‘Experience Athens’ Convenes Northeastern Leaders, Ambassadors, Entrepreneurs, and Alumni in Greece
Business trailblazers shared insights with an international audience of Northeastern students, parents, and graduates in October 2023 as part of the Experience Powered by Northeastern global campaign.
George Sakellaris, an iconic businessman and trailblazing Northeastern graduate from Greece, conveyed details of his entrepreneurial journey.
In 1965, an 18-year-old Sakellaris left behind his family’s farm in a small village in Sparta, where he cultivated a strong work ethic, to immigrate to the U.S. He found a job with New England Electric and worked his way up while investing in studies.
Today, he is the president and CEO of Ameresco, a leading cleantech integrator specializing in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Speaking to an intergenerational group of Northeastern alumni and leaders, Sakellaris, a university corporator emeritus, said: “Challenge the system. Find something you like, and if you have the passion for it and the determination to succeed, you will see it through.
“Because in any business, there will be ups and downs. It’s how you weather the downturns that, sometimes, is much more impactful.”
Sakellaris was one of many Northeastern graduates and community members who shared viewpoints, success stories and ambitious goals during the university’s inaugural “Experience Athens: Intergenerational Leaders Exchange” last week at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center.
A key program in a global campaign, Experience Powered by Northeastern, the intergenerational event included conversations before an international audience of students, parents and graduates.
In addition to the many volunteers — members of the Board of Trustees, the Founder Society, the Huntington Society, the Loyalty Society, parents, community leaders, entrepreneurs, Women Who Empower ambassadors and Young Global Leaders — Northeastern families were also well represented. They included mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, and siblings.
Cultivating ideas and insights across multiple generations moves the university forward for the next generation of students and graduates, according to Diane Nishigaya MacGillivray, Northeastern’s senior vice president for university advancement.
“As we celebrate Northeastern’s 125th anniversary year, it was especially fitting to convene generations of individuals who have shaped the university we share pride in today and are committed to powering its future,” MacGillivray said.
“To be successful in what you do, you have to be focused and everything else will follow.”
—Irene Panagopoulos, Mills’85
She said Athens was selected for the Intergenerational Leaders Exchange as the university’s nearly 600 graduates in Greece represent one of its most vibrant such communities.
“In so many ways, Northeastern is an institution that has been built by and has a foundation in our Greek community,” she said, referring to names like (George) Kariotis, (George) Kostas and (George) Behrakis that grace campus buildings in Boston and beyond.
Most people may not realize, MacGillivray said, that it was Greek American Hercules Geromanos who developed Northeastern’s signature co-op program back in 1909, “still the reason so many people are attracted to Northeastern.”
“We want our students to be global citizens who are able to traverse the world and operate in many situations across many communities in many industries,” she said.
Leaders with Courage and Determination
Northeastern trustees and parents Irene Panagopoulos and Venetia Kontogouris participated in the Experience Athens event. They regaled the audience with stories about how they carved out their career and forged paths for future leaders with courage and determination.
Kontogouris, a Northeastern graduate from Greece, launched her career in technology at IBM. Today, she serves as managing director of Venkon Group. She told of her journey to India in 1988 because she “could recognize talent” and realized she could form savvy international teams.
“We had to break barriers first, in my career, in the corporate universe. … It was hard to balance being a professional with phone calls 24/7 around the globe, a wife and a mother,” she said. “I felt I was very fortunate and had to share a portion of my fortune in terms of doing good in different parts of the world.”
Kontogouris said she believed that, in order to achieve a goal, one has to have “no excuses.”
“You have to have a desire to learn new things. Don’t sit in your old glory. … It’s not just about business. It’s about having a renaissance experience, a holistic experience,” she explained.
Kontogouris is closely involved with the university’s Torch Scholars Program, which offers full scholarships to talented, first-generation college students, including a summer immersion program.
“We undertake the whole effort of mentoring them and making sure they’ll be leaders in their local community,” she said.
‘Be Focused and Everything Else Will Follow’
Panagopoulos, a graduate of Mills College in Oakland, California, became a trustee of the school in her early 20s then returned to Greece to work as a shipping executive before resuming her position on the board, which she has held for 16 years. Mills College merged with Northeastern University in 2022.
Asked for advice on how individuals could grow their leadership skills, Panagopoulos said: “To be successful in what you do, you have to be focused and everything else will follow. You need to make a living first and then you will find the time to do other things.”
University volunteer Lea Anne Dunton also participated in Experience Athens.
Dunton started volunteering with the Parents Leadership Council a decade ago and, more recently, the Women’s Interdisciplinary Society of Entrepreneurship (WISE) and the Mosaic Council, which supports innovation and entrepreneurship.
“Women need more support in the business world and in terms of entrepreneurship,” she said.
“It’s fun to give your time, talent and treasure to a place that is shaping young lives and that was my big motivation.”
Different Mindsets Between Generations
London-based psychologist and Northeastern Young Global Leader Mariana Charakopoulou Travlou highlighted the differences in mindset between her generation and previous generations.
“Of course, you need to be focused, whatever you choose to spend your energy on, but, as a mental health clinician, one of the things I have found most people struggle with is the pressure of being perfect,” she said.
“It’s also OK if you lose focus from time to time and it’s OK if you need time for your own well being because, most importantly, you need to be good and well. If you are good with yourself, then you can help even more people.”
Northeastern graduate Stella Megalou shares a similar worldview. A member of the global marketing team for Dove, she said it’s the social responsibility of the personal care brand to go beyond body-positive advertising.
She showed a video that’s part of Dove’s Self-Esteem Project. The campaign evolved from research that found social media is fueling the youth mental health crisis.
“You can’t just come out and say ‘social media is bad.’ You need to give facts. People will listen to you if you tell them why,” said Megalou, a Huntington 100 awardee who completed her second co-op at Unilever.
“What we try to do is really aim to understand the issue here. How do you get closer to your issue of concern, whatever your industry is? You need to get super deep and pull it apart, almost, in every direction. Get the stats, talk to the people experiencing it. … You get closer to the heartbeat of what you need to do, distill it and take that forward.”
He Charted a Much Different Course
While he could have continued working within his family’s shipping enterprise, which dates to the 18th century, Stratis Andreadis, a Northeastern graduate from Greece, charted a different course.
Drawing on a lifelong passion for sailing and yacht racing, in 2013 during the thick of Greece’s economic crisis, he co-founded upcycling-centered Salty Bag on the Ionian island of Corfu. The company collects decommissioned sails and handcrafts them into ultra-low-impact, circular economy bags and accessories designed to last a lifetime and be reused.
“Sails are a great material because they last a long time,” he said. “I fell in love with the idea. … You get to make a product that has a real story behind it because every sail has a code which tells you this sail competed in this race, this one sailed around the Aegean.”
Asked about the challenges of running a sustainability-focused company, Andreadis said, in terms of sourcing materials, “the world is still not geared for it” but that Salty Bag is focused on remaining persistent and maintaining brand values.
“[Companies and organizations] need to be socially sustainable, environmentally sustainable and financially stable. … It’s about striking a balance and having a more holistic approach.”
Transparency is Vital to Businesses
Transparency also proved a hot topic. Northeastern graduate Chryssanthi Berbati, head of business planning, investor relations and ESG for Greece’s Piraeus Bank, said transparency was vital to the way businesses are run, societal and environmental impact and the way decisions are made.
“Even in the most difficult times, being open to the team [and external stakeholders] about what’s on the table … is key to successful decision-making,” she said.
Student Mia Khavari said she found the event deeply inspirational. Echoing MacGillivray’s words, Khavari said: “We are a room of doers and … are productive, meaning we are ambitious. We want to make a big impact.
In addition to the full-day Intergenerational Leaders Exchange, guests were welcomed into the makerspace home ceramics gallery of Maritas Travlos where three generations of Travlos women shared their anchor approach to grounding work and life in innovation and a spirit of being present.
The immersive experience included a celebration of Northeastern’s 125th year milestone at Island Club Art and Taste with close to 200 Northeastern Greek community members celebrating on stage together. The global toast also included volunteers representing the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Taiwan.
This article was originally written by Helen Iatrou
and published in Northeastern Global News.