The Chinese character for crisis is the same as the character for “chance” or “opportunity.” In that case, the concept would not be lost in translation if we are talking about the issue of female entrepreneurship in Greece and beyond. According to a recent EU report published by the European Commission on Female Entrepreneurship in 2014, before the onset of the Eurocrisis the ranking of businesses headed by women placed Greece in the lowest tier, perhaps 2nd or 3rd place from the bottom. However, since the Eurocrisis, the percentage of businesses spearheaded by Greek females has spiked pushing the country to the top 5% in the EU ranking. According to the latest statistical data, Greek women make up 24% of the entrepreneurs in the labor force, whereas men make up 37%, putting Greece at the top of the entrepreneurial ladder beating out the UK (9% women in business) and Germany (8%). How have Greek women who were at the bottom of the totem pole managed to thrust themselves to the top in such a short time? The answer has to do with the ying/yang duality inherent in every time of crisis. The advancement of Greek women entrepreneurship is the mission behind a little known not-for-profit organization—SEGE or Greek Association of Women Entrepreneurs.
Figure 1 Percentage of entrepreneurs in total active labour force (entrepreneurship rate) by gender and country in Europe-37, 2012
Source: Panteia, based on Labour Force Survey (Eurostat, UNICE, ILOSTAT and national statistics)
Existing largely by a pool of professional volunteers, SEGE provided most of the offerings to be expected in developing budding businesswomen—training and coaching, mentoring and networking, start-up seminars. Its members run the gamut of entrepreneurial spirit, representing a wide sector of industries in the Greek economy: travel and tourism, food, beauty, transportation, and manufacturing. However, through the years since its inception in 1997, the organization has taken on the role as ambassador of all things involving women’s entrepreneurial leadership. Last year, it hosted “Female Entrepreneurial Week” a weeklong conference attended by 380 participants from 36 countries. It functions in conjunction with the Balkan Women Coalition (a consortium of women’s business organizations from eight countries in the Balkans) as well as the Mediterranean Women’s Coalition (a larger regional consortium that includes countries such as Turkey, Italy and Spain.) Recently it has started to push its reach outside its immediate geographic scope by entering into partnerships with Scandanavian women’s organizations.
The President of SEGE, Despina Triakosani-Sultani, a business consultant in the food industry runs the organization along with Vice President Apostolina Tsaltampasi, who is recognized as the official EU Ambassador for Female Entrepreneurship from Greece. The universal complaint of the reality of women’s access to capital was echoed by the founders. Tsaltampasi lamented that the organization does not have the budget potential to reach more members and be present at more international conferences. “We were invited as the Greek representative to the W20 Summit, the equivalent of the G20 for women’s issues, to Turkey this year, but we could not attend because the cost of just attending the preliminary conference is upwards of 2000 Euros per person, she says. “Had we had funding our involvement would have multiplied exponentially.” The organization receives little support by way of the Greek state via the Ministry of Equality. It survives mostly by EU grants. “We do not receive the proper state funding for the involvement in women’s economic conferencing in the international arena,” she explains. Still, given its limited funding, SEGE stays true to its members by capitalizing on each euro for their benefit. Last year, it coordinated 45 on-going networking partnerships between more established women business owners and those coming into the field. Its first Female Entrepreneurial Week was extremely successful, even while expenses and organization were borne entirely on its shoulders.
According to a recent opinion poll, 82% of Greek women entrepreneurs are satisfied with their decision to start their own businesses, but 89% point out the lack of support policies for female entrepreneurship in Greece while 69% are stating that the Greek society does not approve of them as much as it should.
The Greek economic crisis has no doubt increased the number of Greek female startups, according to Triakosani-Sultani. In general, the crisis has motivated women to develop themselves through “fair and dignified means.” But she cautions women about establishing businesses for the right reasons and not as “desperate measures.”
“There is a difference between entrepreneurship through opportunity and entrepreneurship through need,” Triakosani-Sultani explains. “When I consult with aspiring businesswomen during my training sessions, I differentiate between those who used the crisis as the opportunity to establish their business and those that established their business because there is a crisis. Those businesses started out of desperation tend to be problematic.”
She also does not mince the realities of what it means to be a female entrepreneur. “That might mean bringing a 15 day newborn to the office in a basket,” she says. “It means withstanding two years minimum to turn a profit.” Given the realities, those without true entrepreneurial mettle become disillusioned and drop out, she explains.
Tsaltampasi also is keen to bring up the taboos that still pervade the cultural landscape. “There are few women in consultant positions,” she states. “Less than 5% can actually make a career out of it. Men don’t accept business advice from women easily. Women still have to work twice as hard to stay in the running.”
“There is still a suspicious air when dealing with women in business in Greece,” the VP concedes, “but things have improved from the previous generation.”
Sometimes however it is not the external landscape that needs to change but the internal.
“We find that it tends to be the women who are afraid to approach men in the business arena. We have to change the way women think and feel about themselves, and not how men treat women.”
Is there a difference between male and female entrepreneurs? As with everything that involves the sexes, Tsaltampasi agrees there is.
“The way the two sexes approach business is different. Women have a broader, more holistic perspective, resulting in their being more flexible. Men tend to be more goal-oriented and focused on a specific target, therefore, when they don’t meet it, they tend to give up.”
“As a society, we should do for women’s entrepreneurship what Martha Stewart has done for home economics,” Tsaltampasi states.
How can women in the Greek Diaspora help budding entrepreneurs in the home country? SEGE invites collaboration and networking with established women in business from both sides of the Atlantic. It welcomes professional women to run seminars, workshops and training sessions for their constituents.
The crisis evident throughout the world stage is the perfect opportunity to unite women of the Hellenic Diaspora to share knowledge, build networks, and spearhead new ventures. More information can be found at their website, www.sege.gr