Maria Contos (Kontou), a very successful realtor over the past 30-years and currently working successfully with Sotheby's International Realty, is also driven by philanthropy and art.
The National Herald: Tell us about your background.
Maria Contos: I was raised and lived in Greece for several years, but Washington, DC has always been my second home as I was the daughter of an American Diplomat. In 1994, at the age of 24, I started my own real estate firm in Athens. Over the years it became one of the top boutique firms in high-end real estate and waterfront properties, providing a full range of residential and commercial services.
My clientele ranges from Chairmen and CEO's of the biggest multinational companies in the world to developers, investors, and executives of multilateral Institutions such as the IMF, IFC, World Bank, to first time home buyers.
TNH: Tell us about your career in real estate.
MC: I have extensive experience in the International real estate market and work for Sotheby's office in Washington, DC. To this day, I continue to sell real estate all over the world, and this is one of the reasons I chose to affiliate with Sotheby's International Realty and its network.
TNH: What did you study?
MC: Economics. My university studies in Economics play an essential role in my approach to my work and life. Together with my extensive knowledge and experience, I have developed in the international real estate market. My sincere and persistent attitude is in everything that I do.
TNH: How has the industry evolved with technology lately?
MC: Through technological advances, real estate has become approachable for individuals from all over the world.
You can check properties on the internet anytime in the comfort of your home; this has radically changed the way the industry operates. We are one of the few firms that have started to make virtual reality videos. Someone can actually ‘walk’ inside a space and feel the dimensions of a house or even sell homes from video calls.
TNH: You relocated to the United States three years ago, and you had to make things happen, starting all over again.
MC: The heavy taxation that has been imposed the last years in Greece led me to decide to move to the United States, since I was able to, due to my dual nationality.
I firmly believe that the best lesson a parent can give their children is to be adaptable to change. Relocating with my daughters to Washington DC, in my late 40's, and challenging myself to pursue further my career and life, definitely has to do with that belief. My daughters were about to start their university studies in the United States, so that gave me an extra kick.
TNH: Do you go back home often?
MC: It took me three years to fly back to Greece from DC, because I wanted to focus on my real estate career, and on my new lifestyle, which meant adapting to the culture of the United States without any emotional interference.
My parents raised me with both cultures, but the way an American thinks in his everyday life is entirely different from the way the modern Greek thinks and operates.
TNH: What do you mean by that?
MC: The United States is a mosaic of different cultures and races. People have come to this country to create a better future for themselves and their families, to make things happen. They work hard and are aggressive. They respect other people's efforts and don't judge; they don't care what others do. And an American will never take anything for granted. He will also move to another state to work and be away from his family, quickly sell his home, and move forward. The legal system works equally for everyone, and volunteer work is part of everyday life; everything is owned privately, even churches and civic organizations.
Greeks mostly take everything for granted, have a more passive approach to events, judge others easily, and are raised with the belief that things happen because of luck. They believe that the state owes them their wellbeing while they don't pay their taxes and spend more time criticizing than producing. It is interesting how the same person when traveling abroad has a different discipline and respect for others and the rules of the new place.
The ancient Greek civilization and philosophers have given their inheritance and values to the Western world. We as modern Greeks though, should not be stuck only in the past and feel that other countries owe us because of that.
TNH: How did you completely changed your lifestyle?
MC: It was a very conscious decision, and now after three years, I know it was the right one. I respect the way the system works in the United States and the fact that if you work hard, you get rewarded no matter what your origin is. It is who you are now, and what you have accomplished through hard work that determines your status and lifestyle.
TNH: Your father was appointed to work for the American Embassy in Athens in the 1950s.
MC: My father, John Contos, was a decorated Greek-American Diplomat with the Defense Attache Office of the American Embassy in Athens for close 40 years. That is where he met my mother, Helen, the daughter of Kyriakides.
TNH: You just became the President of The National Society of Arts and Letters.
MC: Yes, it is one of the most renowned and old non-profit organizations in the United States. Its mission is to give scholarships and assistance to talented young Artists in six disciplines: Art, Classical Voice, Drama, Ballet, Musical Drama, and Literature.
TNH: You used to be in the Lifeline Hellas Humanitarian Organization before that for many years. What can you tell us about that?
MC: I had the experience of being a Founding Member and a Member of the Board of Directors of Lifeline Hellas for 17 years. It is a non-profit humanitarian organization in Greece. The Patron is Princess Katherine of Serbia, who over the years has provided help and medical equipment to several orphanages and children's hospitals in Greece and Serbia. That was a big school for me on how non-profit organizations operate. We are a beautiful team and still support them as I can.
TNH: Which do you think is the most crucial factor in society in general?
MC: Education. Education is the most critical issue of modern times. Especially today, education has become so expensive and therefore not approachable for underprivileged children of all ages.
NSAL gives scholarships by organizing competitions so that talented young artists have the opportunity to be seen, and to achieve excellence. The judges and advisors in these competitions are the best in the country.
TNH: Talk to us about your grandfather.
MC: My grandfather, Stylianos Kyriakides, was a Greek National Hero, the marathon runner who won the Boston Marathon in 1946, to help his country, Greece, which was starving after WWII.
The Greek government decorated him with the Order of the Phoenix of the King’s Golden Cross for his outstanding contribution to the country, "The Package Kyriakides." This year he was named by the Boston Marathon Association as the first Marathon athlete in the world to run for charity!
I was fortunate enough to grow up with my grandfather until I was 20, when he passed away. He was such a strong personality. His involvement in our daily upbringing, as the grandfather who lived next door, really shaped the way my brother, George, and I grew up. Helping others, being welcoming, continually learning, and improving our skills was a significant part of our everyday life. Both my brother and I grew up from a young age in the stadium of Filothei, Athens that our grandfather was the maker of and President for more than 35 years. That stadium was built by my grandfather, with his own hands, in 1954 so that people of all ages could have easy access to train in track and field sports.
After World War II, the idea of exercising daily for your wellbeing was unheard of. Stelios Kyriakides was the one that started that movement by making it easily accessible, being open to the public. He introduced Track & Field classes for children. He was the one that made that place a plant nursery for future champions. Consequently, my brother and I naturally developed a passion for running and sports in our daily routine. I still run short marathons for charity with my two daughters.
TNH: What are your core belief about life?
MC: I believe in hard work, discipline, and commitment in everything you set your mind to. You should never give up, and always keep trying even if you fail.
My grandfather told us that "he learned more from the times he lost the race than from the ones he won." Mastery is a state of mind. Never accept less than you deserve, be surrounded by people that challenge you, push you, teach you to be your better self - the ones that show you how to be open and receptive to improve for the better. Always push yourself out of your comfort zone!
Every night before bedtime, I ask myself what did I do during the day to make a difference in others’ lives. And I daily acknowledge how grateful I am to be alive and healthy.
TNH: What is your special touch as a realtor?
MC: I help others build new memories and the stories of their lives with their loved ones in their dream homes.
TNH: You wrote a children's book about your grandfather's story in 2014.
MC: The Stylianos Kyriakides children's book is a best seller in children's literature Greece, and I have presented it at several schools. It describes the hard times my grandfather, Stelios, went through until his victory and glory, against all odds. He had to move to Athens at a young age to go after his dream. He worked and trained hard, risking his whole life and family during the war. He failed multiple times, and although he was repeatedly disappointed by his performance in races, he never quit. His 1946 win is still considered to be the most epic battle between two runners in Boston Marathon history after so many years. The book has beautiful illustrations by George Sgouros and is appealing to the ages of up to 8-years-old. My daughters translated it, and I will publish it in the United States in English.
TNH: What would you advise the younger generation?
MC: I believe that the young generation needs to learn and get inspired by men and women whose motives are the wellbeing of others. People that care about the community as a whole and not just themselves. These are the ones we should look up to. And we are proud as Greek warriors, aren't we?
TNH: And your motto in life?
MC: Never complain, never explain!