Greeks struggle to shed old ways of thinking

Article published on July 25, 2011
community published
Article published on July 25, 2011
Glad to see young talented Greek and German friends mentioned at the Associated Press article by Christopher Torchia and their stories ... "A few Greek entrepreneurs perch in front of laptops in bare offices above a ground-floor supermarket, five minutes' walk from the Athens square convulsed by riots last month over the country's economic crisis. "Innovate," a wall slogan exhorts. "Originate.
" A bowl of fist-sized plastic balls sits on a table, ripe for the plucking. Sure, the touches are geeky. But if there is hope for debt-laden Greece, which has just been bailed out again by the EU, there is a glimmer of it here. A small enterprise called CoLab Workspace rents space to tech-savvy startups on the theory that the more they mingle, the more they thrive. This nascent pocket of dynamism won't make much of a dent in a culture of freeloading and favor-trading that burrowed deep into the Greek psyche, but it is a symbol, however rarefied, of fresh thinking.

For the problem is not just the numbers, the dots that connect a picture of economic collapse. Unemployment, austerity measures, bailout funds and the slumping stock market are one thing. Modern Greece, whose ancestors laid foundations of art, democracy and individualism, is also reckoning with ingrained habits of dependence, accompanied today by a yawning sense of betrayal and hopelessness, that block its path to recovery.

"It's extremely difficult. Here, in general, innovation never existed. The majority of the companies, they relied on the state, on the government. It was a totally wrong approach," said Vassilis Nikolopoulos, a computer engineer whose IT startup, Intelen, aims to help firms monitor and curb their energy consumption. He recently shifted his operations to CoLab Workspace from a conventional office that cost more.

Declaring that "the state is dead," in that it has no money to support projects, Nikolopoulos said he has raised about one-third of the roughly $300,000 needed for initial funding from private investors and that his 7-member company plans to export services even if it entails failure, a rite of passage for any aggressive entrepreneur.

... Nikolopoulos is the picture of a smart corporate executive, with the jargon to match — he says he will "attack the market" — but he draws inspiration from some unexpected sources. Outlining his business philosophy, he evoked Vladimir Lenin's revolutionary vision, and praised the prime minister of Turkey, Greece's historical enemy, for firm leadership while presiding over his country's economy boom.

Many of Greece's brightest minds, however, feel they have no choice but to build careers abroad, anticipating an opportunity drought that will last a decade.

Nikos Georgiopoulos, a 29-year-old former employee of the International Monetary Fund, recently found a job in the insurance industry in Vienna. His sister, a biologist, failed to find work in Greece and got a job in Switzerland. His father imports auto parts but is struggling to keep his small business afloat.

In the old days, Greece's institutions were inefficient but people complained less because the money was flowing, Georgiopoulos said. Now that the government is cutting spending and salaries as part of a pact to secure international funds, he said, the "tradeoff between state and society" has crumbled and, as in the Great Depression before World War II, the wealthy will suffer far less than those of modest means.

"People actually don't know what is going to happen to them," he said. "They start to show signs of societal disintegration."

... Markus Stolz, a German businessman who married a Greek and lives in Greece, said he was "shocked" years ago when he learned how little Greek wine was sold abroad, an opening that he quickly exploited to build an export market to Europe and the United States.

He said Greeks generally lack that can-do spirit.

"People concentrate heavily on the problems they face rather than trying to execute things," Stolz said. "There are lots of bureaucratic issues. But in the end, people need to start something just to get going.

That's what Greek real estate executive Alice Corovessi is trying to do.

Before the economic crisis, she used to receive 10 contacts a week from potential new investors, mostly elsewhere in Europe, and now she receives fewer than two such contacts a month. The few offers to buy usually come in as low as half the cost of the property, to which Corovessi says she responds: "We are not giving gifts."

"We don't know where the truth is," she said. "We are not working. We are thinking and we are discussing." And yet, Corovessi said, "Greece must restart."

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