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December 20, 2014

Disrupt and occupy

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Written by: DW
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Start-ups are all the rage. Even the prestigious international politics journal Foreign Affairs agrees. Correspondingly, a debate has emerged on the precise value to the global economy of such business activity. Whither Greece and Europe?

Since before the onset of the sovereign debt crisis in Greece entrepreneurship and start-up activity has been on the rise in Greece. According to the recently released Global Entrepreneurship Index, Greece’s increases in this domain have been especially impressive of late, even as national economic performance has lagged in general. This uptake in start-up activity mirrors developments throughout Europe.

Sadly, no sooner was the ostensibly good news of Greek development released in the fall, than it was revealed that Greece is still perceived to be an exceedingly corrupt country. This according to the annual Transparency International report.

Meanwhile, late summer reports of a Greek miracle have been tempered by renewed fears of a Grexit from the eurozone. Politics is taking center stage again.

Earlier this month I invited my colleagues in the Anatolia School of Business to co-organize a modest event dedicated to entrepreneurship in Greece. We summoned a small group of prominent practitioners and experts to discuss the apparent rise of a start-up culture in Greece.

I asked our guests to reflect on a broad range of questions.

  • To what extent is start-up activity driven by high unemployment and the need to create jobs? Is the model of the American-style start-up suited to Greek business realities?
  • How intimately is entrepreneurial activity in Greece integrated into the European start-up ecosystem? Does the current start-up craze offer a sustainable antidote to the ravages of the crisis in the eurozone?
  • Is there consensus on what still needs to be done to enhance entrepreneurial sustainability? Is this but a fad, a bubble?

As I framed it to our audience, I was prompted personally by two lines of inquiry. I always thought of Greeks as shrewd, if not prototypically entrepreneurial. What is all this about teaching Greeks how to start a business? (I may well have been influenced by the successes of Greeks abroad, and in the event, I was quickly disabused of this conceit by Anastasios Tzikas, one of our guest speakers.)

Second, having convened a similar gathering dedicated to the theme of business and reform in 2012, I was curious to learn how far the reforms signed on to by successive Greek governments in exchange for two bailouts, and those recommended thereafter in the so-called McKinsey Report, which we examined in detail at the first Business and Politics Forum, had succeeded in creating an environment more conducive to sustainable development. Have satisfactory reforms been implemented in the Greek public sector to accommodate the needs of the business community? Are there sufficiently entrepreneurial elements in the public sector to keep pace with potential gains in the private sector?

Actually, I had something even more unsettling still in mind. Why not title our event  “Disrupt and Occupy,” I had asked my co-hosts, thinking principally of the “Occupy Democracy” movement in London. If our roles as entrepreneurs — and activists — are to turn systems on their head, to recast the social roles of everyone involved in exchange — and governance — should we not bring these dimensions of contemporary entrepreneurship to the fore? Are we not on the verge of drastically new models of business and politics, of politics and society?

What does the new entrepreneurship portend for democracy as practiced in Greece? Can entrepreneurs be good democrats, or do we risk replacing one oligarchy with another?

I heard the voice of caution, if not reason. We settled for looking at the big picture, for wondering aloud whether Greece was on the verge of becoming an “Incubator Nation,” with Thessaloniki as the “San Francisco of the Aegean.”

Practically speaking, we also settled for an overview of two generations of entrepreneurship in Greece. Tellingly, a common litany of complaints was sounded by both generations represented — in the persons of Tzikas on the one hand, and of Dimitris Kontarinis and Michalis Stangos on the other. Greeks do not trust one another. They cannot collaborate together. Entrepreneurial activity is still looked down upon by many segments of society, and held in contempt by important swathes of the ideological spectrum. Regardless, Greeks continue to be too insular to take advantage of the global opportunities for which Greece, and especially Thessaloniki, otherwise enjoy key advantages.

The current moment is not to be lost, it was felt. Anastasios Tzikas clothed his commentary in old-school patriotism: “Save your country, start your business!” he exclaimed. His younger protagonist, Michalis Stangos, was no less dramatic. “Don’t let this opportunity go to waste,” was his message. Don’t let this be but a bubble, occupied by a handful of lone wolves.

Nothing happens in a bubble, however. It is one thing to ask what kind of business model do we wish to develop, senior public sector strategist Efi Stefopoulou mused, another altogether to ask what kind of state we wish to live in.

Efi Stefopoulou’s open question prompted some degree of unease among the audience, including the odd elected official in the room. Strange, that, a public servant speaking with authority at a conference dedicated to entrepreneurship. Wouldn’t we think that the public sector should be taking lessons from the private sector? After all, the Greek state, with its bloated, inefficient public sector, is regularly cast in this sort of gathering as a retrograde force holding Greece back. However, as Stefopoulou aptly reminded us, the public sector is also full of pockets of talented entrepreneurs, from whom the start-up world could learn an awful lot.

My quest for an answer to the question of the more radical implications of the start-up craze went thus largely unsatisfied. We did not do much occupying on the evening, still less disrupting. (A seed was sewn for a promising public-private-civil society project among the conferees.)

Nonetheless, with Greece still in the throes of economic crisis despite the “success stories” of the early fall of 2014, facing yet another political crisis threatening to derail the efforts of the current coalition government (whether or not this is a bad thing is another story), and given the global dimensions of political and economic transformation hinted at throughout the evening, our speakers did end up reaching a consensus of sorts.

Are we in a start-up bubble? — chances are good, yes. Is it sustainable? — maybe, with work. Can we risk complacency? — not on your life.






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