Some Greeks Are Finding Opportunity Amid Their Economy's Uncertainty

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In Greece, not all the smart, young people are leaving. Some are using the crisis as an opportunity to start a new business — including one woman who want to make trucking in Greece more efficient.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Entrepreneurs can seem a little crazy, convinced they can build a business even where many others have failed. Robert Smith from our Planet Money team found some of these optimistic souls in probably one of the worst places to start a company right now, Athens, Greece.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: The banks here are closed. Nobody is buying anything, and the one thing that everyone agrees on is that Greece needs more jobs, more businesses. And Roxane Koutsolouka thinks she's the one to do it because her father is from Greece and her mother is from Holland.

ROXANE KOUTSOLOUKA: I'm Greek, and I understand chaos.

SMITH: Chaos?

KOUTSOLOUKA: Yeah, I'm Dutch, and I need to organize.

SMITH: Her Dutch side got a degree in supply chain management. Her Greek side looked around and said, hey, let's see if we can build a business making Greece more efficient.

KOUTSOLOUKA: Out of crisis comes innovation.

SMITH: It started a few years ago with one of Koutsolouka's first jobs out of college. She was running a warehouse of a cookie factory here in Greece. She needed to constantly ship boxes of cookies around the country, and it stunned her how hard it was to find a truck. Greece's recession had already hit, and people should have been eager for this kind of work.

KOUTSOLOUKA: My people were making a lot of phone calls to arrange for transport. And every time, we're like, why is it so expensive? I mean, we're such a crisis. Why can't it be cheaper?

SMITH: Koutsolouka studied the problem and found out that Greece had all these one-man truck companies. They weren't coordinating. They would drive around half full or drop off their cargo and return completely empty. When people say that Greece isn't productive enough, this is the kind of thing they were talking about - empty trucks. So, Koutsolouka thinks what if there were software, a platform that could help shippers find trucks and truckers find cargo?

KOUTSOLOUKA: So I did my own research a little bit, and then I was like, yeah, nice. How am I going to do this, you know?

SMITH: By this point in the financial crisis, young educated people like her were fleeing Greece. Luckily, Koutsolouka discovered that there were some other young entrepreneurs still in Athens. They banded together in a tech incubator called Orange Grove, basically a big space, desks, lots of people all worrying about the same things. Athina Pitta is building a website that teaches Greek to tourists. It's called Glossopolis. Her problem - everyone's problem, money.

ATHINA PITTA: Usually when you start your business, you have friends, family and fools, they say, that are going to pay for the business. But in this country, your friends don't have money, your family doesn't have either, and there are no fools (laughter).

SMITH: The Orange Grove is a place where all the young businesspeople can share leads or get tips on Greek business law or complain about the tax code. Roxane Koutsolouka used the space to build her trucking site. It's called Join Cargo, went live a few weeks ago.

So we're looking at a map here, and you could just put a pin on where I want to ship my items.

KOUTSOLOUKA: Yeah, from where to where. And then you enter what you want to ship, like American pallets, Euro pallets, or packages.

SMITH: Join Cargo has signed up 150 trucks, brokered a few shipments for about a third the normal price. Of course, it's not making any money yet. No one's shipping much of anything in Greece these days. But she says she's ready to solve Greece's logistics problem when things start moving again. There is one small catch, though. She's had a lot of interest from investors, but they've asked her if she'd be willing to perhaps incorporate her company someplace else.

KOUTSOLOUKA: Being a Greek company is not interesting for investors. So they prefer to invest in a Dutch company or in an English company.

SMITH: And she's considering it. Koutsolouka says that entrepreneurs love the potential of a country in crisis. The people who put the money in like a little more stability. Robert Smith, NPR News, Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.