It was nearly 10 years ago when I flew to Athens together with US President Bill Clinton and a group of friends, united for a common cause. At the time, Greece was in crisis and a newly elected government was in power.
Greek society at that time was polarized to the extreme and there was much at stake. Greece was in the headlines globally and everyone I knew was asking me about Greece and its future. At the time there was no clear sense of direction and yet Greeks felt an urgent need for action.
Back then, I was at Dow Chemical, a company I had the privilege to serve for more than 40 years, over 14 of which were as chairman and CEO. My engineering education and tenure at Dow shaped my thinking towards problems – start first by making no part of the problem worse. Greece looked like a problematic state, at least from the outside, but one where there was a significant opportunity for change, if only the nation’s abilities could be channeled to purposeful solutions. I am never impartial and neutral when it comes to this country and its people. As a second-generation Greek Australian, Greece is 12,000 kilometers distant – yet never feels far away.
My father’s family came from Kastellorizo and my mother’s from Rhodes. I grew up with the Greek food, language, customs and, of course, culture and heritage. The reason was simple for me. All of us who left or whose families left Greece carried Greece with us.
So, it was almost 10 years ago to this day that my good friend George Stamas and I were compelled to establish The Hellenic Initiative. Our mission is simple but profound: Unite the global diaspora and philhellene communities to support Greece. The goals were, and remain, economic development, job creation, entrepreneurship and mentoring and crisis relief.
All our work would be in Greece for the direct benefit of the country and its people. When we reached out to fellow Greek diaspora leaders with this vision, they answered with a big “yes” and joined the cause.
We found encouragement and useful lessons and learned best practices from our Jewish, Irish and Armenian brothers and sisters, who have done so much for their own countries and for so many years. Each of these diaspora groups came together after experiencing a certain trauma as a community. Our trauma was the headlines of 2012. We were indeed trying to turn a crisis into an opportunity for change.
What started in New York in 2012 now has offices and activity on three continents. The initial group of 40 board members was joined, in 2021, by almost 5,000 donors from over 47 different countries.
‘What started as a call to its diaspora to respond to Greece’s financial crisis has become the largest diaspora organization in the world’
The Hellenic Initiative’s first programmatic grant was made in 2012, and now we have over 220 grants to showcase. The funds we have raised translate to almost $20 million in direct aid to Greece and its people.
To address Greece’s brain drain and with the support of Coca-Cola, we launched ReGeneration, Greece’s largest placement firm, which has placed over 2,700 graduates in jobs at top Greek companies. To help reduce unemployment and promote opportunity, The Hellenic Initiative offered entrepreneurial courses – open for everyone willing to turn an idea into a business.
When my friends from Kastellorizo were calling me in 2015 to discuss the refugee crisis caused by the war in Syria, The Hellenic Initiative was the first organization to support METAdrasi to open the first shelter for unaccompanied minors in Lesvos. We have been working with the likes of ELPIDA, SOS Villages and Together for Children, helping thousands of children and their families in Greece to address food scarcity, child abuse and children’s cancer.
Ten years after that impactful visit, so much has changed for Greece. Rather than headlines about financial restructuring and debt defaults, I am reading about “Greece 2.0” and the country’s digital transformation. Headlines that recount the progress in the startup ecosystem and the investments from the big firms. Ten years ago, young Greeks were leaving the country in search of a better life. Today, digital nomads, including many diaspora Greeks, are turning Greece into a new mecca for everyone wishing to work with a lifestyle difficult to match. I congratulate Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on his efforts to see this country turn the page and his willingness to promote change.
Over the past 10 years, The Hellenic Initiative too has evolved into so much more. What started as a call to its diaspora to respond to Greece’s financial crisis has become the largest diaspora organization in the world. As Greece’s needs have shifted, so has our response.
On Monday, some of the most promising Greek startups had the golden opportunity to pitch to investors from Greece and all over the world at The Hellenic Initiative Venture Fair in Athens. The sixth annual Venture Fair is at the heart of the events of ATHINA2022, the celebration of THI’s 10th anniversary, as well as of Greece’s most dynamic startups and philanthropic organizations.
Thus, for the diaspora, we believe we have also had an impact in these first 10 years by creating a new model for how the Greeks can support Greece in a unique 21st century way. The Hellenic Initiative is just beginning and we look forward to what the next decades will bring.
Andrew Liveris is a former chairman and chief executive officer of The Dow Chemical Company and former executive chairman of DowDuPont. He is the chairman of The Hellenic Initiative Board of Directors Executive Committee.