Thanos Papadimitriou has a sun-kissed countenance – hardly surprising for an Athenian who has spent much of his time in California – but his expression clouds when we turn to the subject at hand.
“Kids in Greece are often vessels of their parents’ ambitions. They tell their children: ‘What is this start-up thing? You have a job waiting for you’ – usually the family business – ‘Do you want to end up on the streets?’” he mimics.
But family shops no longer have customers and they’re folding one after the other, I counter.
“Right. But you can’t change a culture by sheer will,” he responds.
Papadimitriou is an academic and a businessman with an international career. He has been keeping a keen eye on efforts to turn Athens into a hub of entrepreneurship and has been doing his bit to help in the endeavor. Often, though, when attending all-the-more frequent events to this end, he does wonder “whether entrepreneurship is at risk of becoming just another form of the Greek lifestyle, a trend.”
Our meeting takes place at his office near the Athens Naval Hospital in Kolonaki, the neighborhood where he grew up and attended the local public experimental school.
“It was one of the first schools in Greece to offer computer lessons,” the 44-year-old businessman says, explaining how he was among the first wave of Greek computer pioneers writing for specialized magazines “in order to make some pocket money.”
“There was a very lively community of people writing programs at the time,” Papadimitriou remembers.
When he graduated from school, computer sciences and engineering were not available at Greek universities so Papadimitriou set off abroad. With his resume showing him to be the co-author of a computer manual – which he wrote at the age of 17 together with his school math professor, Spyros Kalomitsinis – he received a scholarship and was accepted to MIT.
“The book sold well and so, where my needs were ‘clearly defined,’ as they were for every other student, I suddenly found myself with a small income,” says Papadimitriou. “That’s when I became hooked on the idea of being financially independent.”
After completing a postgraduate degree at UCLA, where he later got his doctorate, Papadimitriou ended up at Cambridge Technology Partners, an IT consulting firm born in the labs of MIT. He remembers how he accepted the job at CTP just before receiving an offer from the Greek branch of Andersen Consulting. He then spent 12 years in the Unites States, “wondering how I would have turned out if the Andersen offer had come first.”
At the age of 24, Papadimitriou moved to Silicon Valley and spent the next four years working on projects in 10 different sectors, getting to know the people who would lead the second phase of the Internet revolution – among them the co-founders of Google and the current managing director of YouTube. On this topic, our discussion turned to Greece’s inability to produce new elites, in contrast to the US where every new generation brings its own revolution. But Papadimitriou believes that things are changing in Greece.
“It is happening, just not at the speed that I’d like,” he says, adding that it has a lot to do with culture.
“That can only change over time, through exposure and osmosis. Start-ups are not an end in themselves. They are about the effort to create something useful, viable and profitable,” he says of something that is so easy and yet so complex.
Papadimitriou returned to Greece for good in 2012 after selling a company he had set up in California, AlphaDetail, which had become one of the 50 most successful market research firms in California. His decision had been preceded by nearly two decades of different business and academic activities, including a brief stint at the Athens University of Economics and Business, as well as a longer spell at Bocconi University in Milan, where he still teaches management.
In 2013, as a result of difficulties while renovating his house, he came up with the idea of Giaola.gr, an online platform for finding plumbers, electricians and other technicians for everyday jobs. He also founded the incubator Mbriyo, which provided a roof and the intellectual support that Giaola.gr and two other companies needed to grow. Mbriyo has six partners (four Greeks and two Americans), all in their 40s, and each of whom, as Papadimitriou explains, “covers a particular part of the process of establishing an IT firm,” from the legal framework to the business plan and the development of software.
“I decided to return because, on the one hand, I had some money to invest thanks to the AlphaDetail sale, and, on the other, because I tend to believe that opportunity lies just where people believe it doesn’t,” Papadimitriou says.