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Cynthia Kounaris Headshot

Greeks, Diners And American Entrepreneurs

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Last week, I spent a few days in Connecticut with my father and saw quite a few of my relatives -- both blood and "kinda" relatives, meaning they are either "koumbadi" (sharing a "godparent" relationship with my family) or we grew up calling them Thea and Theo (Aunt and Uncle).

Of course, these visits often included eating at my relatives' restaurants -- from the Olympia Diner to J Restaurant .

After one of those meals, I drove around with my father and my uncle and they were pointing out houses in the area where Uncle George lived or Uncle Gus had his place. Every once in a while, my Uncle Nick would say something like "That's Costa's old house" and my father would say "What did he own?". By the third time this happened, it dawned on me how "Greek" that was. Everyone owned something -- from a vending machine business to a pizza place to a movie theater to, of course, a diner.

I grew up in a big, extended Greek "family" and I can distinctly recall the day I realized that some of my friends had parents who went into offices every day. I'd seen it on TV of course -- but didn't really know anyone whose parents did that!

These immigrants usually came to America with nothing -- nothing except an address of a relative or a friend of a relative who owned a diner or a pizza place where they could get a job as a dishwasher. After a few years of doing that, they would open their own diner or pizza place and achieve their American dream.

This American entrepreneurial dream, of course, cuts across many ethnic groups and is the lifeblood of our country. These are the "job creators." My close friend, Bernardine Wu, is Chinese (1st generation American) and she started the business I currently work for, FitForCommerce, an ecommerce consultancy. She tells me that many of her Chinese relatives and friends also own their own businesses.

While it seems that early entrepreneurs succeeded with no government assistance, I'm not saying that they shouldn't be provided with any, today. Or maybe the real "to do" is to not penalize small businesses for not having the wherewithal to hire a phalanx of lawyers and tax accountants and lobbyists, enabling them to create subsidiaries or holding companies, to move labor or capital offshore, and to avoid taxes -- all legally. Let the little guys compete on a level playing field.

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor's 2010 Global Report (a fascinating report!) says that America's entrepreneurs are now "innovation" entrepreneurs and that:

Initiatives aimed toward improving entrepreneurship should consider the development level of the economy. With a strong set of basic requirements in place, efforts can turn toward reinforcing efficiency enhancers, and then building entrepreneurship framework conditions.

Some countries have regulations that make small business creation even more difficult. Given what I've written above about Greek immigrants, you can imagine how surprised I was to read this, in that same report:

Interestingly, fear of failure among all economies was highest in Greece. This continues an ongoing pattern over the past seven years and reflects a strong aversion to risk, which is confirmed by the relatively high employment protection rate. Employment protection refers to the number of procedures and costs required by law to hire or dismiss workers.

Regulations that, at a minimum, do not suffocate entrepreneurship and, ideally, support it, and a society where failure is viewed as merely a temporary setback or a stepping stone to success seem to be necessary for a thriving entrepreneurial environment.

All big businesses started as small businesses -- from Ford to Apple, from General Electric to McDonald's. They were started by entrepreneurs, by people with a dream and the drive to make it happen. Whether it is opening up a restaurant, owning a retail store, starting a website, or creating the next technology "big thing," American needs and is counting on its entrepreneurs.