The world is in turmoil. We don’t know how long the pandemic will last. We may have to live with the virus for a long time. The question is how to control it. One way is by collecting more data, conducting more research, which should ultimately lead to finding a vaccine or treatment. We must, of course, continue to keep hygiene and social distancing habits. Every day we ask ourselves the question to what extent to engage in usual activities and to what extent to be careful, to what extent to resume meeting relatives and friends. Many people have lost their jobs. Business is in crisis. I decided to talk to Leona Aslanova – an innovations expert and consultant – about these matters.
Leona, how has isolation affected you? What have you been doing over the last couple of months? Have you reached any conclusions? Is there anything positive in this whole situation after all?
Hello, Lilly, thank you for your interview invitation and the great questions.
This will probably surprise you but not only is my work schedule heavier than before (about five times), but I’m also doing everything else I did before: I‘m working on consultancy projects related to innovations, giving lectures, organizing events (online), plus helping a seventh grader prepare for her National External Evaluations after the Seventh Grade.
If some of my students or our clients at Innovation Starter did not believe before how important innovation is for business survival, now, in this crisis, everyone finally decided to turn to us. At the moment, it is difficult for me to list the number of business model innovation projects, products, services and processes my team and I have worked on over the last 3 months.
How do you protect yourself from the coronavirus? Now that the state of emergency has been discontinued and measures are becoming laxer and laxer, are you going to continue to protect yourself and how?
My family and I have strictly been following the physical distancing recommendations, so we have been at home. We observe even higher hygiene at home and outside the home, we have limited contact with crowded places and try to strengthen our immunity with immunostimulants and diet.
Yes, I think it is important that next year everyone be mindful of precautions and I personally will continue to pay close attention to protecting my family against viral infections.
Other than that, I am crazy about women’s gloves, my favorite accessory, I have 100.
You work in innovations. Could you tell us, in brief and in simple words, what that means?
Innovation is a market product, service or process that improves people’s lives in a quality and long-term way. Such as the washing machine, stove, online banking, emergency medical care or pacemaker and toilet paper.
There an element of invention, although innovations are not always inventions, but the important aspect is the good and the benefit innovation brings.
Because gunpowder, weapons, carbonated sugary drinks are also “inventions”, but do not perform the same “benefits” as the products listed above. This is the difference between innovative and ordinary or harmful products.
You are the founder Innovation Starter, the first specialized innovations agency in Bulgaria. What do you do and who are you beneficial to?
We work with start-up companies as well as with corporate clients and the public sector. We are beneficial as experts, especially when someone is in trouble and knows that something has gone wrong, but does not know what and where.
S/He wants to innovate, to be more fashionable, to offer something in a new, different, competitive way on the Bulgarian market, to have an internal incubator or accelerator of ideas.
Now the crisis has seen our true added value. Especially in formulating crisis strategies and fast, cheap and applicable creative ideas for innovation.
You are also the founder of the Innovations Academy. What kind of people are trained there?
The project is organized for the 7th consecutive year and brings together students from all over the country, as well as Bulgarians who study abroad.
It works like d.school in Stanford, where I was in the summer of 2018 thanks to your support and BEC (the Bulgarian Entrepreneurship Center). This is an outsourced educational program, a separate informal shared faculty in innovation among all Bulgarian universities. It is an educational initiative for students and in from different majors and universities in Bulgaria, in which students acquire knowledge of innovations in an intensive course and present their start-up projects to a jury of teachers, businesses and non-profit organizations.
Innovations Academy is realized with the institutional support of the European Commission in Bulgaria and with the general support of the European Investment Bank and the America for Bulgaria Foundation.
Already 870 children from 14 universities have enrolled in the event that is to take place this year.
You graduated in “Bulgarian Philology”. How did you transition to PR, to being a marketing specialist and, finally, an innovations expert?
I have never been professionally involved in PR, I have worked in a PR agency, but as a Marketing Director. I started my career in Marketing, Sales and Business Development and gradually became interested in innovation.
My background in the Humanities gave me a deep view of the world and my background in Economics – Business Administration – focused it. Now I think the two complement each other perfectly in what I do.
How do companies in your sector develop in this COVID-19 situation?
Innovative companies use crises in order to grow. They have vital characteristics that distinguish them from non-innovators: flexibility, trans formativeness, speed of reaction and rapid change of strategy hypotheses. This makes them less sensitive to crises. They do well and survive because innovators do that – they change and evolve, benefiting themselves and society from their work.
Very often crisis conditions breed good ideas. Give us some examples in the innovations field.
Ideas that we encountered during this crises fall into two types:
- the first are focused on dealing with the crisis: a robot for UVC light disinfection, non-standard and creative face shields and masks, disinfection booths, etc.
- the second are a reaction to the crisis, but are related to the actual activity of the company. For example, last week we had a creative idea for a box for children’s shoes with three pairs, which are the same size: flip flops, sandals and every day in one color range and model, for a Bulgarian manufacturer. We also worked on the idea of supporting small neighborhood stores during the crisis under a new business model for niche media online.
How do you think life will continue after COVID-19? What will the world be like?
Normal. The world goes through crises, then forgets them and recovers. To fall into new ones. The more important question is about the periods of time. In my opinion, for two years we will bear severe consequences from the current crisis, which is not over yet, and over another 4-5 years the economy will recover to its previous levels.
Our task is to inspire optimism in people and especially in our students that life will not get worse, whatever awaits us, we will overcome it together and make it better and nicer.
Our generation is to blame for early democracy, Chernobyl, the financial crisis, global pollution, climate change, the current COVID-19 crisis. May the next generation, as Benini says in “Life is Wonderful”, “cleanse it of evil, oppression, and violence, and enjoy it fully.”
Leona Aslanova is one of the partners of the Bulgarian Entrepreneurship Center foundation. She is also a Stanford University Innovation Fellow. She is the organizer of the Innovation Explorer forum.