Kevin Aspegren is a seasoned professional with international experience both in academia, as well as in business, as a consultant and a private investor. It was particularly exciting for our local eco-system to find out that earlier last year, he was appointed as the new President of the American University in Bulgaria. During the last year or so, we’ve seen some impressive efforts to engage the students with the Bulgarian start-up scene, with cross-projects with the venture fund Eleven, internship opportunities for students within Launchub, as well as StartUp weekends organised in Blagoevgrad.
It is also notable to mention the current efforts of the American University to incorporate an academic entrepreneurship program within its curriculum, giving students, for the first time in its history, the opportunity to prepare for a life of an entrepreneur. So it comes as no surprise that the board choose an experienced mogul as the head of its institution, and we are more than happy for the opportunity to sit down and have a chat. We talked about the future of the start-up scene in Bulgaria and whether an entrepreneur is born or fostered through education.
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Could you please introduce yourself and what are you currently involved with?
Kevin: My name is Kevin Aspegren. I am currently the President of the American University in Bulgaria.
Could you tell us a bit more about your entrepreneurial story?
Kevin: I spent 3 years in banking and then left to found a start-up. It was a management consulting company. We grew it a little bit and I sold it after 14 months to a law firm. Within two weeks I started another company in the same field, management consulting. Instead of law firms, I was now working with corporate: 2000 tech companies in the US. After 10 months, I sold that company and was required to move to Washington D.C. to make sure that I can incorporate my company in the larger company that acquired me. After a year, I left to start another company, again in management consulting. Within 8 months we had 49 employees and were doing 12 million dollars a year. I was approached by an individual, who wanted to create a bigger company, he had 20 million dollars in venture capital, so we merged my company with his.
“We created a company that we grew really rapidly to 900 employees and half a billion dollars in revenue and we took it public in 1998. I retired in late 1999.”
I was thinking what to do next with my life, so I got into venture capital. Raised around 65 million dollars and did some tech investing for around 2 years. Then I started doing private equity for franchising. Now we have around 350 million dollar portfolio, franchises consist of over 200 unique stores and has a valuation of 2 billion dollars and I hold the majority of the holding company, but I have not been involved with it for a long time, because I have no interest. My passion for the past 14 years was racing my bicycle and being involved in higher education. This is what my wife and I really enjoy doing.
What is your general opinion of the startup ecosystem in Bulgaria?
Kevin: It’s new. It’s young. Components of an ecosystem are in place. It is not fully functioning yet. And you know there will not be an ecosystem until you have all the pieces working simultaneously. Universities are lacking from the ecosystem. There is a non existent capital continuum. I know there are some VC funds in Sofia, but it is not pure institutional Series A funds that really acknowledge and understand what a term sheet is. There is a lot of good investors. There are a lot of EU funds. It has time, it will get there.
Prior to AUBG you have spent a couple years in Hungary?
Kevin: 11 years.
Could you compare the two ecosystems? (Bulgarian and Hungarian)
Kevin: There are far fewer innovation centers here in Bulgaria. There is no university led tech transfer movement. There are no big science parks. But really, the university led entrepreneurship is just missing altogether. In some universities there are little pockets of entrepreneurial activity. But again, you don’t have a sophisticated curriculum, the entrepreneurship majors, minors, there are no entrepreneurship models.
“It is tough to have a vibrant ecosystem, if the education isn’t producing the mindset.”
Students have to find their own way, so when they get smacked up the industry it is a harsh reality.
What do you think is more important, to study about entrepreneurship in university or to start a company while in or after university?
Kevin: One, I believe that university should play a role in entrepreneurial education. It is absolutely critical. Entrepreneurship is a valid career option to study alongside Business, Journalism or Literature. Top universities in the world all have entrepreneurship programs and look at the success they had with student entrepreneurs. Should a student start a company right after university, sure, why not?
After spending 3 or 4 years in university, studying about business or entrepreneurship, what would be a better option for a student to go into corporate for a couple of years or to start a business?
Kevin: Everybody is different. You know, starting a business is a lot of hard, hard, hard work. If the timing is right for someone and they think that they have the capital they need, then go for it. Every path is different. I never thought that I would be an entrepreneur.
“When I was in university, I never thought about starting a business, even though that’s what I did.”
I started a landscaping company because I had to pay my tuition. All of a sudden, I had these “employees”, so after my junior year I was going to make an internship in Atlanta, Georgia. All my employees asked me what am I going to do with the company? One of my competitors offered me to buy my company. I looked at the check and had a heart attack. Took it. Paid back my parents every single penny for the money they put into my education. Paid off the rest of my education, put the rest of the money in the bank. Came back from the internship much smarter and thought, “Hmmm… I can do this again.” Then I built another similar venture, sold it. And went to work full-time. Because I didn’t know what I was doing. I had the knowledge I needed from school for my first business. When I left banking to start my first big firm, I had problems, because they don’t teach you things like cash-flows in school.
Returning to the idea that you plan to raise an entrepreneurial spirit in universities, what do you plan to do at the American University in Bulgaria?
Kevin: First of all, create a center for Entrepreneurship and have a curriculum for this. We already have clubs, organizations and extra-curricular activities. We will structure that a bit more. We will do research with other universities, companies, Venture Capital funds, we want to build this network of support and do things in the community as well. Then have physical space which can be the “Hatchery” or the “Idea Lab”, where students can have some space to focus on their entity or idea. What did I just describe? I described an ecosystem. This is what Sofia is going to take a long time to figure out, because you have all of these separate entities doing things, but they are competing. We need someone to facilitate the ecosystem.
Any final thoughts for the readers on startups.bg?
Kevin: Universities are the easiest way to develop this entrepreneurship mindset, to build out and contribute to the creation of the ecosystem. I look forward to see this coming to life in the upcoming years. I think it is great for students, great for companies, great for Sofia, great for Bulgaria, great for the Balkans, we begin to do this and the EU is going to take notice.
From the author: Special thanks to Vlad Muntean for conducting the interview!