ATHENS – Many unsure of what they’d see when they got to Greece – saying they expected a country destitute and deprived – nearly 1,000 businesswomen and political leaders converged for the 2012 Global Summit of Women and got started with a frank assessment of the country’s opportunities and its ills.
Yiannis Stournaras, the temporary Development Minister in a caretaker government that is serving only until critical June 17 elections that could determine whether Greece is forced out of the Eurozone and into predictions of chaos and collapse, told an audience at one of the opening events on May 31 that despite an economic crisis worsened by harsh austerity measures that, “Greece is full of talented people and entrepreneurs … we’re not very good at planning but we’re very talented.”
Stournaras is also head of the highly-regarded Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research (IOBE) in Athens and gave a presentation that was part rousing rallying cry for his country along with an acknowledgment of its faults, pulling no punches. “We have a lot of rich people in this country and a lot of people who aren’t paying taxes,” he said to a packed room that includes Chief Executive Officers, Chief Operating Officers, and Executive Vice-Presidents of major corporations around the world. “The fiscal austerity has caused a deep recession and structural reforms alone aren’t enough to counter it,” he said. His seminar was entitled Business Opportunities in Greece and Southeastern Europe.
The summit was the 22nd annual meeting of the group, a happy accident in ways that it was scheduled for Athens during Greece’s worst economic dilemma in decades and just before the elections that had women talking and asking questions about the country’s fate. Stournaras said the next government has to keep making critical adjustments. “Reforms extend opportunities to more people. Whichever government is elected, reforms will not stop,” he said.
He said the austerity measures were counter-productive in many ways because they were aimed only at workers and that privatization plans should not have lagged. “I don’t understand why the political system found it easier to cut wages than sell land,” he said in reference to the deep pay cuts, big tax hikes and slashed pensions imposed on workers. He faced a sophisticated and examining audience who peppered him with questions about how Greece can keep its young people, some 50 percent of whom are unemployed and leaving Greece by the droves, provide tax incentives and cut red tape to lure businesses, especially with many of them representing companies looking to expand into more markets, including Europe.
After the event, a number of women told Greek Reporter that they thought Stournaras was right to give a transparent account of the country’s problems, but also its opportunities. Litah Phepoafatso of Botswana, head of marketing for the Dream Flavors yogurt company there, said her company thinks it might be able to persuade Greeks and Europeans to buy its products, especially she said the yogurt – like that of Greece – is thick and creamy, not watery like American brands. “We make eating yogurt, not for drinking,” she said.
She said that she knew little of Greece before coming but that friends and colleagues had told her the country was attractive and offered opportunities for business growth, especially with the austerity measures creating 21.7 percent unemployment, people desperate for jobs and the government frantic to find investors. “I heard Greece was having trouble but the way he (Stournaras) spoke uplifted me,” she said. Phepoafatso said she found time to take a walk and was troubled by the sight of so many empty store fronts and closed businesses.
Hersey Xiuha Cao of China said she liked what she heard and that businesses needed complete information – including faults – to be able to make sound decisions. She said that her company, AcrossChina Communications, “wants to bring Chinese products to the world … we can see some opportunities here.”
But Grace Christovasilis, who is the United Nations representative for the Federation of American Women Overseas in Greece – and a Brooklyn native – said she thought Stournaras didn’t give enough specifics and shouldn’t have harped on tax evasion problems, which she said gave the country a negative image to investors. “They want to invest,” she said of companies, especially those headed by women, but she thought they wanted more positive assessments. Josie Umoh of Dallas, whose company Apex Engineering Solutions, is also looking to branch out, said, “Businesses are looking for the right opportunity,” and said Greece should promote itself.
The theme this year was Women: The Engine of Economic Growth, and the event brought together powerful women such as the Vice President of Vietnam, the CEO of Siemens Spain, the Executive Vice President of France’s Danone and the Senior Vice President of Kraft Foods for what is regarded as the foremost international economic forum for women, bringing together the public, private and non-profit sectors for exchanges of creative solutions to dramatically expand women’s economic opportunities globally.
The theme also reflects the Summit’s response to the current European financial crisis and the ongoing global recession – utilize women’s underused talents. Angeliki Frangou, CEO of Navios, who has been featured both in Fortune and Forbes’ listings of top women in business; Nellie Katsou, Managing Director of Pharmathen; and Maria Vlachou, Co-Founder of Fereiro-Heliz – representing a new generation of women entrepreneurs – are some of the Greek women business leaders attending the Summit.