New Voices—Moving Greece Forward
As Greece confronts its most devastating challenges in modern history, its younger generation must face momentous decisions. Should I stay or should I go? Will I find a job? Will the system change?
Following the wisdom of “Be the change you want to see” many young Greeks are starting their own businesses, with the knowledge that independence and self direction offer far more advantages than waiting for a CV to be answered. Business Partners presents the voices of six young entrepreneurs who are rising above the status quo to take control of their professional careers, with all the difficulties this involves, and experience life from a different vantage point. And they offer insights into shifts—of beliefs, of values, of perspectives—that, at this time of upheaval and despair, will move Greece forward.
Paradisians Learn a Lesson
Once upon a time, there was a place called Paradise.
Paradise was a blessed place. Blessed with a great mild climate and a wonderful sun, blessed with superb islands, beaches and a lengthy coastline, blessed with a great variety of mountains, hills and valleys. There were plenty of natural resources and living in paradise was a great honor. Paradisians, the habitants of Paradise, were in absolute bliss, inviting people from all over the world to spend their vacations in bliss as well.
Being one of the most hard working people of the extended area of Eurapadean, a union where they entered after lots of economic tests, some Paradisians excelled and became world leaders in various fields. Other Paradisians started asking for extra money in order to do the job they were already paid for. As weird as it may sound, Paradisians were giving this extra money to the other Paradisians who asked for it in order to have their job done. The word spread and it became a common practice, sort of publicly accepted, to give large or small amounts of money that were not really earned. Then, other forms of exchanges, in order to get work done, started taking place. Apart from money, people were hired or given public territory to exploit. Almost all Paradisians knew about these illegal yet common practices.
This phenomenon, combined with other bad practices, resulted to Paradise’s bankruptcy.
Gone were the days where goods and services were provided. Paradisians had to take action since they did not want to live under poverty. Oh no, they could not accept poverty. Actually, they felt they did not deserve it.
First thing they did was to enact justice. They gathered the Paradisians who for many years were exploiting the system, donated their property to the Paradisian state, and put them in jail.
Then, they changed the way the public sector was operating. The reasoning was to make it operate like a company which had to bring in profits. Many people had to change work because of this. They redirected those people towards areas which were abandoned and created new cities.
They made things simpler for economic growth. Rules and regulations were now appealing to Eurapedeans or other investors. They studied carefully what other successful countries have as best practices and applied them.
They focused on the assets of Paradise. Started answering questions like “How can we create value to the world?” “What can we offer that other countries don’t have?” and made a plan of focusing for the next 15 years on their five basic assets: tourism, shipping, energy, agriculture and their people’s brains.
After a lot of struggle, yes, the Paradisians made it! It was hard, they had to change a lot of things in their culture and their way of doing things, but it was really worthwhile.
In the end Paradisians learned a great and valuable lesson: they realized that each and every one of them had to preserve their ethics, as the highest principle, even with their lives if needed, or they would suffer again in the future.
And they lived happily ever after. . .
From Values to a Value Proposition
Everybody knows Greece as a brand. Greece stands for culture. Modern Greece has been enjoying respect from the rest of the world because of the history and values of Ancient Greece. Not only respect, but membership in international organizations and a good tourism industry, that translate into both development and wealth.
Moreover, the values of western institutions were, to a great extent, based on Ancient Greek human values. This is why Greece joined the European Union, more for the country’s cultural assets and less, for example, than its economic and business standards (even though Greeks around the world have created an active business community but almost never a connected business network perhaps with the exception of shipping). After 200 years of modern history, the real mistake of Greeks is that they stopped sharing their values with the rest of the world.
History had always had the first answers to problems, especially when we refer to causes. EU funds made the really poor and hardworking Greeks of previously years to rest and come to believe that everything in life was suddenly easier than before. After 20 years of limited action—and shortly after 2004, the best Olympics staged in modern times—Greeks suddenly woke up. And now the present question: What can bring them and Greece forward?
First, Greeks must change—again—their business (and not only) mentality. We should remember the values that are now forgotten and, in parallel (the most difficult), to adjust our business mentality—that was forgotten back in 1980s, with that of the rest of the world. This is what should be done now: Re-Invent the internal market economy and build trust.
Second, Greece enjoys huge global awareness for its culture and history and this is the core “product” that differentiates it from all competitors. But in terms of a market economy, “culture” in fact, means services. Services are a weak strong point for Greeks—they have always been good traders, but not good service providers. Maybe the passion for freedom that Greeks have in their mindset is an obstacle for them to serve a capitalist market economy. Greece’s service economy should relate culture with tourism, agricultural products, and branding. There is very little of this mindset in Greece today.
Third, Greeks have to decide that they must return soon to the global market with real products for real customers. What marketing gurus teach about selling proposition and five forces analysis, for example, are tools that Greeks must use to become well-rounded professionals, to work hard and systematically. Our era does not provide time and space for mistakes or arrogance… If you are not trusted, you are out.
Finally, Greece has another strong advantage, in addition to global awareness and media attention—and that is product uniqueness. It is not difficult to return to the markets, but you have to create your own Value Proposition. Greeks should find their roots, be proud to offer good services to their customers with a competitive business mentality, and markets will accept them again. It is a decision that is up to Greeks. Markets will always need valuable products and services.
Creating Your Future
Many people of my generation will, I am sure, concur that our parents’ goal was for us to be educated in a way that one day we would land a good and comfortable job—ideally in the Greek public sector.
When I earned my degree, I was happy to do anything, anywhere, as long as it had to do with my passion: foreign languages. That’s what I studied, that’s what people said I was good at, and that’s what I thought was my unique mission and my only professional path.
And, after working in language for a few years, flying from one country to another, having interior monologues around the Greek expression “wherever there is a country, there is a homeland,” filling my luggage with different people, cultures and souvenirs, I kept feeling an emptiness and a nostalgia that was crying “Hellas.”
Yes, I was missing Greece. Yet in my quest to return I was getting more and more disappointed. I sent countless CVs resulting in interviews that, oddly enough for me, seemed to hover around one point, regardless of the fact that I spoke nine languages: “Who do I know?” What did they mean ‘Who do I know?” Whom I was supposed to know? I didn’t understand. Did I need to know somebody in particular to have the right to work? Since I didn’t have a “connection guy” I continued my adventures to the various “Ithacas” I was discovering from time to time.
Then, one night, while I was enjoying some expensive gourmet snails in a very fancy restaurant in Switzerland, my sister called. Penny, a business demon since childhood, told me that our garden was full of snails, since it had just rained in Greece. And if they were really so expensive, then maybe we could sell them to the Swiss!
What, I thought, do I know about snails? And this sector dominated by men? What’s the connection between snails and foreign languages? However, instead of answering no, I said “why not?”
That is how our first company “Fereikos,” was created. Our “ikos” embraced a small community of 155 families in Greece that are dealing with snail farming and our family expanded abroad as well, to Greeks of the Diaspora. Just imagine a small microcosmos who grabbed the opportunity to enjoy a better quality of life close to nature, away from cities and stressful rhythms.
“You studied for nothing” my grandpa kept saying. But our studies contributed, not only to overcome many obstacles, but to collaborate and expand to markets abroad.
To do what one has studied is a blessing. Yet studies are a medium, a tool that can help in creating visions and achieving goals. Yes, that is what I find beautiful, the challenge of creation and having visions.
I know, in these times it is difficult to talk of job opportunities and challenges in Greece. But I see, I hear, and I feel pain for what is happening daily in our homeland. So please allow me to believe…because I believe in creativity, in chances and in choices.
It is our choice to stay passive as our CVs go unanswered; it is our choice to search for new opportunities abroad, and it is our choice to stay in our “ikos,” and act together for a better future.
And there is no better way to predict the future than to create it!
Business Friendly, not Friendly Rhetoric
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
There is no secret recipe. There are no shortcuts. This proverb is spot on. Now is the time to build for the medium-long term and accept that it will not come easy and it will not happen overnight.
A few years ago my brother and I decided to set up a new business. While we both had significant experience from the private sector, nothing had really prepared us for the complexity and frustrating environment of doing business in Greece.
The nature of an entrepreneur is to be optimistic and find ways to overcome problems; the sad truth is that doing business in Greece means that you have to dedicate significant mental capital and other resources for issues that are mostly irrelevant to your core business.
I firmly believe the way forward is through the private sector. It is time to move away from pretentious business friendly rhetoric and demonstrate concrete actions that prove we mean business. Greece has a wealth of young, dynamic and well-educated people who need the right environment to release their creativity. They do so from abroad and I have no doubt they will do so from Greece when the environment is right.
How then do we create this environment? I would suggest the following.
Simplify the process of starting up a new business and do the same for closing a business. Preferably, the process should only take a couple of hours over the Internet.
Make business easier. Create an environment where most transactions between business and government are done over the Internet.
Sort out closed interest groups. If a business is set up for exports, timing and efficiency are crucial. It takes years to attract and grow relationships with international clients. It takes only a couple of transport or port strikes for these relationships to be ruined.
Create or support the creation of funding mechanisms. Venture capital or angel investment is very limited and mostly operates under wrong principles. Instead of asking from the Greeks of the Diaspora to buy Greek bonds, ask them to pool their funds in an investment vehicle that would invest in Greek entrepreneurs, as long as they returned or stayed in Greece. Operated soundly, this would not only yield better returns for the investors, but would have a much bigger effect on the Greek economy than just raising money to repay old debts.
Finally, get rid of the taxes and create a stable tax system. We cannot pretend to be business friendly with a multitude of taxes that don’t make sense. High taxation is an unacceptable way to keep the inefficient public sector afloat.
What separates theory and results is execution. The best and most promising plan is worth zero if you don’t have the right people to execute on it. But, even an average plan can be turned to success with the right team of people. Those who are not capable should either withdraw, or be withdrawn, from all spheres of the public sector. The way forward is not going to be easy, but there are people who can make it happen and we need to have the patience and insistence to see this through.
Reverse, Play, or Fast Forward?
Let us take one step at a time. Right now Greece is moving backward, which means that we are not even in Play mode, we’re in Reverse. After we hit the Play button we could even move Greece in Fast Forward mode. Changing the direction is the difficult part. Changing direction in any matter requires a moment of silence to think, re-consider our targets, and then start all over again.
What is important after all? In my mind, it all begins from improving our own environment before expecting or demanding others to change. So, what could we work on?
These factors can change the direction:
- Let us start working rather than dreaming, playing, figuring out ways of fooling others or fooling ourselves. The amount of effort needed is exactly the same, the outcome however, of doing good work, can allow us to dream and play!
- Let us start caring for our team-members, our superiors, our staff. Employees tend to blame employers with all sorts of reasons and employers tend to blame employees with all sorts of others reasons. We can justify conflict between employers and employees since their goals can sometimes be different. However, this is a give and take relationship. Somebody needs to start giving, and hopefully the taking part will follow. Problems sometimes arise on who starts giving. The employers or the employees? So, each expects from the other to give first. No one makes the first step and everything stays frozen, in the nagging-mode. I am not sure how we can overcome such issues. Maybe we should ask an educator of 6-year old children to find the solution! We need to grow up and start managing conflict creatively rather than as a bunch of spoiled kids!
- Let us be professionals! Professionalism starts from each individual and spreads like wildfire. No matter our working conditions or our working position, professionalism is a “must” to all. Trying to find ways to be more productive and more efficient should be in everyone’s mind. Having such a mind-set will lead us in becoming better individuals in our personal life as well. Such mind-sets should not be expected from project managers and such work types only, but from e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e. Such mind-sets should be at the heart of all companies’ cultures. Once we’ve built a strong culture based on professionalism we can and will be unbreakable.
- If everyone decided to put his or her own needs and wants aside for a while and began working towards these points to reach a bigger goal, we could even begin trusting each other. By trusting each other we’d be able to built strong bonds, not only within our company, but new bonds with other companies (strategic collaborations), which would make us stronger as a whole, as a country. Stronger competitors, stronger partners. If we could trust ourselves then others would trust us.
I know, easier said than done, but come on, this is not rocket science.
Innovation, Solutions, and Effectiveness
Being an entrepreneur and a pattern recognition geek, I am very often tempted to compare Greece’s challenges with those of a startup.
Startups are businesses at their extremes. One day you’re the king of the world at the top of the mountain, invincible against your competition. The next day you’re in the valley, wondering how on earth you’ll survive the imminent and inevitable end of your world. And while entrepreneurs often have optimism engraved in their DNA to be able to survive (and thrive), a startup’s roller-coaster life, and a negative ecosystem, can drain it out from you.
I’m often asked what were the biggest challenges I faced in founding Transifex. Expected answers, such as bureaucracy and taxation, are always areas a country can improve on. But the biggest challenge for me was a different one: To keep looking at things positively. To keep believing that change is possible and you’re a part of it. If I had a magic wand, I’d switch the negativity being pushed by the media before a good night’s sleep, or by the grocery store owner before a good morning, with constructive criticism with realistic propositions and a thumbs-up with a smile.
Empowerment will prove to be an important element of Greece’s fight for survival. From entrepreneurs to employees, from citizens to ministers and the prime minister himself, everybody needs to feel empowered to fight for a better tomorrow. Citizens need to feel empowered to be part of the change and fight to bring new value the next day. This cultural change requires many years to improve, but that’s no reason not to start working on it today.
Greece is challenged today to innovate itself out of its doom, whirlpool. In any system which brought itself to such a bad state, innovation, or improving its own parameters, is a necessary element for escape. And while lots of people are busy with inventing solutions, some few are busy in innovating new solutions, that is, ones which will be effective in improving the current state in a significant way. These people are smarter than the ones which brought the system to the current state. Let’s identify them, remove all their obstacles and provide them with all the necessary tools to do great things.
Effectiveness is key. Both optimized systems, as well as ones which have been broken for decades, which represents the case of Greece, require hard work to fix. When resources such as budget and time are limited, being effective is key for success. The right solutions should be brought to the table today and ways to get them implemented soon should be found.
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