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As part of my UCTV Innovator Stories series, I recently sat down with Dafina Toncheva at UC Santa Barbara. Dafina has been a Partner at USVP since 2012, leading investments in a number of promising tech startups, including Raken (where we are both Board members), InsideSales.com and Luma Health. Dafina also served on the board of Prevoty, until its $140 million acquisition by Imperva. Under Dafina’s leadership, USVP was Prevoty’s lead investor and largest shareholder.
In the following video, Dafina discusses how, as a teenager in Bulgaria, she created a peanut business that generated more revenue than the combined income of her physician parents. She continues her story, describing how she landed a dozen, fully-funded scholarships from America’s elite universities.
It’s an inspiring story of a young immigrant who sought out her version of the American Dream, despite not knowing a single person who had ever been to the US.
I’ve lightly edited the text for readability and continuity. If you want to hear Dafina’s unexpurgated comments, check out the video below. If you’d rather download my entire interview with Dafina (it’s free on iTunes), you can do so here.
From Peanut Roaster To Harvard Undergrad
In Dafina’s words: “I was fifteen years old and I was so frustrated that our life was just not getting better as a family, that I told my mom, ‘Why don’t you start a business?’ She said, ‘What are you talking about? I’m a doctor. That’s the only thing I can do is to be a doctor.’ Healthcare in Bulgaria… was a socialist health care system. So I thought, ‘Well I’ll start a business then.’
My parents sort of rolled their eyes and they said, ‘What are you gonna do?” and I said, ‘I’ll start buying raw peanuts,’ because my home town was surrounded by peanut farms, (and) ‘I will roast them. I’ll package them in 100 gram packages and resell them through wholesale, retailers, resellers, restaurants.’
In Bulgaria peanuts are an appetizer, they’re eaten with alcohol, and Bulgarians consume a lot of alcohol. So I thought, ‘Restaurants make money on the alcohol but they don’t make money on the peanuts and it actually takes up a lot of time for the chef’s to roast peanuts. So I’m just going to start doing that.’ My parents were like, ‘No way, this so embarrassing. That the daughter of two doctors is going to that.’
I convinced my dad to drive me to the local peanut farmer and he dropped me off about three blocks away so nobody would recognize him. He’s the dad of this fourteen or fifteen year old that is negotiating with an old woman selling raw peanuts.
I bought, with my savings, my first ten kilograms of peanuts. I went home, I roasted them, I packaged them and I left them in a big Costco-like store that one of my friend’s dad owned. In two days they called me and they said, ‘Bring more if you have them.’ They did me a favor, they never kept any of the profits. They were doing a favor for a friend of their sons.
I started making real money, so much so that it became a real enterprise. I had to start paying for my dad’s gas, for their electricity. I even paid my younger brother to help me pack the peanuts.
So I start making more money than my parents, doctors that had spent twenty years of their lives studying. My mother was a ear-nose-and-throat surgeon. She did facial reconstructive surgeries. My dad was a neurologist and I, at fifteen, selling peanuts, was making more money than them.
That was wrong, any way you look at it. That wasn’t right and that was the time when I decided (that) Bulgaria wasn’t for me. I had to look for opportunities elsewhere, because I wanted the effort that I was putting in to pay off.
For me, being in a place like the US was was the ultimate dream. I thought of it as the land of opportunities and that was the first impetus for coming here.
It wasn’t very easy, because I didn’t know how to apply, did not know many people at that time who had applied to schools in the US. I didn’t know how to do it, so it was a long process, but essentially I went to the U.S. embassy. I asked him how I can apply they said, ‘Well, look at this Barron’s book that we have with an index of all the schools in the US.’ So I went through that book and one-by-one picked every single University that gave any form of financial aid to international students.
I wrote down the addresses of a hundred schools and I send letters, handwritten letters, to all of them saying, ‘Do you give financial aid to foreigners, and if so, tell me how I can apply to your school?’ All of them responded and told me I had to take the SAT.
Well, I didn’t know how or where or what the SAT was, so I went back to the US embassy. They gave me another old book, a Barron’s book that was as old as I was at that time, this twenty year old book with seven practice tests. I snuck out the book, photocopied it in one afternoon, put it back in the library of the consulate and went back home and I started studying English.
I read Charles Dickens. I read out copies of Newsweek. I read anything in English that I could put my hands on. I was in an English language school, but it’s different when you study English as a second language.
So I started preparing and I rationed my seven tests so that I can track progress. I had this one shot of taking the SAT, because it was very expensive and it was only administered two or three times a year. I went, I took the test. I did very well. I was very happy with my result. I had 800 on math and 780 on verbal.
Just to give you an example of how hard I worked, I wanted it so bad, so bad, to come here. I applied to fifty schools, I asked every single one of them to waive the application fee because I couldn’t afford it. Every school except for two, Stanford and UPenn, they did not want to honor the request for waiving the application fee. So I applied and I was very lucky, I got into twelve schools on full scholarship. I ended up going to Harvard because that was the one I had heard the most about it.
It was incredible. My parents had never been outside of Bulgaria and my grandparents had never been outside of Bulgaria. When I told my parents I wanted to go to the US, it was exactly the same as if I had told them, ‘I’m gonna be building a rocket ship in the backyard and go to the moon.’ It was exactly as likely in their heads that this was going to happen. It felt so foreign, so far away, it felt like a different planet because of how small and and closed the society in Bulgaria was. So, in 1998, I came to Boston and started my studies at Harvard.”
If you want to learn about Dafina’s initial struggles, and ultimate triumph at Harvard, you can check out our entire conversation here.
March 7, 2019 at 10:03AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs