Greece: Land of Economic Tragedy or Entrepreneurial Opportunity?

Would an ancient Greek playwright like Euripides have ever considered Greece’s current economic malaise a source of inspiration for a modern day Greek tragedy? Probably not. …and yet, an audience for this unwritten, modern-day Greek tragedy has surged as members of the Troika continue to relentlessly pressure Greek politicians to address their overdue financial public obligations now teetering above 170% of GDP.

One can just imagine the utter frustration that Greece’s Government VP and Foreign Minister, Evangelos Venizelos, must feel every time he updates ECB officials of Greece’s economic progress or lack thereof. At a recent ECB review meeting, Venizelos, a burly looking character, bellowed a strong opinion in the nearly empty chambers of onlookers. He told anyone who would listen that to view Greece as the “central problem” of the European and global economy was “false, dangerous, and unfair”. When I read his quote in a local paper, it sounded like the perfect opening line for a riveting and engaging modern-day Greek tragedy, whose first scene might begin as follows:

A Modern-Day Greek Tragedy
As the sun sets over the Athenian skyline, scene one begins. A spotlight, as though originating from the night sky, shines brightly upon the Acropolis. The stage is the city of Athens, while the audience is a virtual network of headline news readers who watch with great anticipation for clues on how this extraordinary Greek tragedy will unravel. 

The first scene begins with a narrator’s soliloquy on Greece’s current financial woes. In a monotone voice, he tells the audience that Greece is in debt up to its eyeballs. The country of 10 million inhabitants owes over 317.31 billion euros plus interest to European bankers and other investors, …which translates to a shared debt of over 31,731 euros per Greek citizen. With unemployment at 27.8% and almost twice as high among its youth (58%), the Greek population has a slim chance of ever paying back its creditors. Increased austerity measures have helped reduce the need for more debt but have done little to address the amount the country owes overall. The severe cut backs have made Greek everyday life exceedingly difficult by spreading public misery, triggering social unrest, encouraging talent drain, and fostering capital flight. 

In a baffled voice, the narrator turns to the audience and asks the following questions:

If austerity has truly brought the Greek people to a dead end, what can Greece’s leadership do today to help secure a better future? How can their government policymakers attract foreign direct investments, create local employment opportunities for its citizens, and eventually reignite a new and sustainable Greek economy? Are we doomed or is there hope among us?

Suddenly, the silence is broken. From the audience, a group representing the future of Greece, speaks out loud. Their message is direct. Their recommendations spot on and their intentions, genuine. They are none other than representatives of Greece’s young professionals.

A Dynamic Facilitated Discussion
Unwittingly scripted into this next scene, I arrived in Athens for a last-minute business trip earlier this year. Prior to my departure, I had asked various groups of Greek young professionals through LinkedIn and other sources to meet with me for an informal discussion. For nearly two hours, we chatted candidly about the future of their Greece.

They were an eclectic bunch, fifteen in all. They covered a wide range of backgrounds including post graduates, young entrepreneurs, teachers, and professionals working in the private sector. Many had spent time outside of Greece either studying or working internationally. For them, Athens was their home, and they had a vested interest in her future. I agreed to write an op-ed expressing their views so their collective recommendations could be read globally.

I began our facilitated discussion with a hypothetical question that went as follows:

If this Group was offered access to a 100 million euro fund to spend in any way they chose for the betterment of Greece, what would they do first and why?

The Group offered three suggestions, which together revealed some fundamental issues that go far deeper than the well-documented mistrust between Greeks and their government. First, funds should go toward changing Greece’s educational system and specifically toward the placement of more non-Greek teachers. Group members felt that the practice of recruiting teachers from the same student body had potentially fostered a myopic view among Greek academics. Bad teachers who have little fear of losing their jobs are rarely challenged by outside peers nor formally evaluated by their students for their comments and suggestions. With a strong bias towards ‘teaching to the test’, teachers have become unchallenged, while students have lost their genuine desire to learn for the sake of gaining new knowledge. To make matters worse, students are never certain if and when they will graduate as teacher and student strikes are common.

Exposed early on to disinterested teachers and unpredictable graduation dates, Greek students have developed an inherent dislike to academia. Their disdain for their educational system has resulted in a long-standing rift between industry and academia, one which has severely lessened the government’s support and industry interest in the development of Greek-based R&D initiatives.

From an early age, children are taught to aspire to public sector jobs. These jobs form part of a government promise that offers lifetime, financial security for its citizens. Aiming for a different career path is considered out of the main stream. Under these preconceived notions, entrepreneurship ranks low as a worthy career among Greek family members. They view young would-be entrepreneurs as fools rather than business pioneers. In fact the literal translation in Greek for entrepreneurship is ‘business man trying to do something’. …they just don’t know what that might be!

Not surprising, the second suggestion for the allocation of the hypothetical 100 million euros was to boost the poor image of entrepreneurs within Greek society. At first I thought the Group’s suggestion would also include financing for an entrepreneurial eco-system which might include a startup incubator and an innovation center. Instead it focused entirely on addressing the severely marred image of entrepreneurs within Greek society. Intrigued, I verified this stigma with other young Greeks I met during my trip and found that indeed it was true. They also felt like ‘social outcasts’ who preferred not to share their dreams with their respective friends and families.

Where American entrepreneurs relish the rebellious freedom associated with entrepreneurship, Greeks do not. Greeks rank social acceptance of their entrepreneurial dreams as a top priority. Not addressing this social concern first could significantly lessen the long-term effects of any experimental entrepreneurial program. Certainly much more can be read into this social angst, and I encourage readers to delve further into this discussion among their friends and colleagues to explore innovative approaches that will turn the tide of traditional thinking.

The third suggestion for the fund was expressed as an off-handed comment but nevertheless unveiled some valuable truths. To the Group funds should be spent to create a new and independent political party, one that would be open to delivering new government promises for financial security that were not associated with a position in the public sector.

A New Normal
Undoubtedly the Troika’s demands have forced layoffs and salary cutbacks within the Greek government that have jolted the fundamental foundations upon which Greek life has been based for decades. Today, a new normal is evolving between traditional Greek  family expectations for job security and government promises. Neither has experience navigating through these troubled waters and as a result blame the other for Greece’s severely weakened economy. Workers strike frequently, making matters worse, while lawmakers struggle to acquiesce to the demands of their key industry groups. Last year alone, the government published over 240 legislative reforms, which created havoc among business owners and investors who remain on the sidelines awaiting greater economic and political visibility from their government.

The Group’s Recommendations
Hanging Merkel in effigy may help release some anger among the Greek population but as the Group pointed out, there are better ways to deal with the current crisis; however, first things first. Steps to favorably reassess the role of the entrepreneur in Greek society will very likely spark a cottage service industry of business coaches, entrepreneurial therapists, web designers, mentors, and more. Their growing presence will encourage other young adults to consider entrepreneurial pursuits, while simultaneously, reverse the current ‘social outcast’ stigma associated with entrepreneurship. If supported by favorable policies and legislation, Greeks living abroad may see this initiative as their calling card to return to Greece. Their expertise, networks, and enthusiasm should further unleash the many innovative capabilities currently bottled up within the Greek population.

The Group felt Greece could one day become a low-cost solution for big data and data analytics services globally. Just as India captured the call center and IT sectors, Greece’s mathematical prowess, recognized throughout history and the world, could drive both the low end side of the business where big databases require meticulous ‘cleaning’ as well as the high-end side of the business where sophisticated algorithms for machine- to-machine communications among devices or robots are required.

Institutes for Excellence
The Group suggested the development of an independently operated Institution for Excellence or IE whose purpose would be to teach and mentor students on the educational tools and skills needed to launch a big data and data analytics eco-system, specifically a human capital engagement research center. The Institute would reside within an existing university but operate independently. Their campus presence should reignite a new sense of purpose at academic institutions, one that industry could value and be willing to support financially. The Institute would have to be fully insulated from political influence and be governed through an independent board whose members represent its constituents equitably. The IE’s footprint should be designated a tax-free zone to help students finance their startups. Startups that reach a specific threshold in sales would be spun off into the Greek economy under a gradual legislative assimilation process.

Funding for an Institute for Excellence could come from three sources. First, from Greek diaspora who may be willing to return to Greece and actively participate in a teaching/mentorship program. Second, from a modified tax amnesty program similar to one implemented in the UK where tax avoiders can come clean with their overdue tax bill by investing in qualified startups. To help Greeks make the transition to entrepreneurship, however, this tax amnesty program could be further simplified by issuing shares from a fund whose charter includes the establishment of multiple Institutes of Excellence throughout Greece and, potentially, other countries.

A third funding source would come from international private equity funds whose involvement could lead to future investments in the IEs startup companies and relevant initial public offerings or IPOs at both local and global stock exchanges.

Existing organizations such as MIT’s Venture Mentor Service ( http://vms.mit.edu/) can be tapped for guidance, know-how, and strategy. As is often the case with entrepreneurship, the initial phases for proof of concept are the most difficult, however, there is little doubt in my mind that the 15 Greek young professionals who worked through these ideas with me in less than two hours can lead this charge. If given the chance, they and their peers could offer Venizelos with another set of talking points that will change the Troika’s next discussion from one of exasperation to one of opportunity fueled by sustainable economic growth.

© 2014 Tom Kadala

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14 Responses to Greece: Land of Economic Tragedy or Entrepreneurial Opportunity?

  1. Dave Wilson says:

    Very impressive, Tom – nice work! Dave Wilson

  2. Its a nice neat study. Margaret Mead, the anthrpologist did a lot of research in the Pacific Islands a long time ago. She found many insights from her small sample research and her knowledge of the subject matter. What researchers now appreciate, with hindsight, of course, is that valuable insights can also be gleaned from qualitative research. Thats what you have done, Tom. The insights are pretty impressive. While young people do not have sufficient experience, they certainly understand how those experienced people have failed to create wealth for the country and employment for their community, for both the growing percentages of youth and the older people.

    The youth of Greece have suggested some great ideas (big data analysis; Institutes of excellence, enticing expatriate investments, etc) that if implemented, will spawn innovation. That will only come form forgetting about old skills that are not needed in the marketplace to focusing on future skills that will be needed in the future marketplace. In addition, creative thinking must be encouraged. Thats how most of the successful organizations in the world grew. What is needed is not only creative thinking organizations but also knowledge-creating organizations.

    On a final note I don’t want to give the wrong impression that small size samples are adequate for obtaining useful knowledge but indeed the initial small study must be supplemented by quantitative research which should be continuously done in SMEs too. What about a business plan? We know almost 80% of SMEs fail in the first three years due to the lack of a viable business plan. In any case. venture capitalist will want one.

    • Tom Kadala says:

      Many thanks for your very thoughtful and kind comments.

      You’re very right in saying that my sample size was small, however, my initial intent was not to conduct traditional research (since I had limited time) but rather to perform a preliminary ideation exercise that could be easily replicated. My ultimate goal was to demonstrate a facilitation process I’ve used successfully elsewhere including at the UN to a small group of young Greek professionals. I wanted them to see first hand how effective a properly run, two-hour facilitated discussion among themselves could render positive outcomes. Hopefully their recommendations, summarized in my article will prove to them and their leaders that there’s no need to wait on a dysfunctional government to determine their future. In fact Greek government leaders should be very open to hear some refreshing ideas from their constituents.

      I’ve found from my previous facilitation work that when great ideas are presented, without any strings attached, opposing sides, even if just for a moment, will put their differences aside to consider their potential. That moment of truth is all that is needed to inspire positive change down the road. There’s really no telling if the 15 young professionals I met last month will gain any meaningful ground with their government leaders, but I do know that my article will remind everyone involved to not stop trying.

      If you’re interested in my facilitation model, you can read more about it on my web site, http://www.ResearchPAYS.net. It has proven itself to be incredibly effective with a wide range of topics, issues, and expert participants.

      Thank you again for your comment.

  3. Raul Mercado says:

    With family & friends coping with a financial & cultural crisis in Greece, the absolute opposite of ordinary is a must for positive change.

    • Vassilis says:

      The Greek problem, to my opinion, is due to the power of special groups, and their ability to influence the media, politicians and society. To name a few:

      – big “entrepreneurs” whose activity is highly related with the public sector as well as smaller self-employed groups that block competition (e.g. lawyers). The first push for a return to drachma so that they can right off all their debts and buy everything in the country (same with what happened in Russia after the collapse of the communism), both of them block free economic activity and competition in Greece, e.g. look why BP and Shell left the country. Do you know that in Greece is not allowed to buy fresh bread from the super markets? there are hundreds of examples that prevent free economic activity.
      – unions, they are still powerful in the public sector and corrupted
      – media, typically owned by the big “entrepreneurs”, promoting their agenda under the cover of leftism. Most of the prestige journalists in Greece have their political roots in communism,
      – public servants, not all, but most of them represent the clientele of the political parties, left parties included.
      – politicians, with limited vision, education, western orientation, unwilling to break off bonds with their corrupted clientele

      What Greece needs is a new Margaret Thatcher. The ideas proposed by the students are good, most of them for the long term. I would support a new political party with libertarian political views, e.g. DRASI

      • Tom Kadala says:

        Vassilis,

        Thank you for sharing your comments.

        No doubt Greece today suffers from an over-bloated government driven by personal agendas rather than sound planning. Lack of leadership (as you mentioned), a shady past formerly aligned with communism, and weak prospects for a brighter future are contributing to a high level of social pessimism and loss of hope. But Greece is no longer the isolated island it once was. Instead it has become another participant in a civilized group of countries that can only achieve collective progress if its lesser parts can follow. Greece’s problems are not just those of Greece any longer. They belong to the rest of the Europe and the world.

        The pressure your myopic leaders and corrupted officials are feeling today is far greater than they could ever manage with their old tricks. They don’t stand a chance against the forces of progress surrounding them. Times have changed and the opportunity to participate in the future of Greece is fast approaching. You and your colleagues can either sit back and wait to see how the dust settles or choose to take an active role in forming a Greece that will matter to you for years to come.

        In my article above, the recommendations highlighted should not be interpreted as short or long term but rather as ‘satellite initiatives’ needed to enact change. ‘Satellite initiatives’ are common in the corporate world. Let me explain.

        When companies reach a point where their corporate culture stagnates innovation, their board of directors will often approve the formation of a separate entity whose management style is radically different and allowed to function detached from its parent company. In the young subsidy, innovation surges, which captures new markets and eventually helps to grow the company to a size that it can acquire/change its ‘parent company’. There are thousands of successful examples of ‘satellite initiatives’ like this one in the corporate world that one might just conclude that a similar remedy should also apply to a country/company like Greece.

        If you view the three recommendations from your peers in this light you should come to the same conclusions that I have. Greece is ready for change. It’s young professionals represent the new management team. …and when the Troika (board of directors) finally agrees to allow Greece’s young professionals to innovate on mutual terms, a new and vibrant Greece will emerge.

        A new Greece is not a matter of if, but when.

  4. Javier Laris says:

    Greeks are suffering what we Mexicans experienced in the early 80’s. We were the pariahs of the international community. Things started looking better when we realized that the “crisis” was our new form of “modus vivendi”, and started acting accordingly.
    Great work Tom

  5. Jerome Smith says:

    Tom,
    We at MIT VMS are working with a venture team who is focused on helping build a similar formal mentoring program in Greece. I’d be interested to learn how you learned of our program at MIT VMS.
    Jerome Smith, Co-Director, MIT VMS

  6. Alex Nikolaidis says:

    “First, funds should go toward changing Greece’s educational system and specifically toward the placement of more non-Greek teachers”

    – Although it’s an excellent idea, I believe that it would face enormous resistance from the status quo. Currently Greek teachers not only hold a life time job regardless of their performance, but also there isn’t any kind of assessment. Can you imagine the reactions from the unions if someone proposed the placement of more non-Greek teachers? Don’t forget that teachers are public servants. The “beloved children” and some of the last remaining voters of the current political parties.

    “The second suggestion for the allocation of the hypothetical 100 million euros was to boost the poor image of entrepreneurs within Greek society”

    – Currently entrepreneurs and professionals are presented indirectly from the major media as one of the reason for the current economic situation. Every day there is news about a professional or an entrepreneur with a bank account with 1M euros from illegal transactions. The state treats them as a “second level” citizens which are “guilty until proven innocent”.
    Do you know that even if an entrepreneur take risks in order to create wealth (and jobs) must pay a lot more income taxes than a risk free employee?
    Currently the state raised the price of heating petrol to unbearable levels just to get 8-10 Millions, leaving most families freezing. Can you imagine the social impact, if someone suggested to spend 100M euros to improve the image of entrepreneurs?

    The third suggestion “the Group funds should be spent to create a new and independent political party”

    – For any political party to achieve a controlling role there must be support from the mainstream media. These media belong to company groups that have strong ties with the current political parties, and will fight to death any new party that will try to get a controlling percentage. Simply there is no democracy in Greece. I would call it much better “mediocracy”. This the reason that these parties still rule, the people don’t protest and a good reason that everything practically remains the same even under these circumstances.

    Sorry for being pessimistic, but as an entrepreneur based in Greece for the last decade is the only way I can see things…

  7. Tom Kadala says:

    Alex,

    Thank you for your very thoughtful comments.

    They offer an excellent discussion platform to introduce a number of key concepts that hopefully will help you and your colleagues think through some of the issues and better understand the recommendations provided by the Group of 15.

    Entrepreneurship is not the same as small business. Many people confuse the two and in the case of Greece, believe that entrepreneurship means opening up another coffee shop. If what we were talking about was about creating more small businesses then your comments above would apply. However, entrepreneurship is something completely different.

    Entrepreneurship is a disruptive force against the accepted norm. It’s as much a mindset as it is a potential idea or company. It is not one person but an eco-system of individuals, startups, backers, and mentors. Its combined force does not guarantee success but its presence reminds the public of its vital role in society. Like it or not, without entrepreneurial presence economies cannot survive.

    An entrepreneur like myself would read your comments differently than perhaps what you may have intended. All we need to become motivated is a drop of water to see a glass full and overflowing. We recognize that all it takes to instill change is a small shift in public thinking. The rest is standard procedures of inventing, creating, introducing, testing, rolling out, and finally scaling, yes, with a few timely moments of crazy luck along the way. Where entrepreneurs differ is in their timing. Not everyone gets it right the first time or at all. That is why so many startups fail. They are either behind the times or ahead of their time. Getting it just right requires more luck than I care to admit but at least it does happen. That is also why entrepreneurs like to hear or read about the success of others. It keeps their hopes up when it matters most.

    For most entrepreneurs that I know, the greater the chaos within a market the greater the opportunity for disruption. If Greece was operating like Germany then entrepreneurial opportunities of the type I have described would no longer exist; maybe small business opportunities but definitely not entrepreneurial ones.

    So, if you reread your comment and see all the negative points you highlight, rather than view them as walls you should see them as obstacles, all of which are surmountable against a series of clever and timely ideas.

    Here’s another way to look at your comment.

    Imagine a room of primary school children. In one corner there’s a group arguing over who gets to use the shiny dolls. Eventually they take turns and agree to a set of rules that do not include other children. These are your teachers. In another corner is another group of kids who are bored to tears because there is nothing new to test their imagination so they start throwing things at the first group to get the teacher’s (or Troika’s) attention. These are your politicians. Suddenly everyone is crying and screaming. There’s total chaos in the room. Now, you walk in. How would you assess the situation? Unresolvable? Maybe and maybe not.

    To the kids with dolls, what if a new child introduced a new type of doll, perhaps a ceramic one that shines even brighter, that can talk and sing any song they ask. What will happen to the group dynamics? Will they ask the new person to leave? Maybe or maybe not. For the other group, what if a mentor challenged them to create cool designs with lego pieces or ways to produce dolls using 3-D printers. Would they reject this mentor? Maybe and maybe not.

    The point I am making is that chaos is a social language similar to a crying baby. When people are upset with their lives they talk all at once and no one person can be heard. They are upset because they can’t pin point the root of their problem. Once presented with an alternative solution, however, early adapters start to change their ways and move forward. Others follow. Where the entrepreneur comes in to play is in developing these alternative, behavioral changing solutions and presenting a forward vision that everyone can agree upon. Today that vision must be shared by both government and the private sector to work properly.

    Will it come easy? Of course not. If it did, I wouldn’t be writing this article, and you would not be thinking about becoming an entrepreneur. Therein, my friend, lies the enormous opportunity within your Greece. It’s huge!

    I hope these comments are both inspirational and useful as they are intended.

  8. Alex Nikolaidis says:

    Dear Tom,
    Thank you for your reply. I understand and appreciate your intentions.
    Unfortunately the reality in Greece is really disappointing.

    When the Greek crisis started back in 2009, I was really optimistic. I saw it as great opportunity to rebuild this country in a new solid, healthy and competitive base. When everything is chaotic, when nothing is for granted, then you can really start from the scratch and create something new and healthy. Something that can create the foundation for the future.

    Unfortunately nothing happened. The same people choose the same politics to do the same things again. Nothing really changed. The only thing that changed was the move of the state dept to personal dept. People lost their jobs, or had their salaries severely reduced, spent any savings the might had.

    As for the opportunity, currently politicians ensure people that bad days are over and the next years will be better. And people believes them, because they need something to believe to. In my opinion the opportunity is lost…

    Personally I know that the numbers don’t match. The GDP is shrinking. Billions of euros are subtracted from the real economy in the form of taxes, in order to pay the government depts. Banking sector can not loan money and will need soon another injection of capital to survive (most probably will be paid by enforcing more taxes or by getting the money from the depositors). Civil rights are trespassed and the government must get approval from the Troika to govern.

    Do you still believe that there is hope?

    Which is my view for the future of Greece?
    Soon (in 1 or 2yrs) there will be another break down. But this time there will not be any personal wealth left to pay the depts. The majority of the people will owe money to the government and all of them will face the possibility of imprisonment (making them puppets in the hands of each government).
    This is not Sci-Fi. Today I heard on the radio, that policemen along with men from the IRS stopped people in the streets checking them for depts to the state.

    Any skilled people will leave the country. Any healthy companies will leave the country. The only people that will remain here will be retired people and waiters serving beers to the north europe tourists…

    There is a raising starting up scene here in Greece. The dream of every startup here is to succeed… and leave the country!

    So even if we innovate and succeed to create the next few big things, these startups will move to business friendly countries and will help them to grow instead of Greece.
    Can you blame them?

    So regarding the title of your article I would vote “the economic tragedy”…

  9. Skar Aveos says:

    ” The country of 10 million inhabitants owes over 317.31 billion euros plus interest to European bankers and other investors, …which translates to a shared debt of over 317,310 euros per Greek citizen. ” Greek lab rats successfully lost their basic arithmetic abilities after many years of … well …targeted action. If you were affected in only two hours, your meeting must have taken place on top of the transmitters ! ( Its 31,731 euros per Greek citizen ) As for Venizelos, the only thing we have to offer him is his real family name back ( Turgutsoglu ) and double food rations in prison.

    • Tom Kadala says:

      Skar, Thanks for pointing out the typo. Funny how no one else caught it but a Greek reader. It supports my point on how Greeks have an inherent talent toward numbers and their future may lie with Big Data and Data Analytics.

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