NANCY SCHILLER, AMERICA FOR BULGARIA FOUNDATION

interview by Anthony Georgieff; photography by Dragomir Ushev

The America for Bulgaria Foundation marks its 15th anniversary this year

nancy schiller director ABF.jpg

It has funded over 1,000 projects in all corners of Bulgaria and has reached thousands of people. It provides support to local partners in many areas: from encouraging private enterprise to building democratic institutions and fostering tourism. Nancy Schiller has been the president and CEO of the ABF for the past seven years, and my first question to her as we sit in the beautifully restored ABF office, a fine example of early 20th century architecture in central Sofia, is to briefly describe how ABF started and where it is heading.

The challenging word is "briefly"... The America for Bulgaria Foundation exists because of the success of the Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund, created in 1991. The Fund’s mission was to support Bulgaria’s first entrepreneurs. Because there had been no private initiative before that time, we had quite a job ahead of us. Over the course of several years, we figured out the right formula. Out of the 10 enterprise funds that were similar to ours, the Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund was the most successful, outperforming Poland, Romania, and Hungary – the best. This was due to the American and Bulgarian experts working hand-in-hand to create and encourage Bulgarian businesses. The Fund’s success is something Bulgarians as well as Americans should be proud of.

As a result of the financial success, the directors decided to continue the impact but in a different way, by establishing a foundation. The proceeds of the Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund endowed the America for Bulgaria Foundation with a mission to strengthen Bulgaria’s private sector and related democratic institutions. However, instead of investing equity or providing loans, we are now giving grants to organizations that help build tourism, education, technology, entrepreneurship and so on.

In Muzeiko, Sofia, 2016 © Anthony Georgieff

Can you name a few of the major accomplishments of the ABF during your tenure?

Many of the things that were accomplished started well before I took on the role of President, so I have to acknowledge the vision of the board and management. I think the most visible success would be the physical projects that we do. The Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis was a seven-year project to uncover, restore, and display 20,000 square feet of Bulgaria’s 4th-6th century magnificent Roman mosaics to attract more tourists and international recognition for the country. The fact that the Basilica is already on the UNESCO tentative list of World Cultural Heritage indicates it is a significant accomplishment. To have had a role in this project was a privilege and very fulfilling.

Also visible are ABF’s Schools of the Future program. We helped with the refurbishment of 80 high schools and elementary schools to upgrade the computer, biology and chemistry labs, and performance spaces. In doing so, the ABF helped pave the way for introducing an interdisciplinary, hands-on approach to education in Bulgaria. Also important is that the model the ABF created was adopted by the Ministry of Education and then expanded to hundreds of schools all around the country. So, that's something visible that everyone can see as an impact of ABF’s activities.

Muzeiko is a wonderful manifestation of our work. It is a STEM children’s museum in Sofia designed in the American model of hands-on learning. Earlier this year we donated Muzeiko to Sofia Municipality to serve as a teacher training center in STEM education. Muzeiko which attracts more than 100,000 children a year, will also continue as a children’s museum. It is the first and largest museum of its kind in the Balkans and a project we are rightly proud of.

The refurbishment of the children’s wards at Pirogov Emergency Hospital in Sofia was a very meaningful project because it impacted people when they are at their most vulnerable and most in need. The idea for the project resulted from a casual conversation where I learned that a staff member had a health crisis with one of his children and had to bring the child to Pirogov. I asked, “What was that like?” and he said that not only had he been frightened that his child was unwell, but also going through the reception area was a very intimidating experience for the child. So, we started thinking if there was a way for ABF to help. And we decided that maybe we could refurbish and renovate the reception area. It was a small space, about 1,000 square feet, and began as a philanthropic initiative. But when we reached out to our partners and friends, the generosity of Bulgarians came through. What began as a small project quickly turned into a 65-room, over 20,000-square-feet, three-floor complete refurbishment of the children’s wards. It was transformational. Not only did our effort help young people recuperate better, but it also made the Pirogov doctors and nurses realize their work was valued because so many people wanted to donate. The Pirogov project combined with our efforts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic helped us launch a new area of work: health care.

At the inauguration ceremony of the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis, 2021 © Anthony Georgieff

There has been no doubt that during all those years there have been challenges as well.

Of course. Probably top of the list is the lack of understanding of what the America for Bulgaria Foundation does. Sometimes it is because we cannot reach a broad audience to explain what we are doing and why we are doing it. Other times it is because certain media might misunderstand or misrepresent what we do. It can be challenging because it casts doubts in people’s minds about our activities.

We have made it very clear that we do not support politicians, we do not support political parties, and we do not support protests. ABF’s mission is to further develop Bulgaria’s private sector, and that is our focus.

In what way has Bulgaria changed since you have known it?

I think the growth of the entrepreneurial spirit is profound. Young people’s embrace of technology, a crucial tool for growing business, is huge. The number of young people coming back to Bulgaria or staying in Bulgaria is increasing. One of the recent studies I came across showed that the willingness to accept failure has grown. I know it sounds contrary to logic, but an entrepreneur’s willingness to accept failure creates an attitude to keep trying. You don’t have to quit if you don’t succeed on your first attempt. This attitude is key to the success of well-known innovators globally.

In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently?

The founding directors laid a solid groundwork to encourage experimentation, to try different approaches, and to reach different sectors of the economy. We do not always continue in certain areas, but we always learn from our experiences, and that informs our future projects.

On a more personal note, suppose you have friends visiting from the United States. What three things will you advise them to do at all costs while they are here?

I will tell them that anywhere you go in this country, you will find something surprising, magical and rewarding. I have visitors coming this summer, and we will go to the Belogradchik Rocks because it is fabulous and otherworldly, and we will attend the open-air opera. Where else can you experience a first-class performance in such a spectacular setting! We will bicycle along the Danube, following part of the Dunav Ultra route. The Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis is a must, and we enjoy taking friends to Staro Zhelezare – the graffiti village near Plovdiv. The Devetaki Plateau offers many natural wonders and hiking around a waterfall or in a cave. I have travelled all around the country, and I have never been disappointed. Bulgarians are warm, friendly, and eager to share their history. The food is wonderful, and anyone who knows me is familiar with my passion for lyutenitsa. We share a 15th anniversary with the Kurtovo Konare Lyutenitsa Fest. The ABF is supporting the September festival, and I’ll be there to stock up on this homemade delight.

I could go on, but the most important thing is for people to go out and explore, and be open to new experiences.

And what would you advise them to be careful about?

Be careful about staying too long because you might not want to leave.

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