e-business with the scent of a (Greek) woman

Greek businesswomen speak to ‘To Vima on Sunday’ about the obstacles of online entrepreneurship and the ways to overcome them

“Women don’t understand technology”. “Boys have a natural aptitude in mathematics”. “Men are more daring business leaders”. There is no lack of stereotypes to discourage members of the fairer sex. They begin in their school days and continue right through their first steps in the job market and the business world; yet modern women in the internet age make a point of ignoring them. Using imagination and ingenuity, they fight hesitation with determination and create start-ups with low overhead costs and high returns. Their success proves that stereotypes are broken down not by words but by actions.

Everything begins with an idea. This evolves into a business plan. In turn, the project seeks sponsors and is finally realized as a modern web business. Is it really that simple? "It's not that simple, but it's also not as complicated as most women think. The biggest myth about e-businesses is that they require specialized computer skills or technologies. The reality is that you need a smart idea and an in-depth understanding of how the Internet works," says Alice Korovesi in an interview with To Vima.

Korovesi maintains two e-businesses: a web based real estate agency that exclusively targets foreign investors who wish to acquire property in Greece and a website that promotes and organizes the construction of "passive" buildings, which are buildings that consume only 10% of the energy consumed by conventional structures. When asked for the secret to her success, Korovesi emphasizes the fact that it lies neither in programming skills nor in a computer science degree. "It lies in good management of the businesses' image through social media; and in finding the right partners and the connections that can promote your work on various online centers of influence," she says.

Dimitris Athanasiadis is an expert in Internet entrepreneurship as a member of the board of directors for the company Openfund, which holds competitions for innovative e-business ideas and then secures funding for the winners through a series of major investors. By evaluating thousands of proposals for Internet companies, Athanasiadis has concluded that "the participation rate of women is still low, mainly due to the larger number of men with technical knowledge. Slowly the realization is dawning that Internet business is now based mainly on skills that have nothing to do with strictly technical issues, such as online promotion, interaction with users and online community management. At the same time technical tools are evolving and soon technical knowledge will not be a prerequisite for starting an e-business," he says.

Are there "feminine" qualifications?

All online businesses are determined by the initial concept; unconventional, original, smart and possibly 'feminine'? Most female entrepreneurs reject the differentiation between "feminine" and "masculine". However, they recognize that there is a large audience of female consumers. Therefore, the ability to understand the needs of this demographic provides a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Marilou Tzebelikou managed to do just that, as one of three partners running a web-based platform that gathers together thousands of fashion products from e-shops in Greece and abroad. The platform offers an online personal stylist that helps consumers shape their personal style and consider thousands of different products, without ever leaving their living room.

"The user clicks on the pictured products they like and based on the selections a unique algorithm creates a profile tailored to the user's taste. The program then scans the thousands of featured products and suggests others that match the user's sartorial style. The products are available for direct purchase through linked e-shops," explains Tzebelikou.

Looking through the lens of opportunity

As usually happens with original ideas, the initial concept was the result of pure coincidence. "A close friend of mine, and subsequent partner, was looking to buy a new pair of glasses. Because he couldn't decide, he began photographing himself in various pairs and displaying the photos on Facebook, so his friends could vote for their preference. It may sound funny, but it proved to us that the Internet is a vast source of information on fashion and that this information can be exploited from a business standpoint," concludes Tzebelikou.

Those who believe that women have a comparative advantage only in matters of fashion and aesthetics are deeply in the dark. "Assuming that there are 'feminine' qualities, the most important would definitely be women's ability to manage crises effectively. Before the Internet every business decision, each letter or press release passed through several sets of hands before reaching the public. In the Internet age all decisions are made rapidly. You think, you write, you upload to the Internet. There is no margin for error," remarks Viki Kolovou. She is a programmer and business owner, active in developing strategies and solutions for companies that want to expand online and through mobile applications. "Our clients are various companies that have an established position in the market, but lack the appropriate skills needed to manage the Internet and social media. We help them strategize by using the new tools we have at our disposal. It's new and it makes sense to be wary of new things. But once you get used to it, you will discover amazing potential. That's what I'm trying to teach them," concludes Kolovou.

Ending misconceptions

Perhaps the fiercest enemy of women entering the world of e-business is the risk of falling victim to outdated notions associated with the position of women in business. Business women emphasize the fact that, if the fledgling female entrepreneur manages to overcome the first wave of sexist stereotypes, new opportunities to showcase imagination and ability follow.

"The prejudices have nothing to do with Internet entrepreneurship, but with woman in business in general. The key is not to allow anyone to judge you based on your gender, it's the quality of your work and how up-to-date you are on cutting edge professional developments that determine your worth. Honesty is also crucial in business relationships, as is the recognition that we all have our fields of expertise, no one knows everything and we all learn new things every day," says Sophia Gkiousou, who runs an online business from London working in digital communications and in shaping company policies, mainly in the field of tourism. Though she lives in London, Gkiousou stays current of Greek developments, especially concerning women's e-entrepreneurship.

"In Greece, the root of the problem is not the gender of the entrepreneur, but the fact that Greek entrepreneurship as a whole is facing serious challenges. The bureaucracy, the lack of flexibility and a market which has been based on artificial restraints for years, instead of encouraging genuine innovation, are just some of the problems. Greek women certainly have great potential in this area and can change the way we look at things," concludes Gkiousou.

Female "Geeks" Unite

A unique web team has emerged onto the Greek Internet scene over the last two years; it's called Girl Geek Dinners. The group aims to mobilize and inform women about technology and the Internet, through a relaxed and fun medium that resembles an informal dinner party. Only women are allowed to participate, while men are admitted only if accompanied by a woman.

The Girl Geek Dinners started in August of 2005 in London, when Sarah Blow, who had expressed interest in technology, realized that she was consistently the only woman at associated events. Taken by surprise at the fact that she had to constantly prove to others that she too had a right to technology, she decided to found Girl Geek Dinners, to bring together women with similar interests.

This institution was transferred to Greece in June 2008 by Despina Bakirtzi, an expert in communication and marketing technology products. To date there have been 19 "dinners" at which many women have talked about the innovative projects being undertaken with new technologies and on the Internet. "The result is that speakers convey not only their enthusiasm, but also their experience, and they encourage others to engage with new technologies. Members of the audience have proceeded to start their own online businesses without having had any previous experience with technology. The fact that this doesn't deter them from successfully uploading their idea to the internet is our greatest gift," says Katerina Ponti, a member of the organizing committee of Girl Geek Dinners.

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Ellie Ismailidou published February 6th 2011, ‘To Vima on Sunday’ print and online edition