I spent last week in Athens, Greece. It was my first time to the country. I didn't have time to make it to the islands, but I did have time to meet many students, NGO leaders, and businesspeople in Athens. Some assorted impressions and lessons.
1. History. Seeing the stadium that hosted the first Olympic games; seeing the place where Socrates was forced to commit suicide; seeing where a stage play was first performed; learning about the numerous English words and images (like the logo/insignia of pharmacies) that have their origin in a Greek god or Greek word…Athens really is the birthplace of western civilization and western democracy.
The Parthenon and related antiquities are well-kept outside, and an architectural wonder of the world, obviously. Inside, the new Acropolis museum shows off many other sculptures and art. Christopher Hitchen wrote a piece in Vanity Fair a couple years back (which I happened to read in the Best American Travel Writing of 2010 that I brought along on my trip) about the musuem. He covers the dispute over the British Museum holding various Greek art that ought to be in Athens. Hitchens thinks it's an outrage–though, to be fair, issues of national sovereignty over long-ago stolen art is a tricky one. Missing pieces notwithstanding, Hitchens raves about the new Acropolis museum. I generally don't like museums, but I'm with Hitchens on this one — the facility does a splendid job at showing off the millenia-old history of the country.
2. Athens beyond antiquities. Besides the Acropolis, there isn't a ton to do or see in Athens. There's plenty of traffic and pollution, meanwhile. While the Acropolis sitting up high is always a sight to behold from wherever you are in the city (especially at night when it's lit up), I wouldn't say the city built for Athena is especially stunning in the 21st century.
3. Motivated students. I wasn't dealing with a representative sample of the population, that's for sure, but the several hundred students who I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking to seemed driven to take control of their future, innovate, and overcome the massive economic challenges facing their country. With youth employment soaring (40% according to some numbers), the savvy students are aggressively trying to build a career without relying on the usual industries (e.g. government) or strategies. That's the good news.
4. Brain drain risk. But the potentially bad news is that these savvy students might not stay. I gained no great insight into the macroeconomic situation in Greece — and I didn't have much insight to begin with. But an observation I did have is around a long-term risk more significant than the country's debts: the possible population brain drain of the students mentioned in point #3. Many smart young people are thinking about leaving the country; they told me so themselves. There's a self-fulling dynamic here. If the smart people perceive there's no future for them in Greece, then they leave, and when the smart people leave, there really is no future for the country. It needs to find a way to keep them.
The common approach elders take to keeping talented youth in a country is appealing to notions of civic duty and national pride. That's one approach. But a grittier entrepreneurial approach is to focus on the business opportunities that are the flip side of societal problems. If taxi drivers strike constantly, why not start Ubercab for the businesspeople of Athens? Maybe not a great business idea, but it's an example of emphasizing practical self-interest over high-minded ideals when urging the best and brightest to stay.
5. Labor strikes. There are strikes every day in Athens thanks to the severe government cuts that are part of the austerity measures. Garbage men were on strike–so garbage was piled high on every street corner. Public transit and taxi drivers went on strike–so nobody could get around. Archaeologists and museum security guards went on strike–so nobody could go to museums. Tax collectors and government officials went on strike–so nobody could use basic government services. Apparently, daily strikes have been going on for about two years, and are now a certain occurrence. There's a web site in Greek that each day shows who is striking and for how long–it's become a must-read in Athens. Everyone I spoke to about the strikes agreed that the protesters were against the austerity measures, but were not for any specific alternative approach.
6. U.S. Diplomats and local staff. Once again, I was super impressed with the quality of the U.S. diplomats (who helped host me in Athens). The foreign service officers and the local staff they hire are truly a cut above your average federal government employee. I was also honored to spend some time with the American Ambassador to Greece and participate in a reception at his residence. What a challenging and exciting post right now. Again, just impressive all around.
7. Building entrepreneurial communities. A question we were batting around at dinner one night was how certain places (like Athens) might become hotbeds of entrepreneurship. I've thought a lot about this question over the years, particularly when I wrote an article on how Boulder, CO became a start-up hub. One point I make in the article–it's really Brad Feld's point, as he is a thought leader on the topic–is the need for leadership from individuals within the community. Not government officials, but private citizens who step up and try to galvanize the community to support the entrepreneurial process.
But the leadership or entrepreneurial push can't be momentary in response to a crisis. It has to be enduring. In Boulder, Brad's been there for more than a decade, and it's only in the last couple years that the city has emerged on the national map as a viable place to do a company. Leadership is needed over a long period of time; as Brad says, it's a 20-year journey. Government programs are prone to lose patience with programs that don't produce immediate gain; start-ups rarely produce immediate gain no matter how you measure it. It's another reason why governments cannot provide the long-term leadership necessary to drive entrepreneurial activity. (I'm fascinated to watch for how long the Chilean government funds Start-Up Chile.) In any event, for a local entrepreneur to be a true leader in the entrepreneurial community, it does seem like s/he needs to commit to leading/organizing/rallying the troops for decades, not years.
8. Being abroad. I hadn't traveled outside the U.S. for more than a year. It was great to get back out there. Though I had to camp out in my hotel room for a majority of the time, being out and about for meals, walking through Munich and Frankfurt airports, seeing the International Herald Tribune on Athens newsstands–these little things were enough to trigger the high one gets from being in a new place. And it's an energy that endures even when you return home…