The sense of expectation in the small room was palpable. It was a mid-May morning, and a group of 30 young Greeks, selected on the basis of academic achievement and an interview process, had gathered in the offices of Upstream Systems. They were there to learn what opportunities the company has to offer and what skills it is looking for.
Upstream embodies the virtues Greece needs in its companies if the country is to transcend its bankrupt economic model. Begun as a mobile-marketing company 15 years ago before the fertile union of mobile telephony and the internet, over time Upstream evolved into a mobile-commerce company. These days, it sells goods and services via mobile phone – anything from gaming apps to microloans. Its revenue has shot up to €200 million ($222.6 million) from €35 million in six years. As much as 90 per cent of that is earned in emerging markets, yet more than 75 per cent of Upstream’s workforce is based in Greece.
Most Greek firms take little interest in employee satisfaction, fostering teamwork or giving their top people a sense of ownership. Youth tends to be kept down until it turns into age, and competitors are usually viewed as personal enemies whose downfall is more desirable than one’s own good performance.
Upstream strives to be different: Marco Veremis, Upstream’s 40-something co-founder and chief executive, tells his young listeners that his company’s two main principles are excellence and meritocracy. He mentions that the company employs people from 25 different nationalities, that the average employee age is about 30, that talent rises fast at Upstream – and can be rewarded with shares in the company.
Mr Veremis has also shown himself to be a keen supporter of new projects. Nikos Moraitakis, co-founder and CEO of Workable, a new recruitment-software company, was Upstream’s vice president for business development before he started his own firm. When he told his then-boss about his plans, Mr Veremis became one of his first investors and gave him free office space to help him through his first few months.
The Greek startup sector, though still small, is showing signs of promise. With the help of four venture-capital vehicles, funded in large part by the European Investment Fund and offering up to €80 million in seed money, the number of tech startups jumped to 144 in 2013 from 16 in 2010, according to Endeavor Greece. Some have used that seed money to grow fast and attract major investors from the US and Europe.
There is no shortage of talented, well-educated Greek graduates to recruit. Tech startups offer well-paid jobs that give engineers and other scientists the opportunity to use their knowledge instead of wasting away at low-paying work unrelated to their studies or languishing unemployed.
Yet universities have done little to bring startups and students together. Left-wing student politics and the outdated anticommercial mentality of many in academia mean that the country’s best academic institutions remain hostile places for businesses. One startup executive who tried to enlist a university department to set up recruitment meetings with students told me he was warned the sessions were likely to be violently broken up by leftist students.
So the private sector has taken on the task of matching talent to entrepreneurial opportunity. Consider Iordanis Ladopoulos, the organiser of this visit to Upstream. Mr Ladopoulos was a professor of business administration at the Athens University of Economics and Business until his retirement in 2004. Throughout his tenure, he organised company visits for his students, as well as annual trips to a multidisciplinary conference he established in Delphi.
This past March, for the third year running, Mr Ladopoulos and his associates organised a three-day event in Athens, with presentations by speakers from Greece’s top companies. About 4,000 young people attended and were given a chance to sign up for visits, called Business Days, to 23 firms, including Upstream.
Bearded but always in a suit and tie, Mr Ladopoulos is a romantic who extols the values of discipline and hard work. He never tires of telling people that his life’s mission has been to bring together students and businesses. To judge from the affection his students feel for him, the effort has not been a waste.
But one septuagenarian’s lifelong campaign is not enough. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, a graduate of the National Technical University of Athens, has repeatedly set it as a central goal to repatriate many of the excellent minds that left Greece as a consequence of its long crisis. But achieving that would take a commitment to specific principles – meritocracy, free markets, competition as the search for excellence – which seem to be in short supply in his government.
There has been no attention paid by the new government, in rhetoric or in bills promulgated, to promoting entrepreneurship and export-led businesses. Instead, there has been a lot of talk about reining in the excesses of the private sector, and an education law which views academic competition and evaluation of professors as equivalent to Social Darwinism. It is an approach that all but guarantees that the brain drain will continue, and that a new, high-value-added economy will remain a distant dream.
* Mr Palaiologos, a journalist at Kathimerini newspaper in Athens, is the author of The Thirteenth Labour of Hercules (Portobello Books, 2014).