreneurship, ‘Hey, we should do this course. It’s going to be very beneficial for students. This course is not only trendy, but it can really change their lives. And, then, they can change the lives of other people.” Then this opportunity came for Fall Semester, this course that we are going to do together with the Open Society University Network, with 12 other universities simultaneously, and it’s just going to be amazing. It’s like a dream come true for me.
What are some of your teaching and research interests?
What I definitely plan to do and want to do in terms of teaching is Social Entrepreneurship. That gives me the most passion in terms of teaching. Marketing Research, of course, is the sphere in which I have the most experience. And, regarding research, what I plan to do is work more on establishing, mapping those social entrepreneurs here in Bulgaria and the region. Then linking them to business organizations and looking for successful models for converging the two. Money lies in business, whereas the social goal lies in social entrepreneurs. So, my dream is to find a way to link these two, get them to work together in such a way so that they can have more impact in solving social problems. Because social entrepreneurs can’t really scale as much as normal entrepreneurs because then the social cause will be damaged. So, it’s a very fine dance – a marriage between the intention of the entrepreneur and the drive of the social entrepreneur, as my inspirer from a case on SE during the EMBA would often say. These dilemmas are something I’m going to work on in the next few years.
How can you describe your typical workday at AUBG?
I would wake up early in the morning. I would drop off the little one at kindergarten and then I would start travelling with my car to Blagoevgrad or sometimes we would share the ride. Mostly, we would share the ride with few professors so that it would be even more fun on the way. And, when we get there, I would always go for a cappuccino in the Main Building of AUBG, get settled, play some music. Then, people would start coming in and we would engage in some casual discussions. After that class would start and if I travel, we try to do both of my classes in one day. We would have a break. I would hold some office hours. And, then, in the afternoon, another class. Once everything is done, I jump in the car and come back to Sofia. So, it’s a commute for me. But it would be typically one day of the week doing that. The rest of the days involve a lot of communication with students mostly via email – I try to be in touch with them constantly. I am very responsive to them, I really try to help immediately so that they don’t have to wait for me. And I spend a lot of time thinking of designing the best fit for them in terms of teaching and in terms of projects and assessment. A lot of my working time is devoted to thinking of ways to make my classes the most beneficial so that my students can learn the most important part of the theory and also practice it at the same time.
What professional moments and students achievements make you feel accomplished?
Seeing every time that something clicks in students’ heads and they understand what we are talking about. When I ask a question and someone answers in a way where you can say ‘They got it. It’s clear.’ That’s so nice. That gives me huge joy. When they would talk to me about some job interview or a position they were offered. Or even just someone picking Marketing Research after my course, I’m super happy, even though I warn them about all the drawbacks of the industry. And, then, when someone comes in and says ‘that’s very interesting – Social Entrepreneurship. I really want to take this course next semester.’ It makes me hugely happy that I’ve managed to inspire someone like my professors have managed to inspire me about this topic.
What do you like doing in your free time?
What a good question because free time is becoming such a thin layer lately! But I definitely must find time to do yoga. This keeps me sane, especially nowadays and in times of pandemic, yoga really helps. I have two daughters and I have a brown Labrador so it’s great when we have time to go out and play or travel. I miss travelling so much. Even coming to Blagoevgrad nowadays seems like such a huge event to me because of the lack of travelling recently. Those are some things I love to do in my spare time. I am also a huge cinema fan. If I could, I would just spend the days in the cinema watching movie after movie.