A Citizen’s Guide to Greece 2015


May 18, 2015

Can do: entrepreneurship and public service

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Written by: DW

Prepared remarks by David Wisner for a round table on The Greek Startup Scene: bubble or future,” Thessaloniki Science Festival, May 15, 2015.

Thank you, Michalis Stangos, for inviting me to speak on your panel. For the benefit of our audience this evening, the Dukakis Center and the Anatolia Business School hosted the Second Business and Politics Forum at the Municipality of Thessaloniki last December and had the opportunity to share views with Michalis and other of this evening’s panelists on the theme “Entrepreneurship in Greece: looking at the big picture.” I had the feeling then that we were perhaps a bit timid in the way we framed the event, and that we had left lots of the big questions unanswered. I am therefore all too happy to associate the Dukakis Center with the efforts of Industry Disruptors and to continue to explore with Michalis the prospects of cross-sectoral collaboration within the larger Greek start-up ecosystem.

Now, until just a week or so ago I was in the hospital. When you are hospitalized, you spend much of your time sleeping. Last night, as I was thinking about what I would say here, the following worry crept over me: what would I do if I fell asleep during my own presentation! Then the entrepreneur in me set to work. wouldn’t it be interesting if I could invent an ap or a robot that would help speakers and auditors in a lecture hall from falling asleep? A market most surely exists, just think of the possibilities! (Bearing in mind that it has been shown that we can learn in our sleep.)

And hence the title of my talk: “Can do.”

Without knowing me or the Dukakis Center, you would be justified in asking what qualifies an American professor of diplomacy and director of a research center dedicated to citizen engagement to speak at a conference on start-ups and entrepreneurship in Greece. Allow me to dispel your doubts.

A little over a year ago I self published on Amazon.com a collection of essays on the Greek sovereign debt crisis. I had something I wanted to say. I thought people might pay a modest fee to hear — or read — what I had to say. I tried out many of my ideas initially on Politis, the blog of the Dukakis Center. I did not want to have to wait six months or more for a commercial publisher to decide they might not wish to publish my book. So I did it myself, and subsequently took charge of the promotion of the book and the reinvestment of the royalties I earned from sales. If this is not an entrepreneurial endeavor I do not know what is. (Incidentslly, I will unveil a second edition of Still at Aulis, with some new material, later this year.

So I, too, am an entrepreneur. Indeed, in 2008 I launched my own business, well before start-ups became all the rage. I determined that I might be able to sell the rather unique way in which I talk about politics, and also that I could perform a valuable public service in so doing (I will come back to this second point shortly).

Meanwhile, I have also experimented with operating the Dukakis Center entrepreneurially. Eight years ago we ran a project in professional politics, based on a prototype not uncommon in the US. The goal for a certain number of interested students was to launch in pilot form a sustainable and potentially competitive political party. This is but one of the ways in which we at the Center have sought to introduce entrepreneurial thinking in a public sector context, for example in the domain of public administration. In particular, we are quite keen to adopt and adapt certain global developments in information technology locally and nationally. Meanwhile, last spring a group of interns launched a project in cultural entrepreneurship, organizing an exhibition of environmental photography of candidates for public office in local and European elections, to demonstrate that there are many viable forms of private patronage of the arts, and also that there is much to admire in the way that Greeks engage in politics. (More about politics below.) It is my intention going forth to demonstrate that the Dukakis Center can flourish as a prototype incubator for non-profit start-ups and think tanks in Greece.

Which leads me to reflect further on the personage of Michael Dukakis and the relationship between public service and entrepreneurship. I am prepared to argue that what we in the United States call public service, that is, a service to a community provided voluntarily by private individuals, is archetypically entrepreneurial. Imagine a group of citizens taking an initiative to provide a local service without waiting for public authorities to do the same. For example, to start up a new garbage collection route or demonstrate that certain public policies are more efficient than others, or again to show the truth content of various statements by public officials and politicians. Which means also that you distinguish the purely economic from the political in these endeavors at your peril.

This admission needn’t be threatening to the non-political among us. The Washington Post carried a lovely profile of Michael Dukakis a few weeks ago. I retained this passage in particular, which is remarkably close to the Michael Dukakis I have come to know since 1999.

From his concession speech in 1988, Dukakis wasn’t cynical or pointing fingers. He was speaking to his audience and said, “I don’t want you to be discouraged; politics is a noble profession.” He had that perspective after being trounced. And he has devoted his life to is teaching, very different from what other losing presidential candidates have done.  He wants to inspire young people to go into politics and that says something about the guy.

All of which leads me to my final set of observations this evening. When I reflected on the outcomes of the Dukakis Center’s event on entrepreneurship last December, I regretted not asking our participants to reflect on potential intersections between the cutting edge of contemporary entrepreneurship and the more radical dimensions of what we popularly call social entrepreneurship. Disruptors vs occupiers, if you like. Our research at the Dukakis Center points to real tension between the core ideologies of these two social phenonema, as if to say that start-ups will inevitably remain in a bubble, as one oligarchy competing with another, if starters-uppers do not recognize the inherent political dimensions of the start-up mentality, and focus on the political contribution they will inevitably be called upon to make. None less than leading Greek entrepreneur Marco Veremis have acknowledged such in a recent interview in the Financial Times.

And so I conclude with the ultimate contribution an independent think tank like the Dukakis Center can make to this debate. In his nomination speech in 1988 Michael Dukakis claimed his campaign was committed to leaving behind the “voodoo economics” of the administration of Ronald Reagan in favor of the “can-do economics” that contributed to Dukakis’ being named by his fellow governors best US governor in 1988. This spirit of “candoism” has just recently been captured by American start-up guru Dorie Clark for anyone who thinks they might have something worth saying in the domain of social thought.

 You have something unique to offer by dint of who you are. Even if something in theory has been done before, it hasn’t been done by you in the way that you can do it. It’s time to step forward and to recognize that you can make a contribution.

Thank you for listening.


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