ATHENS, Greece (CNNfn) - More than 150 women from around the world gathered in Athens late last month to discuss how to take full advantage of global trade and technology to boost company profits.|
The Euro-American Women's Council's (EAWC) international conference, which was co-sponsored by IBM, focused attention on the power of the Internet in creating a gender-free business climate. The women also learned about the many ways international entrepreneurs can help Greece prepare to host the 2004 Summer Olympic Games.
"The Greek women are in the driver's seat now," said Loula Loi Alafogianni, founder and CEO of EAWC. "Soon, the whole world will come to visit the place where democracy was born."
Milena Apostolaki, deputy minister of development for Greece, said although "men and women are equal," it's still more difficult for women to succeed in business because "a woman is the main pilot of the family," and has many responsibilities at home as well as at the office.
Patrick Santillo, the senior commercial officer for the U.S. Commerce Department's commercial service in Athens, presented the pros and cons of doing business in Greece.
Financial and cultural issues
Greece, which has been a member of the European Union since 1981, is preparing to participate more fully in the economic aspects of the EU. Greece currently lags behind the rest of Europe in technology and access to capital. In fact, until recently, it was nearly impossible to borrow money to finance a business or home. Most Greeks pay cash for all major purchases.
Many Greek businesswomen were unable to attend the conference because religious leaders and four million members of the Greek Orthodox Church staged a massive protest rally, which brought all traffic in and out of downtown Athens to a halt and virtually closed down the city. The protesters were showing their support for listing their religious affiliation on the identity cards being issued to citizens of the EU -- a move that the other EU countries oppose.
Dimitris Dolis, general secretary of Greeks Abroad, recently returned home to manage the organization.
"The insanity as it appears here has a lot of sanity attached to it," he said, commenting on the religious protest.
Although the city was brought to a standstill by the protesters, the Commerce Department's Santillo said entrepreneurs should still pursue business opportunities here. He said doing business in Greece requires patience, and that success depends heavily on personal relationships and contacts.
Opportunities in preparing for Olympics
He pointed out that Greece needs help to build six new luxury hotels, a new stadium, a yachting and equestrian center, several event venues and a full Olympic Village.
He passed out materials about a Commerce Department "Tourism Infrastructure Matchmaker" trade delegation to Turkey, Italy and Greece scheduled for Oct. 23 to Nov. 5. (The $3,500 fee does not include travel expenses. The deadline to apply is Aug. 28. For information, contact Sam Dhir, project manager. His e-mail address is: Sam.Dhir@mail.doc.gov)
Santillo said Greece is behind most of Europe when it comes to mass use of technology, although affordable cellular phone service is booming. In fact, ringing cell phones interrupted many speakers during the program, until one participant demanded that they be turned off.
Santillo and others said there are also many opportunities for American business owners in the construction, energy, chemical and transportation sectors.
"We believe Greece is now well positioned for change," said Cherie Piebes, the global market executive for IBM's women's marketing initiative. "Technology is one of the keys that will empower women here and elsewhere."
'Nobody told me about the glass ceiling'
Leading women business owners from South Africa, Britain, Poland, Russia and the United States were given a VIP tour of the Greek Parliament, and met with government officials. The eclectic program included presentations about marketing, continuing education, breast cancer research, direct sales and using the Internet to reach global markets.
EWAC also presented "Goddess Artemis" awards to several leading business women, including Tina Knight, managing director of Nighthawk Electronics Ltd., based in Sussex, England, and Barbara Litrell, president of Working Woman Network Inc. in New York.
Knight said she became the first British woman to head a high-tech company because "nobody told me about the glass ceiling." Her company makes components for computer networks.
"Technology has brought equality, because no one knows your gender on the Internet," said Knight, who urged participants not to focus their networking and business development efforts only on other women-owned enterprises.
Litrell, whose company publishes Working Woman and Working Mother magazines, said women in the 1970s were focused on finding a job; women in the 1980s were trying to fit into corporate America; women in the 1990s were finding the freedom to become "strong women and start businesses."
(Jane Applegate, a syndicated columnist and author of 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business, covers small business for CNNfn. "Succeeding in Small Business" appears on CNNfn.com on Wednesdays.)