Silicon Valley, 2018
November in California is as sunny as Athens. As we sipped some Greek coffee in Menlo Park at Nick Arvanitidis’ place, we were discussing what is close to both of us — biotechnology, entrepreneurship and our country: Greece.
Among his many endeavours and more than 40 years living abroad, Arvanitidis founded Sequus Pharmaceuticals, which he led for many years including its NASDAQ IPO.
And me, in 2012, while I was still based in Greece, I started Mindspace, an organization that makes students entrepreneurial. Mindspace developed to the point of sending Greek students to Silicon Valley for two weeks.
Here, Arvanitidis kindly offered to organize workshops for us, also inviting many prominent Greeks living in the United States to welcome us.
But how did we end up outside of Greece talking about how to make her more entrepreneurial?
Before it happens
In 2011, Polytechnio, the top engineering school in Greece with more than 20,000 students, organized only one event around entrepreneurship: a competition called “Innovative Design”. A few years later the competition was cancelled because no more than 2 students applied. Make no mistake: the word “entrepreneurship” is omitted on purpose from the competition’s title. “Innovation” is already crossing the line for the strictly academic environment of Polytechnio, where building a product based on your research could broadly be considered unethical; therefore, professors either don’t do it (most of them) or they hide it.
Many institutions have tried to change the Greek university model without great success.
Probably the most important initiative so far was in 2012 by Minister of Education Anna Diamantopoulou, with a law introducing significant innovations in university governance. The law was met with huge protests.
In 2017, professors at Bern University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and London School of Economics (LSE), who had participated in the now extinct University Councils introduced by Diamantopoulou law, reported that the situation in Greek universities continued to worsen. In their opinion, the bad governance persists because it benefits interest groups such as student representatives of political parties. It is true — political parties have enjoyed great power by having direct access for propaganda to students and offices inside all universities.
Almost 450,000 Greeks left the country between 2008 and 2016, depriving Greece of brain power while also contributing to the aging of the population, as Greece’s total population is less than 11 million. Through the brain drain, Greeks have yielded 50 billion euros to the economies of other countries, particularly the United Kingdom and Germany.
“These people are mostly under 45 years old. Their return should be a national target”, said former minister Anna Diamantopoulou.
But why are we making such a big fuss about it? Let me take you back in time to the beginning of Mindspace and a hostile environment for business in Greek universities. So hostile for business that the connection between capitalism and the United States made Polytechnio off-limits for Uncle Sam’s diplomats.
Find your thing
As I completed my studies at Polytechnio, I had no idea what to do next. I hadn’t taken a big interest in the field of my studies, Mechanical Engineering. I spent most of my time having fun exploring new things, like playing live music with a few bands. I remember missing an entire semester’s worth of classes because I was practicing table tennis with a friend.
Trying to find something of interest in my studies, I became fascinated by the ways in which engineers could apply their skills to solve problems in human disease. I chose a thesis in Systems Biology, supervised by Dr. Leonidas Alexopoulos.
Following a 10-year career in the United States, Alexopoulos arrived in Greece in 2008, right at the beginning of the Greek economic crisis. What he brought with him was an entrepreneurial mindset that was apparent in how he ran his lab; this served as a major influence for me, as I was just becoming interested in entrepreneurship and innovation.
Later, in 2011, I joined Protavio, a biotech startup, as its first employee.
Everyone that has worked at a startup during its initial stages knows how quickly you must learn new things, which is definitely my thing. Working for a year in this entrepreneurial environment only further emphasized to me the difference from the Polytechnio mindset. I soon became interested in concepts like crowdsourcing, gamification and hackerspaces.
Late in the evening on the last day of May 2011, I was trying to meet the deadline for the university’s Innovative Design competition. My colleague and I were already considering making our project into a business. The next day I was flying to London to attend the London Business School (LBS) Entrepreneurship Conference.
The conference ticket of 65 Euros was too much for a student, but my curiosity was greater, so I persuaded my parents to cover my next “new thing”. Regarding where to sleep, I was to stay at the apartment of my friend Dimitris.
On the plane to London, I was thinking about one of the perks of brain drain: you get to have friends scattered across the world who are willing to host you for a few days.
On Friday, 3rd June at 8 am, I sleepily yet excitedly entered the Bloomberg Auditorium. I was soon to discover a vastly different world where successful entrepreneurs and ambitious startuppers met and exchanged ideas in the university environment. I observed Niklas Zennström, Founder of Kazaa and Skype, entering the room and taking a seat in the audience. Microsoft had bought Skype a few days earlier — and its two founders took home more than $1 billion. With admiration, I watched the three finalists of the LBS student entrepreneurship competition pitching some great idea.
Sadly, Greece seemed to be from a different planet. I definitely wanted my university to have at least an Entrepreneurship Club.
I was so excited that I started bringing up this topic in my daily conversations. It appeared though that most of my friends were not as excited as I was.
The first person who shared my enthusiasm was Thanasis Dimopoulos, a fellow engineer from Polytechnio and an example of brain drain, still living abroad. I was walking through London’s Hyde Park with him, talking and nudging him about Polytechnio’s environment, when we finally agreed to do something about it. By the end of 2012, my family was already used to the view of me Skyping with Thanasis for hours and hours, figuring out ways to make it happen.
The year 2013 was all about bringing people together. Searching for like-minded people like Thanasis, I went through my whole Facebook friend list and my phone contacts to make sure I hadn’t missed anyone.
My cousin Greg Tsangaris had built a forum for Polytechnio and was very good with information technology. My friend Electra Athanasiou-Ioannou, a law student, would help us with legal matters. A friend from the Alexopoulos lab introduced me to a team of students who organized talks on campus. Another lab colleague, Nikos Kavalopoulos, was very interested in hackerspaces — and beer — and also knew Vassilis Georgitzikis — also interested in beer — who had started the first hackerspace in Greece.
We soon arranged a meeting, as you can imagine at a beerhouse, to give us his insights on how to create such a space within Polytechnio. Alex Nikolakakis, also a mechanical engineer from Polytechnio, was the only person I personally knew at the time who had created a startup, Muse Robotics. When we met at his office, he even gave me some robotics equipment he could spare, so that we would have something to start our hackerspace with.
The initial team was built.
With a small team in place, we began approaching more professors in our school: Dr. Nikos Marmaras, the professor leading the Innovative Design Competition, and Dr. Evangelos Papadopoulos, a professor of robotics.
Papadopoulos and Alexopoulos, both MIT alumni, introduced me to Vasilis Papakonstantinou, a mechanical engineer and Chairman of the newly-founded MIT Enterprise Forum of Greece. Papakonstantinou introduced me to Dr. Ioanna-Sapfo Pepelasis, a professor of entrepreneurship at Athens University of Economics and Business (AUEB).
One of my worries at that moment was the diversity of the team. With most of the team being from my immediate environment, we were primarily made up of male mechanical engineers from Polytechnio.
I had set up our Facebook page in February 2014. In a rather desperate attempt to attract other demographics to our initiative, I used my personal money to run a few Facebook ads targeting people who were NOT male engineers.
The night of 21st March 2014, I invited all of those people at Polytechnio. We met in the building that hosts the Alexopoulos lab, which at night was cold, dark and without any other people. Pepelasis brought with her six of her best students, led by Irina Sandu.
My worry of creating too homogeneous of a team was gone, but another appeared — how does one build an entrepreneurship club with 20 different students while effectively cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset among all students?
Bridge different mindsets
We did it! Our first project — a meeting called “Ideas in Progress” — took place in May 2014.
Students pitched their ideas and received feedback from a committee in front of an audience of 70 other students who now had some role models. The participants and partners were amazed with our work.
But the event poster wrote: “Organized by Mindspace & Mindpitch”. The business students had decided to make their own club and only collaborate with us — Mindspace. The clash of mentality between engineering and business students was inevitable.
My engineer friends saw the business students as disconnected from tech and therefore lacking in the skills to build their idea. The business students, in turn, saw engineers as interested only in tech and lacking in basic skills essential to building a business around that idea. Engineers were pushing to make a hackerspace, business people to run pitching events.
Mindspace and Mindpitch. It required a lot of work and much discussion, but in the end we all agreed that combining the business and engineering mindsets is actually one of our strengths.
Meanwhile, Athanasiou-Ioannou and I started preparations for our first legal form, an Association, which required 20 founding members. One reason we selected the Association over the more easy-to-manage Civil Partnership at that time was to unite both sides of the team under one organization. Thus began the building of a sustainable marriage between tech and biz people.
Looking for more ways to bring the team closer together, we supported the very first MIT Enterprise Forum (MITEF) annual conference organized in Greece, held on 21st October 2014. The brand of MIT was an important factor, showing the student volunteers that our effort could be supported by worldwide organizations. MITEF bought Mindspace T-shirts for us, and the demanding execution of the conference operation strengthened the team bond. We also got our first press release mentioning Mindspace.
Just one day before the conference, another mechanical engineer sent a message to our Facebook page. Dimitris Dimosiaris had a great passion for startups. That’s why he was the only engineer among a team of business students who started ThinkBiz, a student entrepreneurship club at AUEB. Meeting with Dimosiaris, I remember how great it felt to see someone so passionate about entrepreneurship. He suggested that Mindspace run the Y Combinator course “How To Start A Startup” at Polytechnio and didn’t hesitate when I proposed that he join Mindspace and run it himself.
Dimosiaris brought to the team even more of the culture we needed to bridge tech and biz people.
Minds need a space
We used to hold all Mindspace team meetings after hours at the Alexopoulos lab. But as the team grew, having our own space had become a priority. We believed that having our own space was very important for Mindspace’s team morale, as it would solidify our unity.
I initiated contact with the vice-rector responsible for this matter, and he kindly offered to help us find a space. We soon discovered that there were indeed many rooms registered as “empty” across the campus, but almost all of them were given to the political party “student clubs” that unfortunately exist within the university. Some others had been “taken by force” by other entities like anarchists. Of course, the university couldn’t do anything about this, as any attempt to reclaim the spaces would have caused war inside the campus.
One of those spaces once hosted a bookstore, which was soon kicked out by leftist parties on the argument that it is a business and therefore doesn’t have a place inside the university. The space was then captured by anarchists.
I had a meeting with a friend of mine who was involved in the anarchist movement and we explored the possibility that I make a speech to the general assembly of anarchists to persuade them to let us use the space. The fact that we wanted to build a hackerspace, traditionally connected to the DIY culture, would help my argument. However, she advised me against that option and my decision to not push there was probably good for my health.
A few failed attempts later, I decided to make a booklet showing the significance of having a space like that within Polytechnio and how exactly we were going to make it. Taking advantage of the fact that we had volunteers from every school in Polytechnio, we met with many people and managed to acquire signatures from 50 professors on the booklet.
I presented these signatures to the vice-rector, who, likely exhausted by my persistence at this point, personally sought us a space within the Mechanical Engineering department.
His first attempt was also met with politics, but his second attempt was successful.
Still, the transfer of space to Mindspace had to be approved by the General Assembly of professors. That was not an easy task, as there were several professors who openly disagreed with having anything connected to entrepreneurship within the university campus. With the support of the majority and the vice-rector, we barely received approval.
After a year of lobbying, on 24th August 2015, I finally had the keys to our space. That coincided with the summer that Greece became the first developed country in history to fail to make an International Monetary Fund loan repayment on time.
During the early phases of creating a new story, it feels fictional. People started talking about Mindspace, and I remember the uneasy feeling I’d get when other people would recognize my story. Every time I came up with a name for an event or activity, I would feel this way when others started talking about it.
There are still some moments when I feel this uneasiness. It usually happens after devoting a significant amount of time to Mindspace. I get this feeling of working towards something unreal and I wonder what I have done. Does Mindspace exist? What is existence?
Yuval Noah Harari puts it very well: “How did Homo sapiens come to dominate the planet? The secret was a very peculiar characteristic of our unique Sapiens language. Our language, alone of all the animals, enables us to talk about things that do not exist at all. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death, in monkey heaven. Only Sapiens can believe such fictions. There are no gods, no nations, no money and no human rights, except in our collective imagination.”
I realised I started something valuable not only for myself and a few friends of mine, but also for many frustrated Greeks. At this moment, my team and I decided to take responsibility for what’s going on in our country and change it for the better, step by step.
In a 2014 members meeting, we set two main goals for the next level of Mindspace: find a space and fundraise 10,000 Euros. The space took us a year and I remember a few members saying that we would never make it. But, from the very beginning, the idea that someone would give us this money was even more unbelievable to many members.
We explored various sources of funding. As a student-run organization with the vision of changing the Greek university through a bottom-up approach, we didn’t expect university management to help us. Indeed, they didn’t even let us use our space address for the tax office. Corporate social responsibility requires that a certain level of work can be provided as evidence to trust where corporations distribute their money. Charitable foundations feel uncomfortable giving money to students and some of them had already decided not to ever consider fundraising applications from student clubs.
We needed to start somewhere. Having a respected partner trust us with their money would open the path to raising more money.
For us, that partner was going to be the United States of America.
The U.S. Embassy in Athens is always interested in finding young people who are passionate about changing society for the better. October 2015 was the second year we helped run the MITEF conference, which the U.S. Embassy was supporting, and Mike Snyder, the Embassy’s Cultural Attache at the time, was there. Young people wearing white Mindspace T-shirts and running all over the place caught his attention, so Snyder asked Papakonstantinou to make the introductions. I still remember the excitement of pitching Mindspace to Snyder and how interested he was.
After the conference, I followed up with them and we soon had a meeting arranged at the Embassy. There, we met Todd Pierce, Public Affairs Officer, who shared with us his idea to develop the public speaking skills of young Greeks.
Even though they didn’t support us with money at the time, they offered experts in public speaking. So we organized an event at Evgenidio Foundation where students with business ideas could apply and join us to learn how to pitch their ideas. We were lucky to have Markella Karagiorga responsible for the program on the U.S. Embassy side with whom we had a great collaboration and she is still responsible for all Mindspace programs, always close to many of our members.
Meanwhile, in 2016, we won the Angelopoulos Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) Fellowship, which included 10,000 Euros to develop Mindspace and attendance at the CGIU conference in California.
Following our successful collaboration with the U.S. Embassy for the pitching event, I developed a grant proposal for another program to be run by Mindspace. Based on the model of the pitching competition, I suggested running a 3-day workshop that would include training on public speaking, as well as one-on-one mentoring by entrepreneurs. We would bring this workshop to many cities in Greece, and we would bring the best performing teams on an educational trip in the United States.
During the 2016 pitching event, I was introduced to Paul Kidner, the General Manager of The People’s Trust (TPT). TPT had just started in Greece, and awarded, after careful selection, small grants to people who wanted to start a business. I asked Paul to award their grants to the best performing teams of the Challenge, without knowing who they would be, with the argument that they would be the best business ideas by students in Greece.
Both the Embassy and Paul agreed, and in 2017, the Mindspace Challenge and Mindspace Trip were born. Running a $50,000 program bumped Mindspace to the next level as a non-profit organization.
From the very beginning, starting Mindspace was a direct result of the culture inside the Greek university and my personal desire to change it to a more entrepreneurial one, like what I had seen at LBS and MIT. If all students had a more entrepreneurial mindset, I believe their success would be greater, regardless of their career path.
But what does it mean to be more entrepreneurial?
Marina Hatsopoulos, a successful Greek-American entrepreneur, puts it well: “It is the intellectual understanding of Risk vs. Reward and the emotional framework to embrace and enjoy risk — even be excited by situations where a lot is at stake. This requires self-confidence — internal and external — as well as optimism and faith. It also requires that when faced with challenges, roadblocks and naysayers, one embraces these experiences for their educational merit and does not succumb to frustration, depression and devastation.”
Well … how are we going to teach that to students?
Paul Graham of Y Combinator believes entrepreneurship cannot be taught “any more than you’d learn about sex in a class. All you’ll learn is the words for things. Entrepreneurship is something you learn best by doing it.” Furthermore, he has explained that “something does change at graduation: you lose a huge excuse for failing”.
Indeed, the university environment is a safe place for your first failures. At the university, students have the chance to try things, form teams with other students and try to build things and solve problems. It doesn’t matter if they will start a company out of that. This process is enough to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset.
In this light, Mindspace activities focus on how to encourage students to embark on projects with fellow students. Throughout the years we had hosted more than 20 different events in Athens and Patras. But a big transformation was needed to make our operations scalable and reach as many students as possible.
In May 2015, Odysseas Lamtzidis posted a message on our Facebook page. He wanted to start an entrepreneurship club at the University of Patras.
Like the business students, he wanted an independent club and was interested in learning more about the legal procedures involved. I went to Patras to meet with him. My goal was to begin a fruitful collaboration with him by starting the first chapter of Mindspace outside of Athens. It would be relatively easy to set up and we would have greater power together, in cases like fundraising to increase our impact.
After some silent periods of time and negotiations, in Spring 2016, the Mindspace Meetup “How To Start A Startup” ran simultaneously every week at Polytechnio, AUEB and the University of Patras. Lamtzidis’ team was up and running.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of State invited me to attend the International Visitors Leadership Program, “Social and Economic Entrepreneurship for Young Leaders”. Fourteen people from all over the world who were leading initiatives like Mindspace were invited to the U.S. to meet each other.
In this group I met Kamila Sidor, who started Geek Girls Carrots with the vision of attracting women to technology. Her organization had already scaled to 17 countries around the world. Kamila provided me with insight on how to change the Mindspace model to make it scalable. “Scalable” means that students in other cities should be able to clearly understand our vision. It also means that they should be able to easily have an impact in their local communities. To achieve that, our activities should be designed to deliver the maximum possible impact using the fewest amount resources, in terms of money and volunteers.
This is where I focused my energy over the last year. We have now entered 2019 with a new organizational model and a few easy-to-replicate but high-impact activities that can make it easy for leaders in various cities to start Mindspace chapters.
Turn obstacles into adventures
On 10th December 2015, Marina Hatsopoulos arrived in Athens from Boston to serve as the keynote speaker in our Mindspace Lab launch within Polytechnio. I booked the largest room for events in Polytechnio and invited the rector, who accepted the invitation to give the welcome speech.
To our surprise, right as the event was about to start, leftist political groups gathered at the back of the room. Their power is such, that when the rector saw them, he quickly left the event and let the vice-rector behind to make the welcome speech. The room was completely full, with nearly 200 guests and around 30 protesters. I tried to negotiate with their leader, arguing that through our work we aim to decrease unemployment, introducing him to a student entrepreneur who was going to speak and had already created a few well-paying jobs.
As I kicked off the event with my presentation, the group in the back had already started to become louder, eating and drinking what we had reserved for our guests.
Hatsopoulos went on stage, and had to keep a very close distance to the microphone to be heard over the protesters’ noise. Upon finishing her speech, the protesters interrupted the event shouting “Kick businesses out of university!” and even turning off the lights after seeing that the 200 guests were not willing to leave.
Hatsopoulos later wrote a great essay published by Antioch Review, named “The Way Out”.
Facing such a difficult resistance to change is proof that our activism is needed; it makes our existence relevant and important. However, difficult resistance can discourage people who run such initiatives. If the team did not show enough persistence, if we didn’t treat each of these challenges as true adventures, Mindspace would not be alive today.
Build a community
Mindspace is not only its members who organize the activities. Mindspace is about the community we are building. Entrepreneurs who become role models by speaking in our events. Diplomats who share a common goal with us. Professors who talk to their students about Mindspace.
Mentors who can guide students in their first entrepreneurial steps. People who host our team in the United States. Businesses who believe in our goal and support us through their corporate social responsibility budget. Smaller businesses who give everything they can offer to us: their pro bono services.
To be honest, we cannot do it on our own; we rely on the help and support of many people and organizations. We are blessed to work with amazing partners and we are always open to expanding the Mindspace community, as we are already doing in Greece and the United States. Write to us and join us.
From my own point of view, the most important is that my younger sister Nickie can now find in her university in Patras a club where she can meet entrepreneurial-minded individuals .
“Be the change you want to see in the world”
In the 7 years I’ve described above, I was always working a full-time job. Starting in 2011, after my last year of undergraduate studies in Mechanical Engineering, I worked for 2 years at the biotech startup Protavio, I did a PhD in Systems Biology for 4 years, and I have been working since 2018 as a Postdoctoral Researcher at Philip Morris International R&D in Switzerland. During my PhD, I also worked at the US Food & Drug Administration in Washington, DC for 4 months.
Meanwhile, I have devoted almost all of my evenings and holiday time to Mindspace, because it is about the future I’d like to see in the world. Even now, on a Sunday evening, my girlfriend is working with me on this story.
I can do so because it’s my thing. To gather people around important issues and do what should be done without waiting for the universities, governments and my country Greece to magically change overnight. Encounter all obstacles we meet on the way as adventures and keep going.
I am very happy to see that acting for the change you want to see in the world is hardwired in the members of Mindspace. Dimitris Dimosiaris later created a blog to inspire students to start organizations, and Odysseas Lamtzidis recently started the initiative “just f*cking do it”, which aims to motivate students to act.
Share the story
As we sipped coffee in Menlo Park, Arvanitidis asked me: “How did you come up with the idea of Mindspace?” It was hard to describe all events, books, articles and people who led to my moment with the Mindspace team there, in Silicon Valley. I realised at Arvanitidis’ that it’s very important to share a story, because it is what keeps us together and can inspire more action for a better tomorrow.
Thank you note
I would like to thank Kamila Sidor for her storytelling advice, Alexia Haralambous for kindly editing and Nick Arvanitidis for motivating me to write the story behind Mindspace.