Nineteen young Greeks spent two weeks on the East and West coasts of the United States recently trying to figure out how so many startups manage to flourish in America.
The expedition’s participants are members of Mindspace – an organization started by a group of students with the aim of helping to cultivate a business mentality among young people – and members of the three startups (AidPlex, Oliveex and Parity) that won the Mindspace Challenge, a pitching competition which took place in Greece last spring. They traveled from Athens to Silicon Valley, spoke with professors and teachers at MIT, Harvard and Stanford, met with world-renowned investors, accelerators, incubators and startuppers, and visited companies such as Google, edX, Facebook and Netflix that shape the modern world. What did they bring back?
“The comparisons began the moment we set foot on American soil; comparisons that mean nothing, really. There are a lot of differences in terms of entrepreneurship between the two countries and the two continents more generally, but if there is one thing to focus on, it’s the culture,” says Evangelos Dikopoulos, CMO of Mindspace.
To explain this, he draws on the definition of culture given by former Hulu CEO Jason Kilar: Culture is “how you act when no one’s looking.”
“If I had to sum up the American business culture in one word, that would be ‘risk.’ From investors who don’t chicken out of spending their money, to so-called college dropouts who sacrifice everything to go after their dream, the Americans, unlike people on this side of the Atlantic, take risks. I would even say they are the embodiment of failure. As tired and cliched as it is, we will never stop saying it: Failure is not the opposite of success, but a part of it. One of the most striking things we heard was: ‘Failure is OK. You fail, you learn.’ I would also talk about a pay-it-forward mentality. Most businesspeople, but also the [American] people in general, believe in doing a good deed so that the beneficiary does a good deed for someone else in return.”
In the broader San Francisco Bay Area, the team got to meet dozens of Greeks who work at giants like Google, Facebook and Netflix.
“I was particularly impressed by the openness of these companies,” says Dikopoulos. “All the offices are open-plan – everyone works side by side in huge open spaces – and there are no set working hours; there are game rooms and even movie theaters.”
At a Silicon Valley Greeks meetup, which was organized by General Catalyst, the team met Greek entrepreneurs and had the privilege of being invited into the home of Nikos Arvanitis, a legend of Silicon Valley who has been in the Bay Area for more than 50 years. In Boston, their most memorable experiences were meeting with MIT professor Constantinos Daskalakis and with the successful businesswoman and investor Marina Hatsopoulos.
The electrical engineers were especially thrilled by their visit to the IBM headquarters, while the three winning startups – whose airfare was covered by Mindspace with the support of the US Embassy in Athens – were treated to a day at MassChallenge, an accelerator that does not take a share of the startups it hosts yet hands out more than 2 million dollars a year.
“We came back to Greece with fresh ideas and drive,” adds Dikopoulos.