Women in Tech: Insights from the Greek startup scene

Photo from blog.workable.com

Photo from blog.workable.com

No matter where in the world you are, working at a startup can be tough. However imagine working for a startup founded in a nation battling capital controls, a growing brain drain, and a shaky financial future. Along with the common challenges like large workloads and long hours, employees at Greek startups also have to fight through concerns that come from earning a living in the midst of an ongoing debt crisis.

Zaharenia, Sophia, and Vasiliki are three of the sixteen women that work at Athens founded startup, Workable. They shared their insights into the economy’s effect on national sentiment, as well as their outlook on the Greek startup scene.

The financial crisis in Greece renders the country an extremely fragile place in which to hold down a job, especially at a startup, which is high risk regardless.

“Up until the latest events and the enforcement of capital controls, there was a modest but booming startup scene in Greece” Zaharenia (UI/UX design at Workable) says. “As expected, capital controls have taken their toll on startups that rely on Greek credit cards for transactions, so we’ve seen quite a lot of sunsetting startups lately.”

Since strict capital controls were imposed in June of this year, Greek startups have been struggling to meet basic operational costs. Transfers of money out of Greek bank accounts have been limited to prevent capital flight from the country. This is bad news for any Greek startup relying on foreign-based data services, like web-hosting, email, and credit card processing, which generally require monthly credit card payments. Without the freedom to make overseas payments, it becomes much harder for Greek startups to keep these basic, mission-critical services running- even if they have the funds in the bank to do so.

Needless to say, the capital controls have had a huge impact on national sentiment in general. Zaharenia feels trapped in her situation, and worries that what happens is ultimately out of her control. “I never doubted my decision to stay in the country and help by working here, paying my taxes and helping my family, but things have taken a really bad turn now. I’m worried about a Greek exit [from the European Union] that would alienate us from the rest of Europe. As much as I love my country, I don’t think I will stay around to watch that happen.”

Hiring talent is an increasing challenge too, with many young Greek people leaving their home in search of better employment prospects. According to national statistics service of Greece, the unemployment rate among young people aged up to 24 years old remains above 50%, while in the 25-34 age group it is 35%.

“We are experiencing a brain drain, and a lot of talented young Greeks are opting to leave the country” Sophia (Sales at Workable) tells us. “But successful startups that are able to offer a great work environment, future prospects, and incentivize you to stay despite the dire economic circumstances around you, offer a great opportunity” she adds.

Nevertheless, there are still many skilled workers that have stayed back in Greece. “They’re the ideal workforce really” says Zaharenia. “Young, well-educated, eager to work on something they believe in and prove their worth.”

It isn’t all doom and gloom for Greek startups. Some believe that the startup scene represents a possible alternative to the high unemployment rate and struggling public sector, which, once the largest employer in Greece (1.2 million people), was forced to cut 250,000 jobs in three years. Further, according to the telegraph, there are economists and venture capitalists that say Greece has the potential to support a startup boom.

Zaharenia agrees: “Since startups are usually focused abroad, I think they can be a great way to help Greece become more internationally focused. I think the worst thing we can do right now is get focused only on the financial problems.”

Aside from the economic benefits, young Greek people are discovering the additional personal benefits that come from working in the startup environment. Vasiliki (Customer Success at Workable) tells us about her internship at a Greek startup, “I was fascinated by the modern approach to employment, progress and effort. This experience alone validated that working in a startup was a rewarding experience, so once I graduated I kept it in mind for my job search.”

“The crisis in Greece brought anxiety” Vasiliki adds. “But it has also brought out opportunities for young people that were willing to work hard. In the past 3 years the community has definitely grown, and it is exciting to see where some of those companies are now and how they have managed to overcome the hardships.”

Take for example Taxibeat, a smartphone app to locate nearby taxis. In the midst of a rapid economic decline, they helped Greek taxi drivers embrace new technology, improve their service, and add a new source of income.

Another example is Incrediblue, an online boat booking service that connects renters with sailboat and yacht owners, and provides jobs to local skippers to run the boats. They couldn’t pay for their advertisements on Google, causing a decline in business. However, by choosing to incorporate outside of Greece, they persuaded skeptical users and investors to believe in the service, and have since become an award winning service.

Four new Greek venture funds have already been created- Jeremie Openfund, Odyssey, First Athens, and PJ Tech Catalyst have announced plans to invest in more than 30 Greek companies in three years. A collection of international investors have provided funding for Greek startups too.

Zaharenia believes the crisis has actually made what’s left of the startup community in Greece stronger. “Since the greek community is small, I think we’re well connected, and people are willing to share insights and help when needed.” She gives Zero Fund (http://zerofund.org/) as one example, which is a new organization that enables Greek entrepreneurs living abroad to help Greece based startups by covering their costs to weather the current capital controls.

Zaharenia emphasizes how important events like Open Coffee are to the Greek startup community. “People [in different Greek cities] have the chance to meet and talk about entrepreneurship and engineering.”

Sophia agrees on the strength of the Greek startup community, commenting that as the crisis became progressively worse, more people actually took the initiative to begin their own Startups, rather than stay in the public sector. “I previously worked for another startup, which unfortunately shut down 6 months after I started working there.” says Sophia. “However through that I was introduced to my current job since the Greek startup community is strong.” Sophia still worries about the crisis stifling Startup growth, though. She said, “I worry that fewer people are going to take the initiative of starting one.”

Despite these worries, the three girls agreed that the outlook for Greek startups was generally positive. Vasiliki remains hopeful. She said, “There are some amazing companies that create valuable products and much needed jobs, while also attracting investors and clients. They show the hardworking, talented side of Greece and help Greece grow. As long as we’re willing to stay and fight for it, only good can come out of this.”


Photo on 3-10-2014 at 5.29 pm #2 copyI was born and raised in Sydney, Australia. Since graduating university in 2014 with a degree in Business and Marketing, I moved to Boston to pursue an ambition to work at a startup. I now do Customer Success at a Greek-founded, Boston-based startup. When I’m not talking to customers and learning about new stuff, I like doing group fitness classes, watching live music, and teaching Australian slang to Americans.
Read more about and from the author: Amelia’s WiLab Profile