Prof. Arthur Pantelides from the American University in Bulgaria has over 20 years experience in industry in the areas of international manufacturing operations and strategic management consulting. He has held senior level positions in Strategic Planning & Control, Operations, International Project Management,and Engineering and R&D. He has worked on assignments in the US, Japan, Vietnam, Italy, Brazil and Mexico, and has published several papers and articles internationally. Also he is going to be one of the judges on this year’s edition of HackAUBG, where he will look for the best projects that are useful for people and possess great value for society.
Since when do you teach in the American University in Bulgaria?
I started teaching full time in 2016 so it’s almost about 5 years now.
And how do you like the environment in Blagoevgrad? It’s not a big city but it has a beautiful mountain sight.
It’s very nice and I enjoy it. I like the small town feeling and it’s actually a university town – we’ve got AUBG and also the Southwest University of Blagoevgrad. It’s really nice – well, at least it was before the pandemic. But I really do enjoy it – it’s quiet and not too big. I actually had the opportunity to move to Sofia with AUBG and I decided to stay here, in Blagoevgrad, because it makes me focus more on my work. Also, I know a lot of people in this town and they know me. There are a lot of other things – the mountains, the parks, Bansko is close…
Have you been up in the mountains?
I have. I’ve actually been 3 or 4 times. I’ve seen the Rila Lakes and other sights. I actually really like hiking and also mountain climbing, although I’m an amateur.
So let’s now turn the page on the focus of this interview – AUBG and HackAUBG. First of all we all know from movies and stories from our friends, the culture of the American universities. Do you think that this is an important step in creating more open minded students? The proof for this may be The Hub itself, because in Bulgaria it is not common to have such clubs and student’s formations.
This is my first teaching job and first time that I had experience in Liberal Arts University. My background is engineering and larger research type universities. I went to Boston University for example. So, coming here at AUBG was really interesting. It was interesting to see diverse types of students here, very creative, liberal and open minded. They are very critical thinkers which is very important, because this is what we need – younger people to be in charge and to create a better world. This is exactly what I try to teach in my classes – critical thinking. I really enjoy it. In this part of the world – Eastern Europe, we need this type of thinking. The new ideas of the new generation that is liberal and open. AUBG does a good job to develop these people from all over the world. I really enjoy it here.
I totally agree with you.
Here in Eastern Europe and post-communist countries like Bulgaria, we definitely need this kind of open minded thinking. It’s a necessity for us to become closer to the culture of the EU or the American kind of thinking.
I always believe that people should have balance. I was actually born in Greece…
A neighbor of ours…
Yeah. This is why I adapted very well culturally here. I’ve traveled around the world, seen the cultures, also lived in other places – Japan and etc. But coming here was a really easy transition. Some of the mentality in the Balkan region is a little bit different – a little bit of old style thinking. But at the same time I’m seeing that the younger generations are trying to change that and they are hungry, excited and motivated. You can’t really change the society without the young people. They are the next business leaders, political leaders, social leaders. I’m excited for that and I’m seeing this as kind of my mission here. I came today to work, without having any classes, but I want to prepare for my students. I even have open sessions with them, because I see that they really want to do this. They want to improve their lives and their countries. A lot of them are saying “Yeah, America is nice, but I want to focus on Bulgaria. I want to stay here”. It’s extremely important for me to do what I do and to be well prepared.
Yeah, because education is coming from the educators, so it’s really important, as you said, for the educators to be really committed.
The job that educators and teachers have is one of the most important ones. Not because of us, but because we use material, we use resources, which is the most precious and most valuable thing. We develop that resource and it’s something very humbling. It’s a very satisfying job.
You have a strong education background as we know, and a strong experience in business, management and engineering, that goes more than 20 years. What are the key notes or the key advice that you give your students about developing themselves as great entrepreneurs?
They need to take on challenges, to take on risks. I understand in a way this idea that the entrepreneurs are great risk takers. But in a way the idea is to have a great strategy and to be a calculated risk taker. So I always try to tell them to take calculated risks, to plan their course. I tell them always to look at what value they can create for potential customers. It’s the same thing that I teach my regular students, not the ones with entrepreneurship. Sometimes they ask me “how should I act in an interview, how can I interact”. My answer is – show them your value, show them what you can bring to the company and how valuable you can be for them. Working hard is another thing that I teach my students. I really believe in that. My family was born in Athens, Greece, and we emigrated to the USA years ago. We struggled, but we saw the states as an opportunity. There you have to work very hard and so we did – me, my father and my mother. I really value that hard work. The first class every semester, no matter what I teach, I tell the students that one of the most important things is preparation – creating your own luck by preparation.
You’ve been judging the past few years on the hackathon. What are your impressions of the organization and the projects over the years.
The organization is great and it’s a nice medium and mechanism to get people to create ideas, especially when the ideas are about improving their society. They do like the idea of “I’m going to create that and make a lot of money”. But it’s not all that – it’s not all about the money. I’m always saying that it’s great to have ideas about digital apps and things like that. But I tell my students also to try to really create something that you can hold in your hand. Something that you manufacture. I understand technology, apps, coding and all of that. But unless you’ve got a tremendous idea, all that you do is going to be difficult. The best is to try to create something that will be useful to other people. Something simple that can improve somebody’s life. “See if you can actually make something,” are my words and I think that some of the students really get that, because they go for the digital stuff of course, but they also try some new ideas that include actually making something.
What are you looking for in the projects from an engineering and from a business point of view?
From an engineering point of view – not so much. I’m not so sure what I can see there. But what I’m looking for is something that can really be of value to society. Of course, something that has value to the customers, but also to society. I can give an example. In the USA right now there are trying to roll out the vaccines for COVID-19. Each state is different, because they have different populations, different volumes and etc. There’s no central coordination. I read that a young student from New York has created an app that streamlines that process. You write your ZIP code and other information and it can direct you specifically where you want to go. That is something that helps people. This is what I’m looking for – some unique innovative idea, that helps. I don’t really look for the technical part, but for the innovation – that initial idea with a good approach.
Do you think it’s possible or have you seen a great talent developing a bad project?
I’ve seen this a few times in my entrepreneurship class. Generally, the reason that this happens is that these students don’t really understand the value or the lack of value of their idea. One of the things in terms of entrepreneurs is that if they create something, for them it’s the greatest thing in the world, you know. “This is my baby” thinking. Some really good students don’t understand that this creation may be the greatest thing for you, but it’s actually not good enough to be out there for people to appreciate. I’ve seen this several times.
What do you expect from this year’s edition of the hackathon? Do you think that there’s a trend that from year to year there are more talents and in general the talentship is growing in the younger generation?
I think it is. The younger generations are becoming more sophisticated, they are more interconnected. They have more information on disposal in their hands. They also have a social mentality that they do want to help. They have more ideas, better ideas, helping ideas, social ideas. Most of them are around digital applications, which is OK. If I compare my generation with this generation, I can say that we were very behind. We had a different mentality, different tools and we didn’t have the internet. But these guys do have a very good moral sense and they are going in the right direction. On the negative side I think that they also have a lot of pressure. They need to appreciate more the time for themselves. If they spend some time to think and turn off their phones, I think they can become even better. They can actually sharpen their skills and improve them. So it’s all a double edge sword – it’s great that you have all of these tools at your fingertips but at the same time it’s too much. So this is what I’m saying to my students – in order to do this project you have to turn everything off, go in your room and just sit and think. Because this is also one of the things that entrepreneurs do – they sit and think. It’s their quiet time. That’s really important.
And what about their talent in technology? Do you think that there are more talented people in technology nowadays, because tech is an everyday necessity? So it’s becoming more popular to have the curiosity to know what’s inside of the technology or what drives it?
I think so, yes. And yet I still believe that sometimes there’s a segment that may sometimes accept things without digging deeper and questioning “why”. As an engineer, over the years we’ve developed many computer programs to do analysis and etc. I was in charge of young people for many years and they used to sit down on their computer and just do the analysis, get the answer and that’s it. I said to them that they also need to question the results that they get. For example, if you write code you should understand if it’s good or bad. Some young people will just accept things sometimes based on technology, but I think that this is now changing and it’s changing for the better. I can give you another example. In my classes we do a lot of case studies. My students actually know a lot more than me about Facebook, social media, fake news – they slowly are getting to the point that it’s important to question things.
Interviewer: Plamen Mihaylov