Since they moved to Bulgaria nearly four years ago, 5,000 miles have separated Nancy and Victor Schiller from their former home in Charlottesville. But some of their work in their adopted country looks remarkably similar to what they did as volunteers with the local Community Investment Collaborative. Through the America for Bulgaria Foundation, the couple has transplanted key ideas from the CIC to a new and very different setting.
At the CIC, where the couple served various roles including mentor and board member, the Schillers felt they were witnessing truly effective programs. The CIC offers entrepreneurship workshops, mentoring, financing, and co-working space. “This was really changing people’s lives profoundly for the good,” says Victor, remembering the fledgling companies that got their start through the CIC. “These were real businesses that would build up, continue, and sustain.”
The Schillers had long been part of the business world. Victor worked in high-tech entrepreneurship in the U.S., while Nancy had worked with the Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund Bulgaria since shortly after the fall of communism. When they relocated in 2016 and Nancy became the CEO of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, they brought their professional experience as well as their belief that the CIC offered viable models for small-business development.
“When we looked at what was going on in Bulgaria, particularly in small communities, there was such a need for this kind of training,” says Nancy. “The program we adapted and adopted here in Bulgaria, it’s very comparable; the businesses are almost mirror images of what’s done in Charlottesville.”
Through the Foundation, which was established in 2009 with a $400 million endowment, aspiring entrepreneurs in eight Bulgarian communities enter a 13-week training course, build a community with other businesspeople and mentors, and gain access to financing.
“Eighty-five percent are women,” explains Nancy, “because we work in smaller communities where the men do mining and metal work and things like that. The women are mostly homebound, and they’re looking to start businesses”—ranging from bakeries to small hotels to tech companies. “They have great ideas and skills; they just need to understand how the finances work.”
Although the legacy of communism in Eastern Europe, as well as legal differences country to country, have meant that CIC-style programs need some adaptation for the new location, the Schillers see the same dynamics among Bulgarian clients and volunteers that they remember from their Charlottesville days. “It’s the community-driven aspect that makes it really click, in Charlottesville and here,” says Victor. “Everybody realizes it’s transformational for individuals and families; that’s why people stay excited.”
Adds Nancy, “Business is business no matter where you are.”