By Mark Arey
The Κρυφό Σχολειό , the “Secret School” of the Church that preserved Greek language, culture and Orthodox Christian Faith during the centuries of Ottoman occupation – the “Turkokratia” – remains an iconic inspiration for Hellenes around the world. The poem, “Φεγγαράκι μου λαμπρό” has been sung by generations of our youth.
Well, it may surprise you that there is a new Κρυφό Σχολειό in Greece today. And it’s a secret that needs to be shared as far and as wide as possible. The Κρυφό Σχολειό “2.0” is the emergent entrepreneurial ecosystem that is forming in Greece despite the ongoing economic catastrophe that has engulfed the country. These brave, new “entreprenauts” – entrepreneurs willing to traverse land and sea to find their treasure like Jason and his Argonauts – are inspiring real hope for the economic recovery of Greece.
Not content with the status quo, not satisfied with failed policies and empty promises, not burdened by the ennui of disappointment, these exemplars of the human capital that is the richest wealth of Greece are venturing forth into the great adventure of self-motivating and self-sustaining entrepreneurialism. They are showing the imagination of their forebears – the Greeks who gave the world philosophy and democracy, art and aesthetics, τό καλόν κ?γαθόν (“the beautiful and the good”), and the rest of what we call “Western Civilization.” Truly, they are the best hope for the renewal of Greece.
With neither social nor political encouragement, and more often than not facing an ossified bureaucracy, these modern heroes are committed to Greece and to her future. They want to live and earn their living in a Greece that creates opportunities for all its people. Facing the lack of investment opportunities and investor confidence at home, they are spanning the globe, carrying their ideas and companies to an investing world that appreciates their vision. Even if it means they have to establish their companies overseas, they are committed to creating jobs in Greece, which now has a 25% unemployment rate that is over 50% for those under the age of 30.
For too long, a false narrative has been imposed on Greece, one that discourages and even despises the entrepreneurial enterprise as being “beneath” Greeks, or at worst, unpatriotic. What a contrast from the entrepreneurial narrative of Hellenes we witness everywhere else on the planet. Never has there been a more successful and prosperous people than Greeks in any and every place. The Diaspora thrives because the cultures it has adopted promote and reward ingenuity and hard work. The Greeks of Greece are no different, and the proof is in the young people, the new Κρυφό Σχολειό of Greece.
These young entrepreneurs are bringing ingenuity and creativity to the dire economic reality that is Greece today. From high schoolers to retired yiayias, Greeks are finding new ways to sustain themselves. The recent Junior Achievement Exposition in Athens is a case in point. Forty-three teams from across the islands and mainland were showcased in a program supported by The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, The Hellenic Initiative (THI), and a whole host of stakeholders. One team invented a new soft drink; another an app that maps the entire Athens Marathon from start to finish, including archaeological high points and a drone-generated aerial visual of the entire course. A team from a school for the mentally challenged developed a product line of agro-products to benefit the hungry. The list goes on and on.
Last year, THI held its first Athens Venture Fair, carefully selecting the best young businesses in Greece to present their business plans to numerous sources of funding. The event was mere days before the capital controls that bear witness to Greece’s precipitous economic situation. Yet, over one million dollars of funding was secured. The enthusiasm for Greek entrepreneurship, even in the midst of and indeed in spite of Greece’s woes, was electric. THI’s commitment is unrelenting; we are holding the second annual Venture Fair on June 28th. The Hellenic Entrepreneurship Award is now in its fourth year. VentureGarden, the THI funded entrepreneur school at ALBA in Athens and Anatolia in Thessaloniki has grown over one hundred companies. The entrepreneurial spirit and ecosystem in Greece is not only growing, it is thriving.
This is the new Κρυφό Σχολειό, preserving and augmenting the legacy of Greece. The Diaspora should be more than very proud of their achievements. To honor their efforts, THI is building a new Φιλική Εταιρεία – the “Society of Friends” of Hellenes from across Greece, Europe and beyond that banded together in the nineteenth century to free Greece from foreign domination. We are fully committed to a Greece that is free of the onerous burden of failed economics and crippling debt. And just as in 1821, there is also a new generation of Philhellenes ready to join us – the volunteers who are rushing to Greece in her hour of need, whether to relieve the stress of the refugee crisis or invest in this new crop of entrepreneurs.
The Hellenic Initiative was founded in 2012 to reveal the love, strength and resources of the Diaspora and Philhellene communities for Greece in her hour of need, and there is plenty of room at the table. All together, we can achieve wonders. Όλοι μαζί!
Mark Arey is Executive Director of The Hellenic Initiative.