Stefan Ivanov (’95), Who Crossed the Atlantic to Support Donor Transplantation
One hundred and five days at sea and 8230 kilometers from Portugal to Barbados – these are just the statistics behind the spectacular adventure of AUBG alumnus Stefan Ivanov (’95) and his 17-year-old son Maxim. For over three months, people in Bulgaria were closely following the Neverest Ocean Row of Stefan and Max who, without prior experience, set out to cross the Atlantic on a self-made boat. The father and son's trans-Atlantic sailing ended successfully in October and they are now back in Sofia and working to further advance the cause behind their initiative – raising awareness and recruiting donors for the organ transplant program Yes for Life!
“The closest person is in space, and not on land” — that is how Maxim described sailing through the ocean to Radio Free Europe. And while the two were physically alone at sea, many people helped the success of the mission, Stefan said. Among them was his wife, Zhenie Ivanova (’95) – also an AUBG alumna -- who “was doing all the communications, all the worrying, all the planning, the rescuing operations.”
Even beyond the Neverest Ocean Row, Stefan’s life could be described as an adventure. After completing his MBA at the prestigious Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management, he began trading derivates first with the New York Stock Exchange and then with bank Paribas. After that, he got “an offer he could not refuse.” Citibank invited him to their global emerging markets management associate program, which meant that he would study banking and work in countries like Tunisia, Brazil, South Korea, and the UK. In 2001, he was appointed Chief of Staff for CEO of Citibank in Brazil, where he spent five years, before coming back to Sofia as the CEO of Citibank’s Bulgarian branch.
After 13 years with the bank, Stefan changed the course again to become an entrepreneur, co-founding the investment banking boutique Challenger Capital Management. Read our interview with him to learn more about his sailing adventure, his exciting career in finance, his cause in support of donor transplantation, and his connection to AUBG.
How did you first come up with the idea to sail the Atlantic?
Actually, this was an idea of my son. It was a challenge of my son. He likes doing extreme things and he knows that I like doing extreme things. So, one night he said, “Daddy, one day we’re going to cross the Atlantic in a rowing boat!” And, we didn’t know whether this was possible. So, we looked up and we saw that other people had done it and we decided to do this together. We decided to build our boat in our garage and to try to do it with my son.
What were the challenges that you faced? And were there moments when you thought that you have to give up and come back?
Well, the first challenge was to build a boat that was going to withstand the perils of the ocean. We didn’t know where to start. We needed to build a boat that was going to be strong enough and that was not going to sink. We found an English designer by the name of Phil Morrison who’s designed most of the Atlantic Ocean rowing boats. And he prepared a design that we could use to build a boat in our garage.
The next challenge was to learn how to row because neither of us is a rower. Then, we needed to learn how to navigate. In the ocean the shortest distance is not always the fastest route because there are currents, there are waves, there are winds that blow in different directions. So, we needed navigators to help us go through the ocean. And we had two navigators: one of them – an ocean rower, and the other one – a captain of commercial ships -- that were helping us navigate. At times, we were almost like in a trap because there was a current on one side, and the hurricane season was approaching. And we were almost unable to go in the direction that we wanted to go for weeks and weeks, actually for more than a month. We were in a bit of a tough spot. But after several tropical storms and one hurricane passed by us, we saw that each storm lasts only for a certain amount of time. And if you are patient, if you are strong enough to go through it, then the nicer weather comes, and then you can carry on in the direction that you wanted to go.
We had lots of conversations with my son during those days. We were talking about what kind of profession he could have, whether he could, maybe, do a startup or join a big company. And, we were thinking that no matter what you do, you’re going to have storms in your life. In a small company, in a big company, there would be times when you would be going backward like we were going backward for miles and miles driven by the currents and the winds. But, then, after a while, you get your bettings, you make a turn, and then you go back to the direction that you want to go.
What other lessons did you learn during this journey, lessons that you can apply in life?
Well, the first lesson, I think, was that you don’t need to invent everything. You can consult with the experts in each field. We were not designers of boats, we were not shipbuilders, we were not rowers, we have not sailed in the ocean ever before. So we were reaching out to people that were giving us hints, that were giving us advice, that were giving us help.
Nonetheless, if you have a big, almost insurmountable challenge or goal, you get a lot of help. A lot of people come and offer you their hand, their advice. And our team became quite big. We had a team on the ground that was coordinated by my wife and Max’s mom – Zhenie. She was doing all the communications, she was doing all the worrying, she was doing all the planning, the rescuing operations. At one point in time, we were running out of food. So, she had to send a sailboat to bring us some extra food because we were planning to be in the ocean for sixty to ninety days and we ended up being in the water for more than three and a half months. So, you get help. That was another thing that we learned.
You wanted to do this adventure for a good cause and you chose donor transplantation. What needs to be done in Bulgaria so that we improve the situation there?
Even before we started our crossing of the ocean, we wanted to choose a charitable cause in the name of which to do our crossing. We were thinking of different options, but one particular cause was very dear to our hearts. It was a campaign of the Ministry of Health in Bulgaria to recruit more potential organ donors because there’re not enough donors to help with transplantations of patients who need a heart, a lung, a liver, or another vital organ. And we just wanted to help them reach more people, talk to friends of ours to talk about it in the media so that more people would consider deciding to be a donor after they die and to share it with their relatives so that after their death they could potentially save lives.
After we came back from the row we continued our dialogue and work with the Ministry of Health to change the legal system in Bulgaria to be similar to that of more than twenty-eight, twenty-nine countries in Europe where donorship is something that is presumed. Meaning that every citizen, for example, of Spain, of England, of Netherlands, of the Christian countries – also Russia, Greece, Serbia, etc., every citizen is presumed to be a donor unless they register their unwillingness to be a donor before they die or unless their relatives [decide against it]. This is something we are working on with the Ministry right now. Hopefully, this would work out for the better because right now in Bulgaria more than 1100 people are waiting for organs and there are less than 50 transplantations in a year. So, you can imagine, you need to wait on average for 20 years for an organ donorship, a transplantation to happen, which is something that most people cannot afford to do.
You are from the first graduating class of AUBG. What are your memories from the university and how did you develop during your years in AUBG both personally and professionally?
When we were applying to AUBG, this was the first year that the university was having. It was just being inaugurated and it was a bit of a risk whether to go to a new institution or to go and study what we wanted to study – Business Administration – together with my wife at the University of Economics “Karl Marx” at the time [the University of National and World Economy in Sofia]. And, we decided to go to a Western-style university where we could learn how to do marketing and where we could learn economics, etc. It was a very good choice for us. We didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do and the liberal arts education was very suitable in that regard. And after we did four years of studying Business Administration, we did our Master’s degree in the more narrow discipline of Finance. So, I think AUBG prepared us perfectly for such a transition from the more general field into a more specific field later on in our studies.
And beyond the academics, do you still keep in touch and collaborate with other alumni, and in what ways?
Very much so. Some of our best friends continue to be former students from AUBG from our class, from the next class. We continue having our holidays together. With some of them, we do business together. We are very good family friends. I think this environment AUBG provides is very fertile in the sense of developing very close ties with people from different countries, and people who are studying different subjects, not only exactly what you are studying.
After AUBG, you went to Cornell. What was your experience there?
I wanted to study Finance derivatives. I wanted to work on Wall Street. So, I went for an MBA degree and after that went into Derivate Sales. And Cornell was a very good university for that purpose because several professors there are world-renowned in developing derivative pricing models. Two of the professors that developed it were there. There was also an entrepreneurship professor with whom I worked as a teaching assistant [and I helped him] write a book on mergers and acquisitions. It was a university where I could find what I was looking for. And I think this is very important – not to look just for the name or the ranking, but for a university where you could study what you want to study, whatever it is – it could be Journalism, History, Business.
How has your career developed ever since?
I first started working in the big banks in New York, trading derivates, first with the New York Stock Exchange, then with bank Paribas. But at one point Citibank came along with a very interesting offer. They said, “would you like to come and join us in our global emerging markets management associate program?” And, what that meant was that [we] were going to be thrown in different countries, in different branches of Citibank, in different areas of the bank in financial markets with different stages of development to prepare to become general managers at the bank, to know how the bank works, how the financial markets work and how they evolve. And, then, at some point, after we graduate the program, we are going to be given managerial responsibilities in one country for a few years, then in another country on an expatriate track. And this was an offer I could not refuse. It was very interesting to go and study banking and work in a bank in Tunisia, in Brazil, in South Korea, in London, and then back in Brazil until later on I was given the responsibility to manage the branch of Citibank in Bulgaria for four and a half years, which was great – coming back to Bulgaria and still working at the bank.
After so many years working in banks, why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Well, I’d been in Citibank for 13 years and when I was a student at the university I thought I would have maybe two, or three, or four, or five different periods in my life – maybe ten years on average each, and I would work in different companies or different industries, I would do different things. And, I think this would be a better and more interesting way to spend your life than working in the exact same industry or the exact same company over your lifetime. And we are seeing more and more people do that. We are seeing now people who are changing industries, changing functions, not every ten years, maybe every two or three years. Maybe this is a bit too short, but, for me, after 13 years with the bank, I thought I could do the exact same things I was doing in the bank – work on mergers and acquisitions, advisory, organize financing transactions, but do this on my own. Together with a partner of mine, we started an advisory boutique and we are working on large financing transactions, sale of assets and companies and we are choosing our projects. We are choosing our focus and we are managing better our time. With age, I think, you tend to change your priorities. And, one of my priorities has become to spend more time with my wife, with my kids, to spend more time outdoors. This Trans-Atlantic crossing we did would have probably been impossible to do if you are working for a big company and you need to take four or five months off. When you are working for yourself, for your own enterprise, you can manage those priorities better.
You will be the guest speaker at AUBG's Open House Day this year. Why do you find it important to support the university?
Since graduating from university, I was always going back to recruit students. At Citibank, for example, we were recruiting at three different universities and the highest number of people we were having was from AUBG. I’ve been back there to organize programs with Junior Achievement, for example, to do entrepreneurship business plan competitions. And I like staying in touch with the university, seeing how young people are trying to find their way and maybe to give them some hints, some advice. I see that the world is getting more and more competitive and to be a successful graduating student, you need to compete not only with the students from your university but from the market altogether. And you need to have more than good grades under your belt. You need to have some experience, an internship, several internships, maybe start your startup and do something to see how things work. If you have in your CV internships with companies from a tech industry or a banking industry, you are more likely to be recruited in that industry after you graduate. And, when you are compared with other students, you have better chances of getting selected. It’s very, very important what you do right after university. This puts you on a track that is a little bit hard to get away from. I see some of the top companies working in Bulgaria are recruiting AUBGers and this is giving them a chance to develop and change companies and industries. But, the first step, the first job, the first experience out of university is crucial and what you need to do is start preparing way before graduation.