Marco Veremis, co-founder of Upstream was Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013. His successful company builds software in Greece and has customers in more than 40 countries throughout the world. He penned the following story in The Financial Times.
As I fly out of Athens on a spring afternoon I can’t escape the thought that, in my lifetime, my country has never had it so bad. The prolonged crisis has cost us a quarter of our GDP, the state is rapidly running out of money and Greece’s isolation grows by the day. Greece is perilously close to losing its European path. And with it our connection to the liberal values and prosperity that it promised.
Amid the nationalistic rhetoric in Athens, voices from the real economy, the internationally-minded people and businesses whose exports and services offer the only lasting hope of recovery, go unheeded. It brings WB Yeats to mind: “The centre cannot hold . . . the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
My vantage point has been at odds with the Greek depression. Upstream, the mobile commerce company I co-founded, has tripled its revenues and headcount in the past three years. We have built a global business that develops software in Athens and exports it to 42 countries, with nine offices around the world.
Our team, with an average age of 29, gives the lie to the stereotypes that abound of Greek professionals — by turns lazy, inward looking or living in the past. Instead, they are determined, adaptable and competitive.
The turbulence and uncertainty they experience beyond the workplace has brought out the best in them and enabled us to create a truly international company. This in turn has liberated us from the parochialism and claustrophobia of national decline.
Alas, it is not enough to congratulate my team for escaping the Greek crisis. Doing well in a country that is collapsing is almost as depressing as failing yourself. There is no insulating divide between business and politics.
It leaves me wondering whether there was ever really a political centre to hold. Some will rightly blame an overdose of austerity for killing off the traditional parties that claimed to represent this middle. But the truth is that the parties of the supposed centre never represented an economically sane, export oriented pro-business or liberal outlook. They were patronage networks that flirted with opposing ideologies while following the same statist, inward looking model.
Their collapse, hastened by mistakes inside and outside Greece, has not left us needing to rally the internationally minded political centre so much as build one from scratch. This is slow and painful work, which may not be completed in time to rescue us from populists and zealots who disdain the real economy and globalisation.
Your average middle-class liberal employed in the private sector is simply not trained to take to the streets, occupy parliament or shout down their opponents. While the activist parties on the far left and right rehearsed at rallies, fought with riot police and conducted sit-ins at universities, we literally minded our own business. Somehow mollified by the thought that these political theatrics would fade in importance as our inevitable European future eventually became a reality.
The price my generation of professionals may pay for being so disengaged from all things political will be to end up strangers in our own country. Under-represented in every aspect of public life, wondering where all the sensible middle-class people have gone. People like the ones we employ at Upstream.
Centrist values they had always lived by, most notably the pursuit of excellence and meritocracy, are now in doubt. Many young, educated Greeks who want jobs and a future beyond the embrace of the state, start to feel they must leave to achieve these things.
As I land in London, I am reminded that Greece is not alone in being threatened by populists and nationalists. But business breeds global citizens who bring markets ever closer together. As the international business arena grows in importance it is right to assert itself as a voice of reason in the political sphere.
The louder it becomes the harder it will be to hear the colourful local bullies.
My experience has been that the entrepreneurial spirit can shine through despite political failure. Beyond the sheer determination to create and progress, maintaining a global perspective has been the most important ingredient in our expansion. There is no stronger antidote to the irrational, isolationist politics that have engulfed my country than a critical mass of people who truly see potential in a globalised world.