Let’s talk about community!


My name is Andrea Solomonides and I am really excited to be standing before you today. I owe this opportunity to an alignment of many stars as well a number of communities coming together throughout our continent.

I usually wear different hats. Business, entrepreneurship, politics, startups, consulting, speaker, team leader, team member, driver, cleaner, office manager, host, entertainer, advisor and the list is obviously endless as you all may experience in your everyday life. Doing all aforementioned though is rarely not as a member of a certain community.

Let me back up a bit and give you a sense of my background. All of these things define me. Although is a bit of an outdated sum of actions, organizations and aspirations, still more than 50% of it are communities.

I’ve been called as an “expert” in panels a lot. I hate that word. Expert. Makes me feel old. So in that sense, I assure you, I’m not. I am someone though that has been infatuated with the notion of time management all my life, therefore I’ve repeatedly done things, as many as I could at a time, in order not to waste any time. So against my better judgement, when INNOVEIT came calling, I took on yet another task I never took before. Discussing the most challenging tasks of all. Building a community. Not a company, not a startup, not a campaign not even an ikea table. A community. Looking back to my experiences, i’m gonna say it feels like a piece of cake. It was not.

So, let’s talk about Community. Such a simple word but such an overused one. Coming from a person that has always been a part of many communities and even build some as well, there are some words, terms and notions so overused and the word community is one of them. Even when you apply for things such as fellowships, organizations, conference participation, there is always that question. “What are you doing for your community?” The people preparing those submission forms and applications have that strange notion that participation demonstrates either leadership or empathy and other characteristics in between. They are not wrong, but they are not entirely right either!

That’s also the reason everyone gets confused that we are talking about let’s say your city. It’s supposed to be designed to make you feel you belong. You are a citizen there, hence you belong to that community. Right? Maybe! It’s a different thing you doing something for a community aka a city and different you being part of one. The community needs to be something fulfilling for you and then beneficial to people around you. And last but not least, why limit it to one?

Community as a term applies in 2 different occasions. One as a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common and two The condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common.

The first one is easy. Some things are build that way, to help you foster relationships in close proximity. You pick a team, a political affiliation, an environmental cause, a sport or hobby and then you are defined by that certain aspect of that community. If my team in Limassol is perceived as hooligans and my political affiliation is conservative then Andrea would be a conservative hooligan if that ever existed. If I want to feel associated with an environmental cause, I’ll probably join local actions and plant trees or clean beaches and that will be all.

But then again, the structures of doing those things were there since the dawn of time aka our grandparents’ era. I support the team that once my grandpa was a footballer in and share the same political affiliations as him and my father because that’s how those communities are designed to work. Passing the torch from generation to generation.

So what happens when the vision is to build something new? Something beyond what you grew up and learned to be? When the struggle is to light up that torch, the one you will eventually pass along and hopefully others will pass after you? Lack of infrastructure is in my opinion what makes everything fail. So why this effort should be any different? It’s not. It’s exactly the same but this time, you are not alone.

Soon after I started my entrepreneurial journey in Athens in one of the first events happening back then it was startup live. The girl (Konstantina) that was running it was the most fierce person I met up till then in the newly established greek ecosystem. And for me, coming from a background in politics, it was a refreshing new start. We became friends and she introduced me to the first major global community I have now been a part the past 4–5 years. Sandbox network. Anyboday ever came across Sandbox network or is a member? I love their tagline. “Incubating minds”. Amazing. Inspiring. Anybody here a Shaper? Same feeling.

Around the beginning of 2012, went to her again for some advice. I said “look, i love being part of the ecosystem here, Athens is my city, I’ve been here so long, we have the Athens Global Shapers hub, we are building the Sandbox Athens hub, but I wanna do something for my home country as well.” She was like “ok, let me introduce you to this Cypriot guy I met through Sandbox in London. I think he is up to something and that would be a great person to talk to see if you can collaborate”. And I was thinking to myself, will I really just start talking to this random person over e-mail about my aspirations? Again, keep in mind that I am someone used to talking to random people and large crowds, I was in politics after all. It should have been easy@ But I was sceptical. How will that work? And especially after she did make the intro, jeez you should have seen that guy’s signature. Cambridge, founder of 2 startups in UK, founding member of NACUE, the association of entrepreneurship clubs in UK universities and so many more. I felt intimidated. But Michael replied to the introduction email and we promised soon to skype call and talk.

Couple of months went by and still we did nothing about it. I was still meeting a lot of people in Athens, but was still doing nothing about the other thing. Then suddenly, around the beginning of the summer, after yet another Startup Live event and after excessively tweeting about it, a Cypriot friend of mine living in London, caught on and sent me a message asking me to talk. He described what it seemed my idea of helping jump start the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cyprus. After I heard him, I quickly went through my notes and I found Michael’s note. I asked him if this idea and this group that he was referring to, includes a guy named Michael. It did. So this couldn’t be a coincidence anymore! He asked me if I were interested to join and explore with them. I said yes.

And so a group of 12 Cypriots in their mid-twenties, living in Athens, London, Boston and Nicosia entered a facebook group and called it Cypriot Enterprise Link Family. Everyone had such an amazing background. All of them had great aspirations, were startup oriented, tech related, business driven, and all of them one goal. What are we going to do about our country?

We listed all possible angles and problems, talked heavily about what we are doing in our normal lives, what we like and our aspirations for this cause. And we figured out that the first thing to tackle was the lack of identifying all the tech oriented people in Cyprus. So we spinned off a group called Hack Cyprus. And we tried to put in it all the Cypriots we knew that were developers and tech oriented and urged them to invite more in, even if they didn’t live in Cyprus. “But how will we get them together?” was our next challenge. Let’s do something that was never done before in Cyprus. Let’s organize a Hackathon! Now it is such a common term, overly and excessively used. But in September 2012, when I sent out the first press release for it, it was translated by local media as the following “If you want to learn how to be safe from hackers, you should go to this brand new conference called Hack Cyprus Hackathon”. No, we couldn’t save anyone from hackers, nor anybody came because of those press announcements. Nonetheless, 80 people showed up. And they all knew what was that about and they felt hungry for it. “It was about time!” one said. It was a great first weekend. Everyone signed up to be members of this brand new community. Hack Cyprus!

The beginning is everything. It’s the first step and literally half the work. But you can’t rest on your laurels. That’s when it’s time to fight more. We started drafting the founding declaration. Who we are, what we are, what we aim to spin off and all things we wished to tackle like Hack Cyprus was tackling the lack of visible tech talent. So now that we had a foundation, we decided that the next step was to keep bringing people together in order to network so eventually we could announce some of our next ideas. And that’s how the annual Beer, Burgers and Networking came to life. Everyone interested in startups, business, tech and so on, should just join us for a barbeque. 110 people showed up. Keep in mind that we were organizing everything while the majority of the team was living elsewhere and not Cyprus and having their own statups and jobs and so on.

Long story short we set up the Project Cel website and blog, Pink Edition came to life, then the Hack Cyprus Festival was announced while our country’s banks were crushing, and attracted 400 people over the course of 5 days with hackathons, codeschools and Insights day were founders from all over Europe joined the stage. Hack Cyprus Tech talks spinned off after that, the volunteer network grew from 12 to 100 volunteers on different events, participants were then becoming members and eventually now board members. We entered the alliances of various parties and created the Startup Cyprus platform, supported a number of other initiatives by sending speakers, volunteers and materials. CEL education was created after a collaboration with UNDP, designed to teach highschool students and young adults the fundamentals for entrepreneurship while Code Schools was one of the leading programs for introducing high school kids to robotics and coding. Insights Conference then spinned off from being just a day within Hack Cyprus Festival to being a festival on its own, about entrepreneurship, business and inspiration.

In late 2011 when Michael and the first of the CEL family envisioned this, government doors were closed and ideas and proposals fell on deaf ears. Last year’s Insights kicked off with the President’s right hand and Deputy minister speaking about the importance of organizations such as Cypriot Enterprise Link, because they were the foundation of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Government initiatives and support followed our lead, not the other way around. We were hosted in the country’s leading Bank’s event spaces when our meet-ups in 2012 were merely a corner of a cafe.

But the important part is not having the recognition of the current government or any government, bank or corporation although these are very welcomed and we are really grateful for their support.

It’s the sheer fact that over these 5 years, a tremendous amount of people came together for 1 single cause. To build this ecosystem, to offer their expertise and their talent, to get feedback and to feel a sense of belonging that nothing else managed to make them feel that. I could start telling you how the original 12 people family went on to have 20million exit startups, heading and restructuring public companies, starting up, failing but this wouldn not be the take away from this story.

The take away would be that within this community you find family. The team are my brothers and sisters. My co-founders in our latest startup efforts were the winners of the 2014 hackathon. A significant amount of people found co-founders and support or even just a person to share their frustration about something. We have created jobs, we connected cities across the EU and the world coz our mission, to bringing every Cypriot together and connecting the local talent, although far from accomplished its on its way. Most importantly, I experienced in action the meaning of the world GRIT. That’s the only thing you need when you build a community.

And as I said at the beginning, this journey is the reason I am with you, sharing this stage today, feeling grateful and honored to witnessed yet great community emerging, eager to conquer the world. Because through thick and thin, what you all need to remember is that “alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much”.

Thank you.

{spoken word often is different than the transcript}