Greece’s unknown success story

By Thanos Davelis, Director of Public Affairs

This week Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras symbolically traveled to the island of Ithaca and announced the end of Greece’s “modern-day Odyssey” after Greece successfully emerged from over eight years of bailouts. It was in 2010 that then Prime Minister George Papandreou stood on another Greek island, Kastellorizo, announcing the beginning of this “Odyssey”. Since that day, Greeks have experienced an economic situation that can only be compared to our Great Depression in the 1930s.

Certainly, Greece’s exit from the bailout does not mark the end of the “journey” for its economy or people, who still struggle day to day with the effects of austerity. While economic recovery is gaining traction, there is a long way to go before the country returns to pre-crisis levels. Let’s not forget, Greece lost 25 percent of its GDP during this time. Naturally, tourism — Greece’s traditional heavyweight industry — is leading the way. There is another sector that has gotten less attention, but is becoming a source of jobs and hope for many young Greeks. That is the nascent startup sector that has taken hold in Athens.

If you asked most Greeks before the crisis, they would most likely have told you that they either wanted to do freelance work or work in the public sector. In fact, when I worked at the Greek Consulate, friends and family jokingly would tell me I had achieved every young Greek’s dream — a job with the government. The crisis is changing that mentality.

Young Greeks are realizing that relying on that “dream job” with the government is no longer a viable option. Necessity has forced them to either leave Greece (over 200,000 have left in search of work elsewhere), or take risks and innovate. It is these stories of success from a younger generation that are offering hope that Greece can reverse the exodus of its highly educated youth and set its economy on a new path.

Today, there are between 600 and 1,100 startups in Greece compared to 16 in 2010. What is especially encouraging is the number of women who are leading the way. According to research conducted by Found.ation and EIT Digital, “Greece ranks second (following the UK) on the percentage of female founders (28.4%), higher than the European average of 14.8%.” According to the same research, Greek startups have raised roughly 250 million euros in the past few years. While there is a lot of optimism around startups, a lot of work still needs to be done.

Startups face the same challenges as other small businesses in Greece. Bureaucracy and red tape are significant challenges that are overcome with patience and perseverance by entrepreneurs who are committed to setting their roots in Greece. Things are improving, however. It is becoming easier to register a business — you can even do it online now — and programs backed by the Greek government and the European Investment Bank and the European Investment Fund are offering €300 million to Greek startups over the next five years.

The startup scene is also on Washington, DC’s radar. In the buildup to the Thessaloniki International Fair (where the US is the featured country) US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt is touting the huge opportunities for American companies in Greek tourism, energy and startups. In fact, in an in-depth interview with Alexis Papachelas, Pyatt described the success of the startup and entrepreneurial sector as “Greece’s greatest unknown success story.”

Traditional industries such as tourism and shipping may be the obvious places to look for immediate growth. These “unknown success stories” that are taking hold in Athens and are led by young Greeks, however, have a unique opportunity to change the dynamics of the Greek economy in the long run. Katerina Sokou, who I interviewed on our podcast The Greek Current, said it best. The many young Greeks who take risks and create something out of their comfort zones are “the positive news in the era of the crisis,” and it is in them that Greece will find its future growth prospects.