NEW YORK –According to economist Marina Theodotou Cyprus has finally seen the light after failing to appreciate the entrepreneurial potential of it talented youth.
Theodotou told TNH that during the past three years an entrepreneurship community – an ecosystem – has been growing in Cyprus. It now consists of actual startups and various initiatives by individuals and organizations and is accompanied by the elusive Hellenic unicorn: a change in people’s mindsets.
“The young have begun to shift away from the notion that the government must take the lead in everything and take care of us,” she said, and they now reject their parent’s hopes for them to obtain “paper-pushing jobs with the government.”
Since habits die hard, however, some took their tender entrepreneurial aspirations to the government, and were disappointed.
Three things are required Theodoratou told TNH “you need people with brains, money and guts – and a legal infrastructure,” and some of those elements – funding and structural programs, and certainly tax code changes, pointed toward government doors.
They brought their energy and ideas but found that the doors were open for the well-connected but not for them.
Groups like Cypriot Enterprise Link (CEL) and the Cyprus’ Junior Achievement chapter Theodotou helped found in 2010 had projects “that we submitted to organizations like the Research Promotion Foundation, which receives EU funding the Cypriot government is supposed to direct to programs around the country, but it would only go to the few ‘usual suspects,’ over and over again.”
“Nobody would listen…they said we were too young and inexperienced, that we didn’t have the necessary gravitas,” she said.
The media also dismissed them.
“So we looked beyond Greece…and we decided to build around the closed doors,” she said. “I decided look and see what is happening around the world and see what such ecosystems need in order to thrive.”
She authored as study funded by KP&G about Cyprus’ entrepreneurial ecosystem that focuses on several sectors benchmarked with best practices in Denmark, Israel, Estonia and Ireland that includes a seven-year road map.
She gave tourism as an example. “The whole industry needs more customer and service-quality focused.” Young IT geniuses can help by developing aps that can be deployed around the world. Paphos Treasure Hunt is already driving people to Cyprus.
IDEAS + HOPE = WOW
They also created TedX Nicosia in 2011. “That broke the pattern. We created a new platform and proved we didn’t need the local media.”
TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is set of conferences run by the private non-profitSapling Foundation, under the slogan “Ideas Worth Spreading” that helps promote ideas and generate support for worthwhile endeavors.
“We opened a window” for the world to look at what young Cypriots, are doing. People said to me ‘TED came to Cyprus? Wow!’”
They selected speakers from the community “to show that all around us there are ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”
“We proved,” she said, “that we can create something out of nothing. We produced the TEDx event with in-kind contributions and help from small startups and money from a few key people.”
Some of the participants have already branched off into their own entrepreneurial or publishing initiatives.
Theodotou helped create a start-up accelerator for clean technology endeavors. One of them, Chrysalis LEAP, “did so well that the EU selected them to lead clean tech efforts in Cyprus and Greece through mentoring and training and directing them to EU-wide competitions.”
WE WILL SEE YOU NOW
And the government is finally paying attention. Officials are examining Theodotou’s KP&G study. Progress includes being able to register a business in three days. “That is good, but it’s not enough. You need excellent IT and wifi on the one hand, and a modernized legal and tax system on the other.
For example “Israel has an angel law, a tax break for investors in start-ups,” she said, “and in late 2012, based on a recommendation we made, the KPMG tax expert team reviewed Israeli and EU law…I am now proud to say that Cyprus amended its investment law last July.”
The government also recently announced a 9 million euro fund for women entrepreneurs and a youth program for 23 million.
Theodotou, who is a refugee from occupied Kyrenia, has a Master’s in economics from the University of South Carolina. She has worked for Bank of America and when she returned to Cyprus she established a consulting firm and helped build the Cyprus Investment Promotion Agency as its COO from 2007-2009. She is now a portfolio manager in New York for the prestigious American Management Association.