WASHINGTON, DC – What do Cyprus, Iceland, El Salvador, Puerto Rico have in common? If one combines the GDP of these nations it just about equals Jeff Bezos’ estimated paper wealth. Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon hit upon on a formula that was not really that unique. To the contrary, the formula was initially introduced exactly one century prior to Amazon’s formation. That formula was a mail order catalog printed by Richard Sears. The catalogue bearing his name initially featured watches, diamonds, and jewelry.
When Amazon first started it was a marketplace for new and used books. In 1894, Richard Sears expanded his catalogue to 322 pages that included a vast selection of products that were not otherwise readily obtainable and all at a fixed price. A farmer in the middle of Iowa, a rancher in the outposts of Colorado, or a household in the suburbs could select and have products delivered right to their doorstep thanks to the Sears Catalogue. This led to the establishment of hundreds of brick and mortar Sears retail stores. The Sears & Roebuck Company was a Wall Street darling symbolized at its peak by the world’s largest building bearing its name: the Sears Tower in Chicago.
How did Sears tackle the challenges of big-box competitors like Walmart, Costco, Target and online challenges from Amazon, eBay and similar companies? Their approach was to be bought out by another big box name brand emerging from bankruptcy: K-Mart. Were both Boards of these once giants naïve, ill-informed, and misguided. Likely not—they stuck to what they knew best and saw change and the evolving dynamics brought on by disruptive technologies as a threat rather than retreating to the original formula that made them revered household brands.
What Sears faced is not much different than what a host of once heralded mainstream non-profit service, ethnic, and community organizations face today: Masons, Shriners, Elks, Moose, Knights Templar, Daughters of Job, Jaycees, Daughters of the American Revolution, Rotary, Lion’s Club, Kiwanis and yes, AHEPA too face dramatic challenges in retaining and recruiting members.
The shared purpose of these and other organizations is to bring like-minded people together. While so many of these community-based groups have declined, online social media channels have flourished. Brands such as Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and others are now household names connecting billions of people together from the comfort of their smart phone, tablet, or similar device from all over the world.
Let’s face it; the Greek America of a generation ago does not look remotely like the Greek America we know today. The modern community can be characterized as a lot more American than Greek—interfaith, intercultural, and very little spoken Greek is the norm rather than exception. To call oneself “Greek” is no longer a given, but a matter of individual choice.
As stewards of Hellenic heritage and culture we must mirror the Amazon disruptive approach to traditional norms if we are to succeed. The late and indeed very “great” Constantine Takis Papadakis, President of Drexel University, successfully employed a “customer centric” approach to lift Drexel to the world class position the university enjoys today. “Sure, I have to educate the students, but I also have to house them, feed them, care for their security, and make them “anthropi”—good citizens” was the way Taki described an approach that sought to create centers of excellence catering to his “customers’” needs that resulted in growing Drexel’s endowment from $90 million to nearly $800 million.
The National Hellenic Society is a non-profit foundation comprised of an impressive association of Greek American leaders, visionaries, and philanthropists desiring to perpetuate, celebrate, and pass on the richness of Hellenic heritage, especially to the next generation of our “customers.” Success in professional and business life translates to an open mind about how to develop and implement successful strategies and programs. Similar to Bezos’ and Taki Papadakis’ approach—NHS does not recreate the proverbial wheel but duplicates success tailoring it to meet the needs of “our customers.”
NHS’ signature program is the Heritage Greece Program ® developed with the American College of Greece (ACG) in Athens, a 2-1/2 week cultural and educational immersion shared with students from ACG. This year NHS sponsored 65 Greek American college students on the Heritage Greece Program sharing their experience with 15 Greek students from ACG. The best description of the Program borrowing from the students is: “lifechanging” as affirmed in the empirical studies undertaken since the Program’s inception 9 years ago.
NHS “Heritage” brand has grown to encompass a domestic counterpart, the Heritage America Program developed in tandem with Manatos & Manatos, Heritage America provides Greek American college students with a keen awareness of the importance and positive impact of their heritage through the context of personal life stories and anecdotes from a Who’s Who of Greek American leaders from the public and private sector in Washington, DC. They learn about the immigrant stories from individuals that represent the rise to the top echelons in government, corporations, and other walks of life.
The participants in both Programs continue to be part of the NHS’ extended family through the Heritage Greece Alumni Network. The Network offers the alumni career advancing assistance through mentoring and internship programs and continued access to NHS’ valuable member network which now includes Heritage Greece alumni that are now in the workforce and rising stars in their respective professions.
The NHS will continue the path of making a difference in the lives of the next generation through programs that inspire, educate and engage. Our goal is to grow programs such as these to benefit substantial numbers of the next generation of Greek Americans and to empower them to be tomorrow’s leaders, visionaries, and doers.
“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” Albert Einstein
Art Dimopoulos is Executive Director of the National Hellenic Society, for further information about the NHS and its programs visit: hellenicsociety.org.