NEW YORK – The Greek-American community’s youth is not only its future – it is its most dynamic present element. New Jersey’s Greek American Chamber of Commerce, whose slogan is “connecting and promoting Hellenic Professional and Businesses, knows that, and it recently presented its Young Entrepreneur Award to Nikos Antonellos.
The 25-year old founder and President of Sidekicks Support Service, whose services to special needs children is life enhancing for them and virtually life-saving for their parents, shared the story of the remarkable firm he established as a college student three years ago.
His upbringing is typical, but his success at such a young age, even in the high achieving Greek-American community is extraordinary in both commercial and humanitarian terms.
His parents, George and Kathy, raised him and his younger brother Stefano in Hamilton, near Trenton, NJ. He grew up in the family restaurant and told TNH “we were always involved with the Church; we would always help out at the Greek festival – I would cut the gyros.”
Growing up he was heavily into soccer. “I lived and breathed soccer.” His passion and ability earned him a partial scholarship to play four years on the varsity team at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
He majored in business administration with a concentration in entrepreneurship, so he had a plan in case he did not reach the pros.
Antonellos enjoyed courses like New Venture Creation and Business and Society in addition to the basic marketing and management classes which he also liked.
While his professors were full timers, he agrees that some of the many successful Greek-American business persons should consider sharing their knowledge and experiences with young people as adjunct professors.
REAL WORLD THRIVING
Sidekicks was actually born in college. “It was a final project,” he told TNH, and originally he was going to establish a breakfast sandwich place, deep in his comfort zone.
But said to himself “Why not venture out? I have been doing the food thing all my life.”
He had been involved in volunteering, including with autism organizations and others with special needs, giving him experience in another field – and an appreciation of the needs of people less fortunate than himself.
“We all need mentors and people to look up to, and people with special needs don’t have the social skills to make friends and mentors…and they go through a lot every day, physically, mentally, and socially,” he said.
He also feels compassion for the parents.
“It’s tough to find a support outlet. They go day by day looking for the right support and I thought many problems could be solved by placing families with someone who has a background in the field, who wants to be there, and is understanding of the situation – and that’s what Sidekicks does,” he said.
“We solve the problem of providing mentorship and parents have an extra support outlet that they can support and trust.”
He and his classmates presented their ideas in class and the students with the top three ideas were picked to be project managers.
“Everyone voted for my idea and I was blown away by that,” he said. “Then I talked to some families about it and received nothing but amazing support. They said ‘you should really do this – this is such a big need and it would change our lives.”
When the typical students’ job market frustrations began to gnaw at him, he refused to let it get him down.
“I always knew I wanted to do something meaningful and with a purpose and in college I decided one day just to do it,” he said, and one day after being denied another job he went to the school store, bought a notebook and began to plan.
That was about than three years ago.
“The company has really grown. We provide services to over 30 families, all different ages and types of disabilities. Over the course of our two years we have helped more than 60 families,” he said.
Sidekicks now has a contract with the State of New Jersey to provide individual support services and there is an agreement with Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield to provide certain therapies.
To manage the growth he has recruited more supervisors and are up to 50 total employees.
They are exploring expansion into New York. Once he is comfortable with the model in the current location, he plans to work on it with the aim of transplanting it elsewhere.
“Growth is tough. It’s a new beast to handle and I am taking my time,” he said.
“People who start a business forget the fact that what worked in the beginning” will require changes once it starts to grow. He added, “There are more issues, and people to manage, more things on your plate in the same 24 hours of the day,” plus provision must be made for the unexpected, emphasizing that one cannot always be on the defensive.
“You must remain on the offensive” said the young soccer master.
His grandfather George Garliaros came to the United States in 1969 to work at the Hightstown Diner after marrying his grandmother Aglaia. His mother Kathy also worked there and they eventually became the owners.
She met George Antonellos in Greece – they both have roots in Andros – and they decided to live in the United States
Antonellos’ father came here with $500 in his pocket and not knowing English. He was so amazed at technology he never saw on his beautiful Aegean island that he spent in it on a stereo the first day.
What followed, however, was incessant hard work, and that ethic was passed to the next generation.
“I started working in the family business when I was 11 or 12 doing whatever my family needed me to do. I moved up and became manager and that was the best business school for me, learning all aspects of providing quality products and good service.”
His brother Stefano will be19 next month who is also excited about college and going into business. “He is the president of the business club at his school,” he said.
Eventually he would like help establish group homes. The challenge for the families once their children grow up is to find a place for them to live. “Down the line I would like to invest in some real estate and create homes for these individuals – with Sidekicks nearby? – so they can live a meaningful life.”
Antonellos is very passionate about his work. He dedicates to Sidekicks about seven days a week up to 10 -12 hours a day, but they are not chores. He takes the sacrifices philosophically: “Anything worth doing takes time. You have be patient.”
PATIENCE IS ALMOST EVERYTHING
Patience, he said in closing, is the essence of entrepreneurial success. All the elements can be there, great ideas, a fantastic team, but it does not happen overnight.
“I would say patience is a very underrated characteristic. It is a very undervalued thing to have,” he said.? “If you can be patient, everything that you want can be yours.”
Chairman of the Board & CEO of the Greek American Chamber of Commerce Michael Hadjiloucas presented the award to Nikos Antonellos.