NEW YORK – The Hellenic Initiative (THI) was founded in 2012 as a nonprofit secular institution by Hellenic business and community leaders around the world to harness the power of the Diaspora in support of the resurgence of Greece. Yeoman’s work was done by a small initial staff working with THI’s board of directors and a corps of volunteers, and last week, Mark Arey, who succeeded Myles Pressler as ad Interim Executive Director and is among the candidates for a permanent appointment, spoke with TNH two days after THI’s most recent teleconferenced Board meeting. “It’s no longer an embryonic organization. It’s walking now, with real programs on the ground in Greece,” Arey said, “helping real people every day,” validating its initial step by step, small staff approach that focuses on the tasks at hand. “We can’t just be about talking in meeting after meeting. He has to do things. The money that is raised has to be spent…seed that money back in Greece so that it grows something,” he said. Arey began the conversation with TNH by highlighting THI’s three main areas: crisis relief, entrepreneurship and economic development. “Crisis relief means meeting basic human needs, participating with various organizations medicine through Doctors of the World. But there are also more transformative endeavors, such as the exciting Fellowship for a New Economy. Certain board members are also developing an investment fund for middle sized Greece companies. “THI is a non-profit, so it cannot run the fund, but we encourage it…there are prominent people on our investment committee,” Arey noted, and said the goal is to raise $100 million. “The bottom line is to make the money work now, in the best possible way.” The Fellowship will send annually 25 early and mid-career Greek professionals to 12-month rotations in leading U.S. businesses, where they will “learn best practices and get skillsets and when they return to Greece they will form an alumni association that will continue and build capacity in Greece,” Arey said. That is possible through leveraging the connections of their Board members, which includes its president, Andrew Liveris of DOW, Muhtar Kent of Coca Cola, George Logothetis, founder of the Libra Group, and George Stamas, Sr. Partner at Kirkland & Ellis. The entire list can be seen at www.hellenicinitiative.com. The same personal networks spark THI’s Export Accelerator program which connects people in Greece with good products to export markets. Arey said, “We are working with Greek companies to get their brands into markets they currently cannot access, by putting them in touch with the buyers of the actual chain stores in the U.S. like Safeway.” THI is also trying to incubate entrepreneurs. “There are people with great ideas in Greece, who have dreams,” and Arey added that TNH is sending an expert from the John Papajohn Business school – Papajohn is a THI Board member – from the University of Iowa this summer to run an intensive program called the Venture Garden that teaches people how to test and develop their business ideas. “It’s a test program. We have a metric for it. If we get the right kind of enthusiasm, we want to do more.” THI is committed not only to providing Greek entrepreneurs with guidance and pats on the back. “We are also trying to find capital for them, to get people to invest in them.” Venture Garden participants will be connected to other programs, like another THI project, the Hellenic Entrepreneurship Award, conceived by George Logothetis and financed by his Libra Group, “which is sponsoring and helping people build their potential and bring their dreams to fruition.” Each of 5 annual winners gets to share the total fund – which was 500,000 last year and is 700,000 euro this year.
THI is also partnering with Coca Cola University and the MBA program of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to present development seminars for entrepreneurs. In their relief and development endeavors, Arey said “We are making sure we are putting resources behind effective organizations that are getting results…that is the advantage of having someone on the ground monitoring them.” THI has a full-time program director on the ground in Greece, Michael Printzos, and a Program Coordinator, James Canale, who has roots in Mytilene and works with the Executive Director in New York. “We do our due diligence so we know the money is being spent wisely,” and Arey noted that the Stavros Niarchos Foundation “has done a tremendous job in helping identify and vet good groups.” One of the things that stood out for Arey as he met the board members is that in addition to their “hearts for real philanthropy,” they know there has to be a balance between the immediate material aid that is given to families, and creating support systems so that they will soon be feeding themselves, so that the money becomes available to help the next group.” Metrics are important to THI. Results matter because they help people. “They all feel blessed in their lives and they want to give back…but they want to make a real change.” Programs that change mindsets will be critical, as Bill Clinton declared at THI’s launch in Greece in 2012. He urged THI to focus on revitalize Greece’s entrepreneurial spirit and to empower people to do for themselves. Sound and strategic thinking, both inside and outside the box, is a THI aim, “Members of the Board are always eager to see what is working and devote more resources to that, but others want to look beyond those successes for promising things they might have missed.” Arey agrees that the success of THI’s programs will impress and inspire those who are holding back to become involved. As the conversation ended, he said, “What I am looking to do as the Executive Director is listening. THI is not just about what we are doing” – although he agrees keeping the community informed is important and that communications will be more frequent – “it’s also important for the community to know that THI’s ears are open and we want to hear from them…My office is always open.” Arey, while not of Greek descent, is a life-long Philhellene who belongs to the Greek-American community and has worked with many of its leaders. He was ordained in 1979 as a priest of the Archdiocese and served in many capacities in the ensuing 30 years. In 2013, he began the process that led to him returning to the status of a layman, so that he could re-marry, which he did in December of that year. Arey has worked on the project to reconstruct St. Nicholas at Ground Zero, with which he continues to assist the Archdiocese. THI has raised substantial funds from its 38 board members – more than $3 million has been committed to date. The annual banquet is another source of funds. The inaugural gala last year raised $1.9 million and people are looking forward to what promises to be a spectacular event October 2 at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art. $1 million was spent last year and the plan is to provide $1.5 million in 2014. Transparency is important to THI, which will be issuing an annual report with more details. The Board members are also committed to funding the operations of THI from their own pockets. The money raised from outside goes directly to programs and needy people in Greece. THI looks beyond the crisis, however, both for its activities in Greece, and for the diaspora, which has the potential to be a strong and effective virtual global community through personal contacts and the power of the internet. “At the end of the day THI is about bringing people who love their homeland, or Philhellenes who love Greece, together and giving them the opportunity and challenge to invest of themselves,” Arey said. “We are providing a vehicle…that is trying to do positive, real good on the ground, and to invest in Greece’s future – Greece is coming back. That’s a fact.”