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The Voice of Economics

Meet Svetla Kostadinova from Bulgaria
Svetla Kostadinova

Svetla Kostadinova has been the executive director of one of the most influential economic think tanks in Bulgaria for 13 years. Svetla has the exceptional quality of a calm, serious demeanour, which makes you respect her even before she impresses you with her mind. The Institute for Market Economics (IME) has been an important, influential economic think tank in Bulgaria for nearly 30 years. Svetla enjoys significant respect and influence in Bulgaria without talking about it. She made a considerable impact on the country’s policy discourse over the years.

Svetla Kostadinova

The unexplainable job

“The first challenge I ever faced is one I still have — how to explain what I do to my mother”, Svetla laughs when replying to a question about the hardest part about her job. She joined the IME in 2001 and became its executive director in 2007. By now her mother has “a feeling” about what the job is but still has a hard time explaining it to her friends. Svetla adds that it is not easy to explain to people that organisations like the institute create change and influence public opinion. “We try to form public opinion or create a feeling that something must be done, that there is only one specific course for a particular policy”, she says. “Many companies or people consider NGOs to be just lobbyists or organisations with social functions who should help disadvantaged groups”, she adds. Meanwhile, Svetla and her team advocate for free market reforms and provide both journalists and politicians with expert opinions and thorough analysis.

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Svetla was born in Varna, Bulgaria’s third largest city, located on the Black Sea. She began studying economics there, but two weeks into her first semester, she decided she needed to move away. She moved to Sofia, the capital, and graduated with a degree from the Economics University. She was studying economics during an economic crisis which she describes as “a bit of a mess”. At that time, Bulgaria endured protests, hyperinflation, and an unstable political situation. “My mother was calling me to go home and leave the city as it had become very dangerous”, Svetla remembers. Yet whether it was youthful stubbornness, ambition, or just her instinct, Svetla remained in Sofia and graduated in 2001. “Right after graduation, I thought it would be wonderful to work in a bank”, she says. But before she applied for a bank job, a friend told her about the IME. She interviewed there and so her career began, as a research assistant for Krassen Stanchev, the think tank’s founder and first director. Two years later, she became a full-time economist.

“That was my first and only job since graduation, which can be good and bad. Good, because [I] understand the dynamics and [I] know the challenges, as I participated in decision-making not only in my organisation, but in the country too. It can be bad because the lack of other experience can deprive me of knowledge useful to my work.”, she explains.

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In 2007 she was chosen as the executive director from a group of candidates, from both within the organisation and from outside it, with the institute’s Board having the final word. “It was not my goal from the very beginning to become a director, it just happened”, Svetla says. The previous director, Krassen Stanchev, needed to distance himself from the job, so Svetla replaced him.

She remembers how in the beginning, being a leader was quite difficult. “It was January 2007, Krassen was outside the country, in Tajikistan or somewhere, and I was just here. Besides doing my usual job, I had to pay the salaries at the end of the month”, she smiles. On one hand, she tried to do her research work and advocate for free market economic policy; on the other hand, she tried fundraising and management. After a year of multitasking, though, she realised she needed to focus on the latter.

“It was a conscious choice, not something that hit me. I tried to gain more skills at fundraising, conflict resolution, and managing people. My first and only task since then is to make a comfortable environment for the team, to choose the best people and keep them if possible, and to let them do what they do best — advocacy and fighting for their ideas”, Svetla explains.

Wind of change

Because the IME has a strong, prominent role in public discourse, we can assume that Svetla Kostadinova is doing a great job as a leader. One of the think tank’s most memorable achievements, one she is exceptionally proud of, was over a decade ago in 2009. “We were advocating for the abolishment of the minimal capital required to register a company. Up to this point, the law said you had to have 3,000 leva to do that... It was not a high hurdle for starting a business, it was more of an administrative thing you had to overcome”, Svetla says.

“Imagine a student borrowing 3,000 leva somehow, depositing that in a bank, then registering a new company using the bank statement showing 3,000 Ieva, then just giving back the borrowed 3,000. It was just an impediment. We were advocating against this requirement for several years and everybody, including all the opposition parties, said it was a good idea”, she says. Then there were elections in 2009 and the Bulgarian socialist party, who had been part of the government up to that point, lost the elections. Svetla recalls that the first three legislative proposals submitted in the new parliament were all concerned with the minimum capital requirement and making it 1 euro, which is practically abolishing it. “After five years of advocacy, we had educated the public and created the feeling that this was the most logical thing to do. The very fact that this was the first thing for three very different political parties to submit in parliament just shows that if you are consistent, do not give up, provide different arguments, and  are always around, things can happen. Not always, but anyway — they can happen”, she says with a smile.

Of course, it is very hard to make a strong impact on politicians, particularly with big issues. Yet an example like the minimum capital issue motivates Svetla and her team. “This was just a moment when you realise you have done something right and have managed to do it at a time where there was an opportunity for this to happen. Because sometimes we do the right things and they just do not happen, the results do not show up… [In this case], there was a window of opportunity, but we had done our homework”, she concludes.

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The female footprint

As a female leader who succeeded a man, Svetla does not really distinguish between genders when it comes to professional development or taking leadership positions. “I don’t think there is any special encouragement, but I haven’t seen discouragement either. I have talked to other women about this topic of whether there is a glass ceiling. In my experience, I have not witnessed it”, she says. “If you look at the statistics, as far as I remember, the difference in Bulgaria between men and women in managerial positions was one of the lowest in the European Union. Maybe not the lowest, but we are on the positive side”, the economist says.

As for female economists, they mainly remain in academia and are not very active in public policy discussions, Svetla has observed. “When you look at politicians and members of parliament and their university specialisation, most of the women are lawyers by background”, she says. Also, a large proportion of the women trained in economics are in the corporate world, as opposed to the NGO one.

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“This is a pity because the economics perspective helps with fundraising, advocating, communicating, and organising people '', Svetla says. She agrees that there are more women than men in the non-profit world, and her explanation is that “they care more as the nature of the women is to be affected easily by problems”. 

“If you compare the corporate world and the non-profit [sector], it always requires commitment, knowledge, progress, learning from experience, being open and up to date”, she believes and she adds: “In that sense, just find the thing that makes you happy and you’ll do your best.”

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