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The Hellenic Initiative New Leaders Networking Event
by Maria Michelis
Stepping into midtown’s Amali Restaurant the chic décor and women dressed in cocktail dresses or sequined gowns, and men in suits, it seemed like the fanciest townhouse party. Checking in her coat, Maria Papakonstantinou, originally from North Carolina working for Fox News said it was one of the first Greek events she was attending, and came for networking and to support a good cause. Panos Karampouriotis recently moved to New York after finishing his PhD in Boston in physics and media influence stayed the whole night, mingling and talking about what’s going on in Greece and ways people could give back to Greece.
The event was a fundraiser for The Hellenic Initiative, which since 2012 has been raising money to send to Greece for crisis relief, helping feed families and children, as well as promote economic development. Additionally, by providing grants to companies and mentoring new entrepreneurs, have decreased Greece’s brain drain.
Networking and fundraising were going on simultaneously albeit seeming like neither was. The term for this is networking with a purpose, or the purest form of networking, when it’s combined with a good cause. People were munching on Greek hor d’oeuvres and sipping the recently launched Skinos Mastiha Spirit and Otto’s Athens Vermouth that were being promoted as well.
“We did pretty well, approximately 150 tickets were sold at $150…” Peter J. Poulos THI’s director said, liking the repetition of numbers. “But we always do well,” he added, “since it’s all going to a great cause, helping a country we love.” This is coming from someone for whom fundraising seems almost effortless. Poulos evinces a stellar fundraising background. Before joining THI in 2013, he was a political fundraiser for Capitol Hill, and at one point raised money for 150 non-profits. It was only after becoming the Founding Director of the San Francisco Greek Film Festivals, which he organized from his office and traveled to Greece, that he started to get the Greek bug. [The Greek bug is wanting to move to Greece.] Within a year he sold his house, moving to Athens at 40 years old, where he now lives and works. Poulos says the people, energy and lust for life are greater in Athens. And he sees the situation first-hand, which is still dire.
He travels back home once a month for fundraising and discloses always taking coach when flying, and using the E train to get to meetings in the city instead of a taxi. “I keep expenses at a minimum—if I can give to help a hungry family, I prefer that. I feel a huge responsibility to help people who’re hurting,” he says. “When we started it, lots of people in the diaspora didn’t want to give money to Greece, because they’d been burnt so we had to build trust. And it’s why THI has 100 percent transparency, responsibility, and accountability, as well as keeping expenses as low as possible.”
When THI was launched in 2012 in the midst of the financial crisis, it had to help restore trust in Greece in order to be able to fulfill its mission. And for the first time Greeks throughout the world managed to come together to help Greece and have continued doing so. Today THI manages offices around the world in Athens, New York, London, with affiliates in Canada and Australia. They also share a monthly international newsletter to inform everyone about their efforts and keep the community connected.
Last year THI raised 3.5 million, and an additional 1.5 million in grants for Greek businesses, growing 30 percent and even more this year. Since its inception THI has invested a total of 15 million in direct crisis relief, and economic development, working with over 60 organizations and programs. They also help with natural disasters such as fire relief and environmental clean-ups.
Poulos says most of the money is raised at the Galas in New York and London, where tickets cost $750, though new leaders under 40 get a special price of $300. Tables go for 15k, 75k or 100k, of which there are a total of 8. In last year gala’s silent auction alone, which was curated by Toula Livanos raised 150k.
Asked how he gets someone to give such amounts, Poulos says it’s all about personal connection finding people and having a common interest. “I don’t do a hard sale with anyone. You’re a wealthy person…the organization does so and so…hopefully you’re interested.”
“And the desire to give to Greece is already there,” Poulos said. There are many people who want to help. Upon hearing of THI for the first time people say they are glad we are here and doing this. Not only Greeks, but also Philhellenes from around the world give a surprising amount of money, along with beautiful letters saying they love and want to support Greece.”
For someone to be on the board of THI the initial contribution is 100k to join and then 25k a year to stay on. THI currently has 23 board members. It also an Executive Committee, consisting of such luminaries as Bill Clinton, and the founder of THI George P. Stamas who recruited Poulos, among others.
Necessary help continues to reach Greece. And all of it with only eight staff members, four full-time staff, and four part-time. THI works with many volunteers. Fundraising events are held almost every two weeks. It is all being done and will continue because the situation is still bad in Greece. “People say things are better now in Greece, but not really. We are there and see it,” says Poulos, “The salaries are not commensurate to Western salaries, really not even close to where they should be to get by in Greece either, which creates the brain drain.”
Fortunately one of THI’s main goals is reducing the brain drain and keeping as many young professionals as possible in Greece. Their efforts are wide-ranging in creating opportunities for businesses and individuals, from creating internships, providing training, helping to start or boost almost 1000 businesses, forming start-ups, providing loans to new companies, as well as conceiving the Venture Fair to open doors and inspire young entrepreneurs, among others.
Unbelievable what one can do with such a small staff, but your money and Poulos and THI make it possible. Money is also raised 24 hours 7 days a week online on THI’s website. As soon as one enters THI’s website, an icon appears. For those individuals who didn’t make it to give to the last end of the year appeal, which raised $70k, they uploaded a Share Your Love Silent Auction until Valentine’s Day.
THI also lets people know how to get involved through social media, raising funds for Greece, volunteering, using the Amazon Smile tab earmarking money to them when you shop. They use the hashtags #THI #OliMazi #GreeksHelpingGreeks #TheHellenicInitiative
However, attending the events is probably the most fun, particularly the Young Leaders. As the night was ending people weren’t dispersing, instead gathering in one huge almost impenetrable circle right almost in the shape of a heart upstairs. But perhaps angels are watching over, bonding people like one big happy family, aligning and working together, enabling the help to get to where it needs.