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Bulgarian NGOs Tuk-Tam and Listen Up with grants from Google digital inclusion challenge

Bulgarian Tuk-Tam and Listen Up
Image credit: Hristo Boyadzhiev, founder and CEO of Tuk-Tam, and Ashod Derandonyan, founder and CEO of ListenUp Foundation
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Two Bulgarian non-governmental organizations are among the 13 finalists of the Impact Challenge Central and Eastern Europe. Tuk-Tam, an organization dedicated to improving Bulgarian communities through initiatives and programs of education, professional and personal development, and ListenUp Foundation, an advocacy organization in Bulgaria that empowers Deaf people, have been chosen to receive mentorship and grant support by for their socially impactful projects. 

The Impact Challenge Central and Eastern Europe was launched at the beginning of 2021, to help nonprofit organizations, for-profit organizations, and educational institutions execute socially important initiatives that make use of technology and innovation to empower individuals and communities to gain the skills of the future. The Impact Challenge provides €2M funding in support of digital inclusion initiatives. The recognized organizations will receive between €50K and €250K to develop their project ideas and will undergo a mentoring program, starting in September. The projects of the two Bulgarian organizations were selected among 850 proposals.

The project of Tuk-Tam will utilize the know-how of the Bulgarian diaspora in a matching mentorship program, aimed at students. The idea is to provide them with educational and professional advice and development in order for them to join the Bulgarian workforce.

ListenUp Foundation is selected for its initiative “Building Bridges for Deaf Leaders of Tomorrow”. It aims to eradicate the insufficient access to knowledge and know-how for the Deaf community in Bulgaria through establishing a Master’s degree program for Deaf leaders.

The Recursive team talked to Hristo Boyadzhiev, founder and CEO of Tuk-Tam, and Ashod Derandonyan, founder and CEO of ListenUp Foundation, to learn more about the aspirations and future plans of the two organizations. 

Speeding up the economic engine of Bulgaria

The mission of Tuk-Tam is to facilitate and develop the largest global network, dedicated to helping young Bulgarians through education, professional and personal development, and community building. “The slogan of the project of our organization is “Turning brain drain into brain gain by helping our wandering youth gain new skills for the future and join the digital economy,” Boyadzhiev shared. 

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He added that the priorities the NGO is focusing on are to utilize the knowledge and experience of the Bulgarian diaspora for educating the Bulgarian youth and serving as a platform that connects the latter with companies in search of qualified young professionals. “The vast majority of young people have smartphones and all sorts of technology, access to super-fast Internet, that is, they have a way to be included, but they do not utilize this access to resources. The problem is they do not have role models – good examples of the people they can become one day.” 

Tuk-Tam will be focusing on establishing a mentorship program, bridging the gap between the Bulgarian diaspora, students, and local companies in need of a skilled workforce. 

Tuk-Tam team

The team of Tuk-Tam, © Tuk-Tam

“Technology is at the core of our project — it’s the only way to meaningfully and securely connect mentors from all over the world with students at scale in an efficient way. The novel approach isn’t the tech itself, but rather the combination of a mentorship platform with a job portal that would allow students to get matched with the right people to help them grow personally and professionally,” Boyadzhiev added. 

The Tuk-Tam founder shared his firm belief that the clear vision of the team, their passion and commitment, and the established network of the NGO was what brought about the recognition by “We’ve been building the necessary components for something as audacious as this for years – the brand recognition, the network of organizations and media, the partnering companies, the mentors, the operational and marketing effectiveness needed to pull this project off.” 

Currently, the Tuk-Tam platform is used by over 12 000 users. The organization has 200 mentors and over 360 members in total and is in partnership with 150 companies from different business fields. “We will additionally develop the concept for the project towards the fourth quarter of 2021, with the goal of achieving the first results at the beginning of 2022. We aim to onboard around 50 000 students for the program in the first 5 years,” Boyadzhiev clarified. Tuk-Tam is also aiming at scaling their initiative on a regional level.

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Empowering the Deaf leaders of tomorrow

Listen Up Foundation plans to run fellowship exchanges (particularly abroad) and scholarships for Deaf Studies Мaster’s Program students. Тhey will receive support on kick-starting promising projects with technological solutions that will benefit Deaf people in the field of education, entrepreneurship, and community building. The Master’s degree program for Deaf leaders will be developed in close collaboration with educational institutions from abroad and in Bulgaria. Its goal is to promote the development of academic, community-building, leadership, bilingual, digital, and entrepreneurial skills among Deaf people. 

“Deaf leaders with experience in educational and exchange programs are at the core of our project as they have a deep understanding of the problems and stigmas associated with Deaf people. These leaders will be the ones to support the plan for fulfilling our mission to establish a Master’s program on Sign language and Deaf Studies. We would like to establish a curriculum that includes Sign language linguistics, educational practices and interpreting”, The CEO of Listen up Ashod Derandonyan explained. He stated that the main problem is that the new generation of Deaf leaders lacks expertise and the infrastructure for further Deaf empowerment. “Many people in the Bulgarian Deaf community have yet to recognize their own potential to be the engine of change – a change this current project represents.”

Bulgarian NGOs Tuk-Tam and Listen Up with grants from Google digital inclusion challenge,

© Listen Up Foundation

For its almost 7 years of existence, Listen Up Foundation has facilitated a variety of initiatives, aimed at Deaf leaders, including exchange and capacity training programs for Deaf linguists, educators, and interpreters. The organization has also established strategic partnerships and exchange visits with leading educational institutions, such as Gallaudet University, the only university in the world where students live and learn in American Sign Language (ASL) and English. 

Listen Up Foundation is one of the key NGO actors behind the Bulgarian Sign Language Act. It was ratified on January 21, 2021, and it recognized the Bulgarian Sign language as a full language in its own right. In addition, the BGSL Act set in place a series of reforms, providing the right to 120 hours of sign language interpreting service per year for Deaf people and legitimizing the option for Bulgarian Sign language to be studied in kindergartens and schools.

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Listen Up Foundation

The team of Listen Up Foundation, © Listen Up Foundation

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Viktoria is an Innovation Reporter at The Recursive and a sophomore-standing student at the American University in Bulgaria. Combining her Business Administration studies while mapping the Southeastern European startup ecosystem is a positive-sum game for her as she has the chance to interact with the most active entrepreneurs in the region. Her favorite topics include venture capital structures, investments, as well as innovations in the scitech and fintech sectors.