The annual charity gala of The Hellenic Initiative (THI) returns to New York for celebrating a milestone: its 10th anniversary. Having managed the previous year to exceed $ 2 million in donations, THI Gala is considered one of the most prominent charity events of the Greek-American community. Over the last 10 years, The Hellenic Initiative has distributed more than 20 million dollars to programs and initiatives for Greece that seek to alleviate urgent humanitarian needs, while supporting the efforts for a sustainable and long-term economic recovery.
However, THI does not seem to rest on this success. As it gets ready to open its second chapter, the organization seems poised to take the next steps for expanding the scope of its support even further: from setting the goal to plant one million trees to promote Greece as a business destination, there has never been a shortage of ideas in THI.
This year’s honoree will be Chairman and CEO of Pfizer, Dr. Albert Bourla. The event will take place on December 3rd at Cipriani, in Wall Street. Retired chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, James Gianopulos, will serve as emcee of the dinner. As every year, the Gala will have a silent auction to help raise donations. Internationally recognized artists and jewelry designers have come together to donate their work, which includes items that draw inspiration from Hellenic traditions and history.
Former president Bill Clinton congratulated THI’s members for the 10-year anniversary celebration. “You have strengthened the bonds of the diaspora and deepened long friendships between the United States and Greece. In a time when people all across the globe are pulling away from each other, the Hellenic initiative is offering a model of what actually works in the modern world, moving towards one another through creative cooperation where we all have a stake in each other’s future and we work together to build things up not tear things down,” Mr. Clinton said in a video message.
During an interview with Athens News Agency, executive director, Tina Kourpas, reflected on the ties that THI has forged between young Greek Americans and the motherland, the multifaceted programs that are currently underway, and the future course that THI might take for promoting Greece even further in the global stage.
The full interview follows:
THI was founded in the midst of the Greek financial crisis with the goal to unite the diaspora for addressing the urgent humanitarian needs and facilitate the recovery of the economy. As Greece transformed over the last 10 years, how did you evolve your mission for keeping up with these changes?
THI was founded in 2012, when Greece went into the longest recession of any mixed economy in the modern era and there was a resulting humanitarian crisis that developed from the austerity measures taken. So, yes, it was a very different time. And just like the diaspora has supported Greece in many times in its history of trouble, so too, did the diaspora respond in 2012. And the mission was simple: to unite the diaspora globally, to invest in Greece’s economic recovery, and to provide humanitarian relief. So, while a lot has changed in 10 years, that is still our mission. And this mission, while it is very simple, it is also very profound and it has the ability to evolve as Greece’s needs evolve. So, as Greece’s needs change, so too, does our response.
In this year’s gala, you will celebrate your 10th anniversary. During this journey, what do you consider THI’s biggest accomplishment?
I would say that no one before THI really united the global diaspora on the scale that we have. We have donors in 47 countries and we have a database of 30,000 Greeks and Philhellenes from all over the world. And because of that, we have been able to have an impact on Greece. Through the job creation program, we have accomplished putting over 3,000 Greeks in jobs, mentoring startup companies. That has a direct effect. But it also has a multiplier effect. When you change someone’s life, you change their family’s life. We have had stories of people who are able to move forward in their lives and have a child because suddenly their economic prospects were better and they had a path forward. So, the multiplier effect of the dollars we have deployed, we feel has also been significant.
In the aftermath of the devastating fires, you launched the “ Plant A Tree in Greece” initiative. However, climate change is expected to pose long-term challenges in terms of deforestation and even desertification. What is the scope of this initiative and are you committed to tackle these problems in the long run?
We plan to commit to this in the long run. So, “ Plant A Tree in Greece” was launched in May of 2022. We use part of the wildfire relief money to begin the campaign. And then we launched a new for the for the future. For $ 25 anyone can plant a tree in Greece. The Jewish people have been doing this for years and raised $ 210 million a year for planting trees in Israel. No one was doing that for Greece. And that is where THI stepped in. We have partnered with an incredible partner on the ground in Greece, a nonprofit called “ We4All.” And they have planted already 550,000 trees in Greece that are trying to reverse climate change on a broader scale. So, we feel like that we have engaged experts, who can really help our trees have the most impact. And our goal is to plant a million trees in Greece.
A big part of your focus on Greece involves efforts to facilitate the growth of the entrepreneurial and startup community. Recently, you announced a new partnership with Microsoft. What new element will this addition bring into your programs?
In 2012, the startup ecosystem was suffering or nonexistent. Today, the startup ecosystem in Greece is really exploding. So, today, we are about supporting that recovery as it develops. For example, this summer, we had our seventh annual Venture Fair in Athens, where we solicit applications from all over Greece, for the most promising startup companies, and we put them in front of a room of international investors, for them to seek capital and get their stories told. With respect to our Microsoft partnership, we were approached by Microsoft Hellas. Microsoft wanted to be part of the Venture Impact Awards. So, they gave us a $ 10,000 gift to supplement the $ 100,000 that we are already giving out. But perhaps as meaningfully, they are providing to the winners access to the “ Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub,” a suite of products that can really get your business organized tools that any company would benefit from.
As the generations pass by and Greek-Americans become more assimilated, a lot of traditional organizations struggle to attract young people. However, we see THI being hyped up among younger crowds. How did you manage to generate such excitement?
This was really a brilliant part of the vision of our original founders. From the beginning, we had a new leaders’ program. And you are right. There is some secret sauce in there. Our diaspora is maturing. Fewer first generations, fewer immigrants, more so second, etc. generation. I think that you have to approach this with a freshness. In my age group our Hellenism was expressed in a certain way. It has to be expressed in a different way for this generation. I think it is valuable for us to preserve our traditions. But it is also important to have a connection to Greece today, because Greece today is fresh. The art is amazing and the startups are amazing. I think that is part of the secret of why our new leaders are so energized. I also think because the board has set a tone for excellence and achievement. I think that THI for new leaders has become a place where they can express their Hellenism, but at the same time, they can further their high-powered academic career and find other prospects. Sometimes, we feel like growing up as a Greek of the diaspora, that your Greek life is over here, one part of your life, and your American life is over here, your school and your job. The two don’t intersect that much. THI has changed that. And I think that is part of what makes it so compelling for the young people. They can walk into a cocktail hour and see a person who is really important in your career. And that is a happy moment, when you realize how successful our diaspora has been, and what an incredible community you are part of.
Speaking about how successful the community has become, we see that THI has attracted a number of successful Greek-Americans, who were not involved in the community. Again, how did you manage to bring these people on board and reconnect them to their roots?
For the expanding circle, I really give a lot of credit to our board. So, you start with the caliber of people, frankly, on our board and sort of one thing leads to another. They get their friends involved. They bring someone to a gala, and they suddenly see what THI is about. Our board has a lot of circles. They are in professional circles, social circles, ethnic circles, the list goes on and on. So, one brings the other and then once someone is in, and they see what we are about, they get hooked, they get enthused, and they want to join the board versus just, you know, be a participant. So, I give a lot of credit to our board for that.
Although this is not stated in your mission, do you believe that THI has the potential to serve unofficially as ambassador of Greece to the American business community and, thus, facilitating the effort to attract foreign investment in the country?
With respect to THI being an ambassador for Greece out into the world, you are right. It is not in our stated mission. But to the extent it helps lift Greece up, it is absolutely part of our mission. We have amazing parties; we have this big gala coming up; we raise a lot of money. But at the end of the day, we are about helping Greeks and lifting the country up. So, if being ambassadors of Greece to this country, in which we find ourselves, does that? Then yes, it is absolutely part of our mission. And a board member actually raised this question to me in the last two weeks. Shouldn’t we be getting non-Greek businesses that are around in the United States, who might have a strategic interest, in Greece? Shouldn’t we get all of those people together and bring them to Greece and introduce them to the right people? Absolutely. I see us doing more and more of that in the years to come.