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Is This Island Paradise for Entrepreneurs?

What happens when a flood of highly educated, entrepreneurial young people return from studies abroad to tiny Cyprus? The answer offers a trickle of optimism.
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For a Mediterranean island about the size of Connecticut, Cyprus certainly produces an outsize number of graduates. Around a third of the population goes on to get an undergraduate degree (compared with just more than a quarter of Americans and 23 percent of Europeans), with many studying abroad in the United Kingdom, United States, or other European countries. Only Ireland produces a higher percentage of grads per capita in the EU.

What exactly happens when all these newly educated brains come home to an economy in recession and a miniscule domestic market? Answers to this question, it appears, are increasingly entrepreneurial. The ambitions of educated young people cutting unexpected channels through impediments such as the dominance of slow-moving family firms, government bureaucracy, and lack of funding for start-ups. It is just a trickle of change, but at the moment Europe--with it's millions of well educated, unemployed youth--can use any change it can get.

Quiet Evidence of Entrepreneurialism

Because it's a tiny, tight-knit place, business in Cyprus often proceeds through personal connections, and because it's a comfortable place where the status quo generally provides a decent standard of living for most, incentive for change is usually muted. Government officials, while not as actively hostile to business as their fellow Greek-speakers in Athens, is not accelerating the country towards a cutting-edge future (in fact, the current administration managed to accidently blow up the country's main power plant in a massive and deadly accident last year). Nor is this island tucked into the eastern end of the Mediterranean perfectly positioned to be an incubator of fresh ideas.

"From a self-sustained lifestyle in villages, we moved to being lawyers, accountants, hotel owners, without going through the various stages of industrial revolution. First it was money from tourism, then Russian money, etc. that took us into prosperity without having the cultural backbone to handle it," says Alexandros Charalambides, an Imperial College Ph.D. and Cyprus University of Technology lecturer, explaining the cultural hurdles for entrepreneurs. "Why would a company invest in an idea, since that model of doing business was never seen in Cyprus?"

All of which might lead an observer to suggest that Cyprus is hardly ripe for a flowering of entrepreneurialism. But look closer and a business-savvy mindset is in quiet evidence. "Cypriot people are very entrepreneurial and there are, proportionate to the population, quite a few remarkably success stories of Cypriots building businesses and being successful," says Xenios Thrasyvoulou, the Cypriot founder of PeoplePerHour.com.

Putting aside businesses founded abroad ranging from Greek diners to easyJet, that entrepreneurialism has traditionally manifested itself in within Cyprus in ventures with relatively low start-up costs, such as food-based businesses and solopreneur plays. "In terms of graphic design, I can find plenty. In terms of web development. Cyprus is full. There's a web developer on ever corner," says Loris Stavrinides, the British-educated founder of Oniric Creative Studios. Like many small-scale entrepreneurs in established industries, he found networking and getting the word out about his business relatively easy thanks to the size of the community.

Being isolated and a bit tradition bound, in other words, has its advantages. Argyris Argyrou, a Columbia University MBA grad who is currently trying to get a new business off the ground wrote in an email: "The very small size makes it impossible to create huge projects, but at the same time prevents major international players from entering the market. So while you probably won't retire off of one huge successful project in Cyprus, you'll probably be able to start several with less competition."

Bigger Rumblings

This quiet hum of entrepreneurialism continues in Cyprus, but a flood of highly educated and often internationally experienced grads is starting to put pressure on the old ways of doing business and forcing new ideas through the cracks in the status quo. Change is rumbling.

Marina Theodotou, for instance, got her masters in economics at the University of South Carolina and then worked at Bank of America for over a decade, rising to the level of VP. After a stint in the Middle East managing an NGO, she decided to return to her birthplace with hopes of contributing to growth there but was appalled with the lack of transparency, nepotism and glacial pace of many government initiatives. Approaching a birthday and glumly pondering the future of her career in the country late one night, she began poking around online. After several months and lots of work from a team of volunteers, the result of her brain flash, TEDxNicosia was born in the country's capital.

“As cliché as it may sound, I simply decided to be the change I wanted to see,” Theodotou says. The event acted as a gathering point for ambitious young Cypriots, and she is now working with Charalambides, who was also TEDx speaker, to develop an incubator for environmentally focused entrepreneurs on the island. Besides providing mentorship and assistance with business plan development, the program, still in the planning stages, hopes to showcase Cypriot startups to investors, pulling in desperately needed funding.

Getting funding onto the island, many say, remains a problem. "It's still lacking in London, let alone Cyprus or Greece," says Thrasyvoulou. "That's why Silicon Valley is what it is and Europe's only had a handful of big, game-changing success stories. When you pitch funding anywhere in Europe, they take a hard look at you, while in the U.S. people are eager to know what the opportunity is."

Finding investors remains one of the toughest challenges for ambitious entrepreneurs in Cyprus, but another issue, the small size of the place and the difficulty of finding collaborators, seems to be easing. "Being able to attract the right people in a small place is always harder," says Thrasyvoulou, but he notes that technology is changing that, using his company's remote workforce as an example. "I think location matters a lot less now. People I know from the start-up scene are choosing to live in very remote places and that doesn't matter."

Using tech to overcome isolation resonates with many Cypriot entrepreneurs, including Theodotou who is building a network around the kernel of TED, and Michael Tyrimos, a recent Cambridge University grad who is both building a social networking startup and founding a non-profit called the Cypriot Enterprise Link to nurture and connect entrepreneurial Cypriots.  Or take a young lawyer named Eloiza Savvidou as another example. She is building her own practice to suit her lifestyle aspirations and desire to make time for pro bono work. What's her latest charitable case? Helping a social entrepreneur in Peru sort out the legalities of her new venture.

Small Doses of Optimism

After many conversations with Cypriot entrepreneurs, a couple of things become clear. Like highly educated young people across Europe, they face significant demographic and institutional challenges that can appear immovable. The good news, for Cyprus and hopefully perhaps eventually for other places in Europe as well, is that education and talent finds a way. Maybe not quickly. Maybe not without frustration, but slowly the damming of talent does pressure impediments until cracks appear and new ideas slip through. For those that want change, optimism is available, though in small doses.

"Cyprus is the best thing that ever happened to me," says Savvidou, illustrating the point. "The not-so-favorable conditions, professional and otherwise, of my country have forced me into taking ownership of my life and my career. The more difficulties I encounter the more I grow." 

Last updated: Mar 20, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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