When Sasha Bezuhanova joined Hewlett-Packard’s Bulgarian operation in 1997, computer specialists were leaving the country in droves. Yet she decided to stay, believing she could build a career in technology and persuade other electronics graduates to do the same.

Fifteen years later Ms Bezuhanova had risen through the ranks to run HP’s public sector business in emerging markets. As the first Bulgarian to hold a senior management position at a global IT company, she became a role model for a generation of women joining the sector.

“We now have lots of female C-level managers in the digital industry. They’re very visible in the tech community and in society,” she says. “We also have growing numbers of female founders of start-ups.” Ms Bezuhanova left HP in 2013 to found Move.bg, a platform for social innovation.

Women make up 44.6 per cent of the workforce in the country’s booming technology sector — the second-highest proportion in the EU after Lithuania. This compares with an average of 32.4 per cent for the bloc, according to Eurostat, the EU statistics agency.

The Balkan country’s high level of female participation in the tech workforce is a legacy from the Soviet era, when the brightest students attended specialist maths high schools, says Rumyana Trencheva, managing director for south-east Europe at SAP, the German software company.

“The maths and all applied sciences have always been of a high standard at these schools, which select equal numbers of boys and girls. Women teachers make maths accessible and encourage girls to study computer science at university,” she says.

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Under communism, female engineers and accountants belonged to a professional elite that 30 years later is still held in high regard, she adds.

“We had strong role models of working mothers in these professions, and that influences women working in the tech sector now. They’re self-confident and don’t have doubts about whether they can make it to top positions.”

In 2014, Svetla Simidchieva, a former human resources manager at professional services firm PwC, teamed up with Ekaterina Mihaylova, a specialist in artificial intelligence, to set up a digital recruitment business. Their start-up, Majio, uses machine learning to match applicants with jobs, and has products aimed at US and central and eastern European companies.

The company was Bulgaria’s “Best AI Startup”in the 2017 Central European Start­up Awards, yet Ms Simidchieva says the pair are sometimes coolly received by their male peers. “There’s a subtle kind of bias in Bulgaria against women running tech companies, but it disappears with time. It’ll fade away with the next generation of entrepreneurs,” she says. Between 10 and 12 per cent of Bulgarian start-ups are founded by women.

A drastic shortage of skilled tech workers, meanwhile, has pushed up salaries and helped boost the position of women, especially at large companies.

Businesses compete to offer benefits that appeal to female employees, says Albena Mancheva, country manager at Foryouandyourcustomers, a Zurich-based digital transformation consultancy. “Employers have to offer benefits that allow for a better work-life balance — flexible working hours, being able to work from home, more days of paid leave and additional healthcare covering families,” she says.

Rossen Ivanov, managing partner at BlackPeak Capital, an investment fund, says salaries at tech companies are now so attractive that women in lower-paid professions such as teaching are retraining to qualify for jobs at outsourcing companies.

“The evidence is anecdotal, but there’s a trend,” he says. “It’s financially possible to make the switch because you don’t have to take a career break and spend several years at university.”

Bulgarian women have not yet carved out a niche, however, at any of the half-dozen Sofia-based venture capital and private equity funds that invest in local tech companies. Asked whether women hold partnerships or executive positions at his firm, Mr Ivanov admits: “We’re only at the beginning.”

This may be about to change. BlackPeak, which is backed by the EU’s European Investment Fund, plans to hire its first female investment adviser this year, “not specifically for diversity reasons but because we have a choice of good candidates and it would be beneficial to the business”, Mr Ivanov says.

Pavel Ezekiev, a venture capital specialist who last year launched Neo Ventures, a fund aiming to raise €200m to invest in technology, is seeking women associates. “My experience has been that women can help you stay out of trouble, thanks to a capacity for being detail-oriented and digging out all the facts [behind a proposal],” he says.

Case study: How a hemp tampon could change the fortunes of a depressed region

Valentina Milanova, photographed on 5 March 2018.
Pioneer: Valentina Milanova is turning hemp high-tech © Tolga Akmen

Valentina Milanova, a Bulgarian entrepreneur, is planning to launch an innovative female tampon, a product she claims has barely changed since the first modern version was introduced in the US in the 1930s.

Her start-up, Anne’s Day, is running clinical trials in Bulgaria of a tampon made from industrial hemp, rather than cotton or viscose, and infused with CBD (cannabidiol) oil derived from the hemp plant, which is used to manage severe pain and inflammation in people with cancer or arthritis.

The 23-year-old, who studied economics and business in the UK, says she came up with the idea while taking a graduate course at the Harvard Business School-affiliated Centre for Economic Strategy and Competitiveness at Sofia University.

She was looking for an innovative way to stimulate business in north-western Bulgaria, one of the EU’s poorest regions, and discovered that before the second world war the district had flourished as a producer and exporter of industrial hemp.

“I started researching hemp, and read every academic paper on it I could find. Two of its properties really struck me — improved absorption compared with current tampons and pain relief that could help with menstrual cramps,” says Ms Milanova.

The company is named after Anne Frank, the young Jewish Holocaust victim who greeted the onset of her period in her diary as “a momentous event”.

An angel investor provided seed funding, while PBG, a Bulgarian producer of CBD oil, is backing the clinical trials in co-operation with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. The tampon is due to be launched in September, together with free access to an app for women to monitor their fertility, track their period and receive reminders to carry out breast self-examinations. “There’ll be more applications down the road — we’re working with some leading UK gynaecologists. I want Anne’s Day to be the go-to place for female reproductive health,” says Ms Milanova.

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