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Milena Stoycheva, CEO of JA Bulgaria Milena Stoycheva, CEO of JA Bulgaria

Milena Stoycheva, CEO of JA Bulgaria, on the importance of teaching entrepreneurship to young people

There is no prospering society with potential for development if there are no entrepreneurs: this truth is so simple, that it is easy to miss it. In the years since the fall of Communism, Bulgaria has been on a bumpy road towards democracy, open market and ultimately, prosperity – and it needs open, active entrepreneurs to achieve their dreams and to build a better society for all. Thankfully, there is an organisation that has been continuously fighting and working to promote entrepreneurship to young Bulgarians. Junior Achievement Bulgaria, an NGO, is dedicated to teaching entrepreneurship, to developing the educational system and to promoting educational policies that will turn local youth into adults who are active, responsible, and ready to experiment and to succeed.

Listing the many achievements, programmes, initiatives of Junior Achievement Bulgaria since its foundation in 1997, would take dozens of pages. The organisation's CEO, Milena Stoycheva, recapitulates the most important achievements of JA and its future ambitions.

How did the environment in Bulgaria towards entrepreneurship changed in the past 20 years?

Bulgaria experienced a significant transformation in the perception of entrepreneurship and also in the realisation of entrepreneurial efforts. For me, this is something that I can attribute a lot to the work of the JA. Sometimes it is not so evident for outsiders, but we worked very conscientiously, very strategically, in a step-by-step model, in teaching young people entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is something extremely important for society. When we started 20 years ago people thought that we were crazy. When I would mention the word "entrepreneurship" people would look puzzled, or would think that I was crazy. I am still a crazy dreamer. But when we look at the results of our work, we have managed to introduce technology and entrepreneurship as a new subject area in the educational system. We have opened the doors for opportunities to students to grow with entrepreneurial thinking and behaviour, and to project themselves in the future as entrepreneurs, to choose that career path.

What are the key achievements of JA in Bulgaria in the past 20 years?

JA's achievements are in three directions. One is directed to the educational content. We have introduced innovative content around three major topic areas and recently we have been transforming the way we teach, introducing blended learning approach to the delivery of the educational programme.

The second area of our achievements is related to working with teachers. We create opportunities for them to perceive themselves as entrepreneurs, but also to be themselves and to experiment, to be innovative in the ways they teach. We aim to build in them confidence that they are contemporary teachers and are able to convey this new knowledge to the students.

The third area was related to working on policy level. The way school is organised, the expectations from the learning and the process of learning for both teachers and students. We partnered with key institutions in Bulgaria, but also internationally, to try to position some of the new competences and skills in the educational system, creating a new environment for learning and also positioning education as a top critical skill of the new generation.

What should be the next step in teaching entrepreneurship to become a priority just like in a number of more developed economies like Denmark, Germany, Israel, the US and others?

The time has come for us introduce a new model of public-private partnership in the field of education and entrepreneurship. I think that we – every organisation, institution, and company, as well as individuals – have a role and a place in this puzzle. For JA, what we would like to do, is to become the unifying effort, the organisation, which will support the establishment and operation of an Entrepreneurship Education Hub. This will involve participation of several state institutions, like the Ministries of Education, Science, Economy, Finance, as well as some other key stakeholders, including some of our previous business partners, teachers, municipalities. The regions and the municipalities are paying an increased attention to education, as they recognise its role for the development of local economy.

By establishing this Entrepreneurship Education Hub, we would like to position education as a key value and asset for Bulgarian economy, but also entrepreneurship as a way of behaviour in the smaller and bigger companies and organisations, in the way we run our lives.

There are similar models in other countries, for example in Scandinavia. This is already a good, working model, a best practice. We have been collaborating on it with our colleagues from Norway and Denmark. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We instead learn from a proven best practice that has been working successfully for the past 5-6 years. And we see, after some research, discussions and interviews in our environment and with our colleagues from Denmark, that this could be a great feat for the Bulgarian environment and society. We will customise the model, of course, but generally we follow the example of Denmark.

For 20 years, you had to overcome a number of obstacles in front of JA's mission. What motivates you to keep going? Have something changed in you?

I am motivated by the very real impact JA's activities and policies have on young people. I see the smiles on their faces, and the light in their eyes. This is the most important thing for me, that we, as human beings, find a meaning in what we do and promote these values.

Education is of tremendous value, as it opens the eyes of people, it provides freedom for all of us as human beings to perceive ourselves as capable to run our own lives. JA has given me both the opportunity and the challenge to try to work in the fields of entrepreneurship and education, even though quite a lot of times it was very hard. I had to go against the mainstream while remaining an irrevocable optimist in what I do. But this is part of the way I am, part of my nature. It has been a real joy to assert and work in this manner.

I don't think I have actually changed my values. I probably became more vigilant and resistant to negative attitude, and developed a higher drive to prove that good things really have place in our lives.

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