My parents were born in Athens, Greece and met in the US, while attending MIT and Wellesley. After my father became a professor at MIT, he founded and built a technology conglomerate called Thermo Electron. I’m a product of the American Dream. I was brought up with the belief that anything was possible as long as I worked hard enough.
The American Dream has been getting a lot of knocks for leaving so many behind. It’s true, because the root of all opportunity is in education, and our public school system is failing our neediest populations, with dropout rates of 20% and 30% within the Boston Public School system. These students are being denied an adequate education and thus any hope for a better life. This is the biggest civil rights issue of our day, so I apologize for digressing, but I can’t talk about opportunity without at least bringing it up.
I was lucky enough to go to Brown, where I studied Math and Music, my two passions. After graduation, I worked at Chase Manhattan Bank which taught me finance, negotiation and relationship-selling. I had a dream of being an entrepreneur so I wanted be to closer to operations. My father convinced me to work at Thermo Electron where I worked for some of their divisions and recognized that I was lacking knowledge on the technical side—the beauty and curse of a Brown education! So I went to MIT and got my Masters in Mechanical Engineering, and then figured that all I was missing to become an entrepreneur was management experience, but nobody would hire me because I had no experience. It was a Catch-22. Having failed at finding a management position, I pivoted and went to MIT’s Technology Licensing Office in 1994 and was introduced to the inventors of a new 3D printing technology. I didn’t feel ready to be CEO, but like many Greeks today, I decided to make my own opportunity. I was lucky, too, because I had a strong mentor in my husband, Walter Bornhorst.
Four of us out of MIT—the two inventors, Walter and I—started the business, and Walter and I also started our family together. After almost two years at the business, we shipped our first beta unit, two months after I gave birth to twin girls. We grew the business to become the second leading 3D printing company, with 125 employees, but by that time I had four children, the Company was growing like crazy, and I was burned out, so we sold in 2005. Since selling I’ve been on corporate boards and doing some angel investing. I’ve also become connected with the startup scene in Greece which is incredibly exciting. Having vowed my whole life that I would never do business in Greece, I’m seeing the country start to come out of the crisis with a new mindset and a new culture around startups. It’s very early and very small still, but it’s gaining momentum.
By way of context, the Greek economy, shattered in 2008 by the debt crisis and austerity measures, shrank by 25% over six years. The loss of 1 million jobs resulted in unemployment of 28% at its peak and youth unemployment of 58%. Since the crisis began, over 500,000 Greeks have left—many of them young, highly-skilled, and educated.
Crisis & Failure are not fun. Nobody wants it. But if we learn from it, failure often opens up new possibilities and opportunities.
The crisis has caused tremendous hardship, but sometimes radical change for the better is only possible through a shock to the system that removes any other way out. As much pain as it’s caused, the crisis has provided an opportunity for Greece to pivot—to reboot and create a new engine of growth with a startup economy.
With no jobs available, people are creating their own jobs by founding startups in agriculture, food, tourism, logistics and technology. Instead of more government jobs and endless financial support from the EU, Greece can start to build its own way out of its economic problems. Having vowed my whole life that I would never do business in Greece, I’m seeing the country start to come out of the crisis with a radically new mindset and culture. Entrepreneurship offers economic opportunity and unlike the old bureaucratic government jobs of the past, it rewards very different attributes, like risk-taking, innovation, drive, and team-work. It does not reward punching in the clock, face time, or political maneuvering. Greeks have always been natural entrepreneurs outside of Greece. Of the Greek immigrants in the US labor force, 16% are small-business owners, the highest rate of any immigrant group.
To support these startup efforts are technology research centers, incubators, accelerators, & startup competitions. The big news is that EquiFund, a fund-of-funds supporting entrepreneurship and innovation has recently committed to investing €320 million in venture, private equity, and tech transfer funds in Greece.
Greece has a scrappy culture similar to that of its successful neighbor, Israel. Both countries speak English and have a strong global perspective; they’re heavy on talent, tenacity, assertiveness, and critical, independent thinking: all the things that make for very loud dinner debates and strong startups. Israel provides a very useful model, because its entrepreneurial ecosystem is further along, with higher college graduation rates (44% vs. 27%) and higher spending on R&D (4% vs. 1% of GDP), as well as a military that, due to circumstance, provides hands-on technical and leadership experience.
These factors have helped to create Startup Nation, and Greece can learn from Israel’s playbook.
Legislation has improved, although the Greek government needs to open markets and reduce bureaucracy in order to get off the bottom of the list for its business-friendliness. Still, some of Greece’s challenges—high unemployment, limited access to capital, & small local markets—actually enforce the fundamentals of strong start-ups: availability of well-educated talent motivated by equity, a focus on profitability, and early globalization. While economic growth in Greece in 2017 is at about 2%, my family and friends in Greece don’t feel it yet. People are downtrodden and have little hope. But whenever I’m with a group of entrepreneurs in Athens, it’s like I’m in an alternate universe, because there’s a bubbling excitement about the future. These young entrepreneurs’ optimism is infectious. They’re taking action and making change.
Of course, this startup activity will take years to impact the overall economy, so it’s not a fix for Greece’s current debt issues, but over the coming years it will create many jobs. Already entrepreneurship has become a new aspiration, and Greece now has the opportunity to grow and thrive. As Bob Marley said, “You think it’s the end, but it’s just the beginning.”
Shifting to entrepreneurship in general, I’d like to discuss Plato, as it applies to entrepreneurship. In Plato's Republic, the four cardinal virtues are wisdom, temperance, courage and justice. These form valuable guideposts for entrepreneurship.
Wisdom is knowledge. When you’re doing a startup, you need to know everything that’s happening in your field, which requires continual dialogue with the market. This is often where technology entrepreneurs fail, because they are introverted engineers who would much prefer to do an experiment or code software than pick up the phone. This is very dangerous, and often the only solution is to have two different people: the CEO who is outward-facing and the CTO who is inward-facing. A lot of times I’ll be at a networking event and a young entrepreneur will ask what I think of his business, like I can pass on wisdom over a glass of chardonnay. That’s not how it works. It doesn’t matter what I think; it’s what the customer thinks. You need to listen to what they’re saying, although it doesn’t mean you do what they say.
Early on, I was told by the market that the parts from our 3D printers were crappy, but a crappy part is better than no part, and we had the only means to get any part within an hour or two instead of a day or a week.
Listening is hard, and it requires you to release all your preconceptions, put aside your arguments, and just hear what another person has to say. It’s a skill that has been entirely lost in today’s divisive political climate. We are all so sure we’re right, and that the other side is stupid or missing the point, that we don’t try to understand where someone else is coming from. While this can fly in politics, in doing a startup, such deafness can lead to your demise.
You need a strong mentor who will tell you what you don’t want to hear. I see many entrepreneurs who have early success—or, even worse, early media coverage of potential future success—and they begin to drink their own Kool-Aid, believing that they know everything. CEO Syndrome is what happens after receiving such accolades, or surrounding yourself with people who tell you how great you are. Pretty soon you stop listening to other people, because you think you have all the answers. This is very, very dangerous.
Know your strengths and weaknesses and fill them in with others on the team. In my case, I loved getting things done, which worked well in the early days, but my biggest weakness was management itself as the company grew: being a mentor, teacher, & helping each employee grow. Ironically, I learned management skills from a couple of the people I managed. I saw how they took time to explain things to their subordinates, delegated projects to them and supported them without micromanaging. Of course, in the beginning there wasn’t a whole lot of management to do. On my first day as CEO, I went to the office all dressed up, bright and early, like we used to do at Chase, and the office was empty. There was a note on my desk saying that the two technical co-founders had been up all night coding and would come in some time in the afternoon. I was crushed.
Hire people who are complementary, not in your own image. Our founders at Z Corp. were so different. Jim was a quirky MIT PhD who ran around naked with gold spray paint on his body as part of the Ignobel Awards at MIT, and Tim slept on a mattress in an MIT lab. They bought their clothes in Central Square from a place that sells it by the pound, out of a big box. Jim drinks espresso all day, while Tim drinks garlic tea and eats fish out of a can, which smelled up our office. They both loved dumpster-diving for old equipment and had rigged up all sorts of mechanical devices. Yet Jim has the most incredible breadth of technical knowledge of anyone I know, and Tim is this out-of-the-box creative guy who tries crazy things that nobody else would try and gets them to work. Each one of us brought something to the table that we needed. The magic of our chemistry lay in our differences, not in our similarities.
The most essential piece of wisdom is judgment to make good decisions. Hire people with good judgment and encourage an open exchange of opinions among your team. At Z Corp., we used to get into heated debates—never personal—and everyone’s opinion mattered. I’m very proud of that very Greek dynamic that we created, because I believe that it helped us to reach better decisions.
Although it’s important to know what’s going on in the world, it’s at least as important not to allow what other people are doing to influence your better judgment. For example, there was a time when people were raising tons of money from venture capital and spending like crazy for growth, and one of my employees told me “Profitability” was a bad word, that growth was all that mattered. Later, lean startups became a thing. There are waves of fashion in entrepreneurship and technology like in anything, and it’s important to stay your course.
The second virtue, temperance, is the control and self-restraint over our appetites and desires. My interpretation in applying this to entrepreneurship is that this comes to play in the absolute focus that’s required to get a startup off the ground. Every day is a race. There’s too much to do and inadequate resources: time, money, and people. This requires you to give up lazy days at the beach and nights out drinking. You can never get it all done, which makes it a game of priorities. Many great ideas need to go to the bottom of the list, and you’re constantly making decisions without enough information. Every hour of every day someone or something is reaching out to try to derail you. Much of it is good, interesting and worthy, but it is still off-track. Just say no.
As we built the business, I was raising children, so my life for ten years was entirely devoted to work or family, with no time given to extracurricular activities. I tried to combine work and family whenever possible. We put a nursery in at the office. It had a glass door and a window, and was right behind my desk, so I could see what my twin girls were doing all day. A nanny came and watched them for the first year of their life. For me, playing with them was a welcome break from work, and after a time then going back to work was a welcome break from them. This all worked until Jim taught them how to push the button to reboot peoples’ computers, and they ran around making lots of enemies in the office.
While working hard is important, working smart is even more important. Find the path of least resistance. For example, we had trouble finding an affordable computer scientist so we ended up hiring a chemist to write our software.
Entrepreneurship is messy. Perfection is your enemy, because if you take the time to go from 80% to 100%, you give up too much. Opportunities to get derailed and waste time on achieving perfection abound, every minute of every day. Excellence is not perfection; excellence is good enough on the beta machine so you can iterate one more time and still get to market before the competition, with a product that’s much better because you got that first prototype out to some early testers who gave you valuable feedback.
Don’t plan on exiting in the next year, because that’s extremely unlikely. Assume you’re in this for ten years, so it better be something you feel strongly about, beyond just being an entrepreneur. It should feel important to you, because this is a huge commitment.
The third virtue, courage, is the willingness to confront pain, danger, discouragement and uncertainty. It requires resilience and endurance. One of the scariest moments for me early on was public speaking. My voice cracked, and I was so embarrassed, but I kept doing it and ultimately I ended up enjoying it.
An entrepreneur spends a lot of time with a blank sheet of paper. This requires a willingness to play in the unknown, and to be creative. You need to make rules where there are none. You need to be comfortable questioning all assumptions, and not taking any single person’s word—including your own—as gospel. What might’ve worked in the past for other companies may or may not work for you. You need to stand by your decisions, and when you make a mistake, you need to own it.
Nobody is going to tell you what to do. You’re on your own. Nobody is there to slap you on the back and tell you you’re on the right track. In fact, most people are telling you why your idea makes no sense.
The most courage you’ll need is in facing failure, which is an inevitable part of entrepreneurship. When you fail, you need to put your ego aside, stop feeling sorry for yourself and self-reflect. What did you learn from that? What can you take away to improve your chance of success, or how do you need to pivot? The reality is that without failure, and the risk of failure, we’d never be able to push ourselves as hard. Failure is our path to excellence, and there’s no way around it. Why is it that when you play tennis with someone not as good that you don’t play as well? It’s very simple: it’s because you don’t have to. If you can win with less effort, why not? But those times that we push past our laziness, past what we think is good enough, and past what we think we can do, there’s a phenomenal sense of fulfillment, and we produce what we never thought possible.
Our biggest crisis at Z Corp. happened fairly early on. There were two big competitors in the space, but they were selling equipment for over $100K to $1 million, and our plan was to come up with something at $20K that was office-compatible and easy to use. We had a two-year development plan before our product would be ready, and one year into this plan our competitors came out with office-compatible 3D printers. This was a disaster, because they were public companies with strong distribution & lots of cash to spend on marketing. We went to the trade show and chatted up the competition. They were selling their 3D printers at $60K, and ours was 10X faster. Our engineers said we’d own speed forever. So Walter said we should sell ours not at $20K but at $60K to start, and then we could lower it in a few weeks. It turned out that $60K is a sweet spot in the market, and we kept the product at that price point. Had we not done that, we would have run out of money, because it was much more expensive than we anticipated to manufacture, sell and market the product. What was a crisis in the moment turned out to save us.
A word of caution. Socrates said, foolish endurance is not courage. I’ve seen entrepreneurs, armed with the advice of having courage in the face of discouragement, follow their vision blindly, despite what the market was telling them. This is foolish. Courage is facing new information and adjusting course. We tried to raise venture capital early on, but this was in the 90’s when the internet was taking off and hardware was out of fashion. We were cat-eye glasses in a poncho world. We ended up bootstrapping, which made us much more careful about our spending, and we reached profitability early on, so we ended up building a stronger company as a result.
The fourth virtue, justice, is a human longing to do a duty that ultimately bonds a man in society. Socrates believed that each human has certain natural abilities, and having each one do the single job one is naturally suited for is the most efficient way to satisfy the needs of all the citizens. This requires self-knowledge. One may wish to be a leader, but may possess the character of a follower. One may wish, as I did, to be a concert pianist, but possess the fingers of a mathematician. Even in our little society at Z Corp. we saw this at work. We tried for a while to get Jim to keep his powder mess under control, & to get Tim to wear shoes to the office, but ultimately we learned to let them soar in the areas where they were so gifted, and we stopped trying to get them to be something different.
What I find striking is when you find someone—and this can be in any possible profession—who has a deep passion and intrinsic skill in what they do. I’ve met individuals who embody this ideal: a marble carver, an engineer, a masseuse, a photographer, a technician, a housebuilder, an OB/GYN, a cobbler, a house caretaker, a hairdresser, an entrepreneur, and a sports trainer. I’ve witnessed first-hand the fire that a person displays when they’re doing exactly what they should be doing. It’s magic, and it’s a worthy—and attainable—aspiration.
Entrepreneurship is not for everyone, but its lessons are universal, and apply to life in general. Develop wisdom from learning what’s happening out in the world and from a trusted group of advisors, but don’t let anyone else—or your own inertia—determine your course. Whatever you do should feel important to you, and also to the market. Prioritize your time and don’t let others (or Facebook) derail your focus. Have the courage to face your fears, learn from your mistakes, and be brave enough to change course.
Grit is perseverance of effort that allows you to overcome obstacles in achieving your goals. This country was built on grit, although for some reason grit seems to be going out of style. We as a society have gotten ourselves to a mind-set that stress, hardship and all uncomfortable feelings need to be avoided. What if, instead of trying to make everything easier for ourselves and our kids, we worked to be stronger and more resilient, so we can handle whatever comes our way? Fulfillment comes from what we earn, not from what we’re given. And, practically speaking, in the economic realm, we’re not competing with our own American selves, we’re competing with people from China and India, who are competent, well-educated, and have tremendous drive. They’re hungry, and if we don’t exercise some grit, they’re going to eat our lunch. So let’s allow for some pain, as our parents and grandparents did when they got on the boat to come to America, and push through that discomfort in order to achieve our dreams.