Young Greek American Entrepreneurs Rediscover their Hellenic Heritage

Artemis Kohas. Photo supplied

By Sean Mathews

In 1990 George Kounoupis, who was already a practicing attorney in the city of Philadelphia, became a licensed attorney in Greece.

The son of Greek immigrants, he saw a niche in serving as a bridge between the legal systems of the United States and his parents’ home country. However, as the years passed, he wondered if this link between the old country and the new would still be needed.

“At one time I thought, ‘when first generation immigrants like my father and uncles pass away, what kind of practice will I have?’ As he told Greek Reporter, “the second and third generation Greek Americans will never be interested in going back to Greece.”

Today, the partner in the law firm of Hahalis & Kounoupis says he couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised.

“Now I see the second and third generation Greek Americans are even more fervent in finding ways to live in Greece, invest in Greece, and start businesses in Greece. When you go to Greece now you can see the vibrancy,” he said.

Dr. George Tsetsekos, Dean Emeritus at LeBow’s College of Business at Drexel University and now a private equity advisor, says he has noticed the same trend.

“I am Greek, born and educated,” he says, “and I must say I have been very impressed by the passion of second and third generation Greek Americans to go back to Greece, explore possibilities and contribute to the country. The passion and the intelligence to execute their endeavors is there.”

Artemis Kohas, known throughout Greek diaspora circles as the “Mastiha Girl” for introducing Chios’ specialty Mastiha products to the United States, is just one such example.

Working with the Chios Mastiha Growers Association, Kohas and her sister opened the Mastiha Shop, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in 2007.

A licensed mental health professional and guidance counselor with little previous experience in the food and beverage industry before opening the shop, she credits her entrepreneurial spirit to her family’s Greek immigrant background.

“There is definitely a bug to create something through entrepreneurship. You can see that, just looking at how many Greek business owners there are. Perhaps it is a product of having left your homeland to try for a better life,” Kohas explains to Greek Reporter.

She described the venture of marketing and selling Greece’s unique Mastiha product as a learning process which allowed her to embrace her roots and connect with the Greek lifestyle.

Artemis Kohas. Photo supplied

“As Greeks, we love having people around. When we had the shop we did events and collaborations with Greek chefs, restaurants, designers, and wine makers,” Kohas recalls.

The physical shop closed in 2015, but today, while still running the online store and working with the growers association, Kohas has begun to focus on helping new generations of Greek producers with branding and marketing.

Kohas sees room for plenty of growth and opportunities for the diaspora interested in working with Greek specialty products, but admits that there are challenges.

“I’m very honest when producers ask me about entering the US,” Kohas says. “The market has huge potential but it takes a lot of money. You must be willing to pay to play.”

Georgios Michailidis, Greek Trade Commissioner in New York City, whose role it is to work with businesses and organizations to promote Greek exports, says the popularity of the Mediterranean diet, the growing number of Greek fine dining restaurants, and e-commerce are all trends that have contributed to an increase in demand for specialty products from Greece.

But Michailidis acknowledges that getting into the retail side, including supplying grocery stores, is challenging. According to him, part of this market is saturated with similar, competitive products from other Mediterranean countries such as Spain and Italy.

He also says that entering what he refers to as the “multi-layered” structure of the US market, with its various distribution, broker and buyer networks spread out over a wide geographic area, can be a daunting task for the mostly small and medium size Greek businesses producing specialty products.

It is here that Kohas believes there is a role to fill for members of the Greek diaspora who might be interested in promoting and selling Greek products.

“I think what’s missing with Greek exporters is people who can help Greek producers get into the food shows, make contact with distributors, and navigate US regulations, especially producers who don’t speak English” he notes.

Nowhere is the need to bridge this divide, between the young generation from the new world and traditional producers from the old, greater than in marketing and branding.

Michailidis told Greek Reporter “The primary issue that arises for smaller producers is that they lack the necessary funds and professional expertise to implement professional, long-lasting marketing campaigns in highly competitive, saturated and expensive markets, such as the US.”

Elias Spirtounias, Managing Director of the Hellenic American Chamber of Commerce, says that young Greek-Americans are uniquely positioned to fill this role.

“The young generation of Greek-Americans are better educated and equipped with a modern entrepreneurial spirit compatible with the latest technology, marketing and sales trends. With their advanced networking they can influence not only the promotion of the Greek products but also the funding of several opportunities existing in Greece,” he tells Greek Reporter.

Michailidis says that he believes well-organized marketing campaigns “Should be run targeting high-income, younger consumers in major metropolitan areas.”

Vivianna Karamanis, a Greek-American businesswoman who owns the specialty food exporter Hellenic Farms, seems to be filling that void well. She started her business in 2013 after relocating to Greece from New York to marry her husband.

Hellenic Farms’ Vivianna Karamanis. Photo Source: Facebook

The New Yorker started building the foundations of her company by visiting small bodegas and producers she thought would do well in the United States.

Working as a young single woman in Greece — in a market traditionally dominated by men — posed a major challenge. She told Greek Reporter “When I started I didn’t know how to deal with margins, and no one would take my calls.”

“So I began Googling local gourmet stores and putting samples in my bag and trying to build relationships with small Mom and Pop stores,” Karamanis says.

Just seven years later, in addition to importing items such as high quality Greek olive oil and herbs, she even has her own private label. Her website is sleek and simple, while the tasteful brown paper wrapping on her best-selling fig salami is a natural fit on America’s burgeoning gourmet food scene.

According to Karamanis, many Greek companies still do not value the power of branding and marketing.

“At Hellenic Farms we put an emphasis on packaging to help promote Greek products,” she explains to Greek Reporter. “When you are trying to get your olive oil on the shelf, it is going to be costly, and that makes sense.”

While young diaspora entrepreneurs such as Kohas and Karamanis are certainly bringing tech and marketing savvy to Greek products, Dr. Tsetsekos says Greece will need to continue on its path of economic reform to make exports more competitive and the business environment more attractive.

“There is no question that there have been improvements in Greece’s business environment, but the process for establishing entities and regulating them must be streamlined and taxation must be simplified with clearer guidelines. We are still behind,” he declares.

He then emphasizes, “The worst thing for any business is a lack of clarity in the rules.”

Tsetsekos adds “When it comes time to execute a business activity in Greece, it takes so much time and energy — to the point where the whole thing can collapse. Not on the grounds of the venture itself, but on things like paperwork,” he tells Greek Reporter.

Greek Trade Commissioner Michailidis insists, however, that the Greek government is working on implementing more incentives to attract foreign direct investment.

These include “The elimination of red-tape by further introducing “e-governance” such as (digital) licensing that significantly reduces the time and effort to start a new business, the reduction of corporate taxes and the reduction of the corporate social security contributions,” he told Greek Reporter in an interview.

Elias Spirtounias, Managing Director of the Hellenic American Chamber of Commerce, says Greece is moving in the right direction with these commitments to lower the tax burden.

Regarding this impetus for reform, he tells Greek Reporter, “The economic crisis had an impact on the mentality of Greek people and especially on the youngsters, who realized that the public sector offered limited opportunities for a successful and prosperous career. As such, we have a significant growth in entrepreneurship, especially with the youth.”

The balance in the future will be having a forward-looking plan for the economy and business, while maintaining the spirit that makes Greece and its products unique. For the diaspora, rethinking Greek specialty products is as much about edgy creativity as it is rediscovering the past.

“I always felt our parents wanted their children to be doctors or lawyers. They never wanted them to work the land. I think now people are appreciating what this blessed land has to offer us,” Karamanis says.

“I am very passionate about my heritage and Greek products. My parents raised us to never forget where we came from,” Kohas tells Greek Reporter.

Part of that is embracing the lifestyle in Greece, both outside of working hours and during them. “In Greece business meetings take place over a two-hour coffee. You give time to people and ask how they are before starting a meeting,” Kohas notes.

Spirtounias is confident there is room in Greece for producers to adapt to a new world, by doing things like forming cooperatives to gain larger market share and utilizing technology while still maintaining traditions and respecting small producers.

“In Greece, you can see how the small producers, those who make their products because they love them, are keeping traditions alive, and I think that is healthy for us,” he says.

For Kounoupis, this is part of the psychology of attracting his clients back to Greece.

“With the children of Greek0American families trying to get back to Greece, there is a desire for the pure, the fresh, the healthy and the real” he says.