Yonel Ilieva is an impressive woman from CEE in sports and technology. We catch up with her to learn more about how she shifted the focus of a sports giant (adidas) to tech by organising five hackathons in just a few months. She shares her experience and impressions of China and the reasons behind her decision to move back to Central and Eastern Europe, namely Bulgaria.
CEEC: Yonel, you have a business background and you had your own start up, later you were leading the tech development of different digital products within adidas. How did you decide to switch from business to tech and what did it take to manage this transition successfully?
Yonel Ilieva: I was always interested in technology and one day decided to go deep into it because, like anything else, it requires dedication and discipline. What it took me were many sleepless nights coding, many trials and errors and strong will power to master the subject matter. Such a decision puts you totally out of your comfort zone and this is the spot where you really learn and grow. I can only encourage the people who are also considering to make similar switch because there are no boundaries to what you can learn and do. Just be sure that you really want it and be ready to dedicate yourself on it.
CEEC: You are passionate about exploring cutting-edge technologies and sports. Joining adidas sounds like it was the perfect fit to combine those two passions. What are your goals and what initiatives do you want to see developing more in the future?
YI: My goals are related to Bulgaria and further development there. I want to bring back from the experience I have gathered from the different projects and locations I worked in. I see my contribution back home in development of great experts and cutting-edge products made in Bulgaria, serving the world. There are more and more good examples coming from there and I want to be part of this ecosystem.
CEEC: Talking about interesting initiatives: you pitched and organised a hackathon in Bulgaria. You ended up overseeing 5 hackathons within just a couple of months. Wow! Tell us how the idea came about and your journey in developing adidas hackathons and their impact.
YI: The idea came out of a fruitful discussion about technological innovations and talents with our Vice President at that time. He is an inspiring leader who empowers his people to make a difference, so he gave me the freedom to shape the concept and make it happen. The journey was very intense and rewarding. We had a clear vision on what we want to achieve which made it easy to inspire the team to work hard and contribute to make this vision reality. The results surpassed our expectations and proved the power of open source initiatives. We attracted many people to join and give their best. They built amazing products literally overnight. Those initiatives are helping to force collaboration, cross-domain out of the box thinking and therefore enable innovations.
CEEC: You moved to Shanghai in 2019 to be a Senior Project Lead in adidas China Digital Hub. What are the main differences you find between Asia and Europe in the tech field?
YI: First and most important: China is not what the mass media is saying, it is so advanced and impressive, so different – the future. Their digital ecosystem is unique, and the Chinese consumers have different digital behavior. When in Europe we like clean and easy to use applications, in China those are focusing on features over usability – apps, made for power users. This is why people in China prefer to use the so-called super apps, full of many features like Wechat instead of having single purpose apps like WhatsApp. The biggest differentiator is the scale and speed with which things get developed in China – the market is so big and the competition so high that no one can afford to slow down.
CEEC: As a woman in tech, how is your experience so far? What is the message you want to send to other women in tech?
YI: I enjoy being where I am, and this is what I envisioned for myself. I have the confidence that being a woman in such a male-dominated is an advantage. I want to encourage all women in tech to have similar mindset and keep shining. For those who are considering starting their tech journey I can advise only one thing – to be ready to learn every single day. The sphere is so dynamic and to be successful you need to realize how little you actually know and keep developing and updating your skill set every single day.
CEEC: You have been a volunteer in South Africa, transferring sports and life skills to children. Tell us more about this experience and what you learnt from it?
YI: South Africa volunteering camp was a complete perspective-changer for me… I spent a couple of weeks in a township close to Cape Town where we were partnering with a local NGO and coaching teenagers from the townships. I was leading the workshops about leadership and effective teams, as well as sport classes. The participants in the workshops impressed us with curiosity and starvation for knowledge. This is the moment I realized the real power our mission – we do change lives through sport. One 14-years old kid came to me and told me that sport is keeping him away from the drugs and the bad things that happen in his township. He also shared his vision for making his community a better place. He broke this vision down into different steps one of which was becoming a teacher as in that way he can influence one by one the youngest generation and start changing the status quo. We spent some nights in their families and have seen how people that don’t know if tomorrow they will have food to eat are happy and don’t complain. This whole experience gave me a new perspective on my day to day live and showed me what sport really means at those remote locations. I learned to appreciate the small things and remind myself how blessed we are to have all the things we take for given.
CEEC: Lastly, you have just taken the big step of moving back to Bulgaria from living abroad. What is the reason behind this decision and what are the opportunities in Bulgaria, specifically in relation to technology, innovation and startups that outweighed?
YI: I always knew that I will return and after the years spent mainly in Italy, Germany and China I thought it is time to go back. The turning point was when I met the tech and startup community in Bulgaria during a series of open source events, one of which in Sofia . I was impressed from the full-of-drive people and the great products they built. Talking about the limitless opportunities – Bulgaria has a strong record of cutting-edge technological achievements and the tech foundation is very modern, which opens many possibilities for building innovative and worldwide competitive products. This all is supported by the perfect geographic location of the country.
You’ve decided to join a sports tech company called Genius Sports in Bulgaria, tell us more. Why did you choose it and what was unique about the organisation that pulled you in?
The best next step for me was to continue my path again in product development but in Bulgaria, in a technological company. My current job combines sports, technology, strategy and team leadership, which are areas I am most passionate about. The Bulgarian hub is focused on sports data collection and building cutting edge software products which support the strategy of representing official data rights and monetizing them on behalf of sports. Those are the things that pulled me in and I find the industry as unique and very interesting to explore.