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Kostapanos Miliaresis is a force of nature. We met in 2013 when GloVo, the platform he founded matching volunteers with events, participated at the TEDxAthens conference. I was amazed by this kind and always enthusiastic young entrepreneur who aims to change the world for the better by exploiting his creativity and perseverance. Kostapanos has travelled to 41 countries, experienced new cultures and shared inspiring personal and professional stories with wide audiences.
Today, he is the Co-Founder and General Director of Ethelon, an organization that promotes corporate volunteerism in the Greek society. In addition, he has been listed in the Forbes “30 under 30” Social Entrepreneurs in Europe, was awarded by the Ashoka Foundation as a Global Changemaker and has received scholarships abroad.
I talked to Kostapanos via Skype as he is about to travel to the US for a fellowship at the Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative and become an affiliate member at the Points of Light nonprofit organization. In the following interview Kostapanos talks about volunteerism, Ethelon, entrepreneurship and why educational programs abroad can motivate you to do anything.
You have studied Business Administration at the Athens University of Economics and Business and, while occupied with entrepreneurship, you got involved with innovation and volunteerism. How did you become so passionate about volunteerism?
Kostapanos Miliaresis: Volunteerism has always been a part of my life. At the age of eight, I joined the scouts’ team where I learned the core values and principles on how to cooperate and help out my local community. On my second day as a freshman at the university, I enrolled at the AIESEC youth leadership development organization and went on to being interested in the making of TEDx conferences. At a personal level, volunteerism was an educational system, like my studies were. The will to help, witness a problem and try to find its solution, is a lifestyle.
What was your first work experience as a volunteer and what impressed you the most?
K.P: My very first work experience as a volunteer was the participation at a big clean-up action with my fellow scouts. Located at a former military camp, now an arena-park in Agia Paraskevi, Athens, we got closer to the natural environment. I was very young, yet so impressed by everything that was going on, that I even loved the rubber gloves we wore during the activity.
Why do you believe that someone must become a volunteer? What does volunteerism offer?
K.P: I don’t believe it is mandatory τo become a volunteer, you become one only if you really want to. People become volunteers because they believe in offering, wishing to contribute for a better world by seeking for solutions to existing problems and challenges. Others volunteer in order to develop skills, to advance themselves and to get to know people and feel as part of a social group and finally, in the midst of the economic crisis, to exploit networking in finding a job. To me, volunteerism is among the safer ways to advance as a person. Through it, you can discover new interests, understand your real desires and passions and, if you do so, then you simply go on offering.
In the light of high unemployment rates, do you think volunteerism is a bit misunderstood in Greece?
K.P: No secret, the crisis has helped us a lot. Earlier, people were more relaxed and a university degree almost safeguarded a job offer in the public or private sector. Shakespeare has said that “certainty is man’s worst enemy”, since it deters one from trying to advance. When people lose security, they start trying harder and become innovators. Many of the volunteering organizations were established in Greece in 2012 and later. «Boroume», which delivered six million serving meals last year, or «Desmos», or our organizations «Volunteer4Greece», are good examples. Young people certainly want to include volunteerism in their resume. At the same time, new organizations with a remarkable output, are established. The important question is whether these organizations will remain active for a long time. Ethelon is considered as a first step in volunteerism. If, for example, one has never be involved in scouting, his next brighter opportunity is to join us. More than half of the people on our platform have never been engaged with volunteerism before.
You recently created Ethelon, hosting by now 10.000 registered volunteers, aiming at Business to Business actions. What is corporate volunteerism and how can enterprises benefit from it?
K.P: For us, corporate volunteerism is among the most important issues. Contrary to the majority of similar organizations, we want to operate without having to resort to various Foundations for financial support. It is true that most people stop volunteering at the age of 25, when they are professionally settled. Research shows that in Greece, only a 10% at the age of 25 to 65 participates in volunteerism. One out of ten people in this range have the ability, the knowledge and the experience to substantially contribute. The merger of Volunteer4Greece with the GloVo-Global Volunteer Platform to form Ethelon, had the purpose to strengthen volunteerism in the Greek society and make it more permanent than opportunistic, by encouraging people who already have their own professional occupation to find the way to continue volunteering. When one is too busy or does not know where to look and how to get engaged, we usually take over and help him witness a sound and well organized experience in volunteerism. Further, collaborating with various businesses, we can accomplish more things and achieve a significant impact. There are nine people working for Ethelon at present, seven of them were volunteers before becoming full time employees. There is no strict hours schedule, but what is important is to see people you have helped being happy and that makes you feel really nice.
Let me now take you a few years back, to 2012. GloVo’s idea begun being materialized after winning the second award at the Athens Startup Business University. What is your advice to someone who wants to create a new social enterprise?
K.P: I would advise him to go ahead no matter what! Even if the enterprise turns out unsuccessful, it’s really worth the effort because in the process he will learn so many useful things about his project of interest. However, there are also many difficulties in the way. Usually the media highlight the success story, but the truth is that you experience stressful days, sleepless nights, and challenges specifically encountered in social enterprises, given that the priority lies on the social impact and not only on the sustainability of the enterprise. It is really difficult to balance these two to sustainably develop but at the end its quite rewarding to enjoy the impact.
You have travelled to 41 countries either working or participating in numerous events and programs. How were you helped both on a personal and professional level?
K.P: During my visit to the US in the framework of the Angelopoulos- Clinton Global Initiative University scholarship, I gained a more efficient and improved mindset. I then participated in a social entrepreneurship program in Catalonia. I really learned a lot in a short period of time. Participating in programs abroad, you get to meet people who have achieved a great deal and at the end you realize that there are no limits to materializing ideas. My most useful experience came from being part of the Ashoka Changemakers, whose organization and facilitating functions make it unique. It provides finance aid to Ashoka fellows, people with influence and impact with their ideas and work. There, I met a person who lives in Berlin and is involved in refugee matters and inspired by a noticeable campaign he created at the metro, three months later I brought my idea to life and although laborious, I launched Career Fair.4all. This is just an example of how you should not be afraid to put your ideas in action, there will always be others with similar “crazy” ideas out there. What is important is the way you exploit and manage your “craziness”.
What should we expect from Ethelon in the near future?
K.P: At Ethelon, we intend to improve our operations concerning the advancement of people and procedures. Consequently, right after Ethelon was established and I resumed its responsibility, my goal has been to implement the plan we have set up as an organization by 2018-2019 , evaluate best options for us and carry on with new goals. We wish for a completely successful organization, fulfilling its tasks at a highest level of quality. It was just last year that we came across with corporate volunteerism, now we already work to optimize it. At this point, we study the ways volunteerism becomes implicit to the Greek society. Apart from volunteering while one is still at work, people passed the age of 65 who are in pension and desire to creatively use their time, our new program “SYNenergo”, can help them stay active by exploiting their abilities and skills through volunteerism. It is indeed an exciting new endeavor.