He keeps asking the same question over and over again, but he never gets called out for being repetitive. “What would you do with your career if I could give you a magic wand?,” asks Leon Stavrou, every time he meets a student with Greek heritage.
He is neither a magic-wand distributor nor a wizard, but Mr. Stavrou believes that somehow he might be able to help, reports Petros Kasfikis for New Greek TV.
“Bill Gates says he wants to put a computer on every desk. What I want to put in the mind of every person of Greek heritage is this: when he or she gets up in the morning, they should say, ‘I’m going to help somebody today — and one of those people I’m going to help is a kid with Greek heritage’ ” says Mr. Stavrou.
The Next Generation Initiative is one of the few Greek-American institutions focused exclusively on the needs of students. As one of the founding members, Mr. Stavrou is spearheading the efforts of the non-profit organization, which seeks to help students excel, and become leaders in their professional fields and their communities.
“We offer them internships, we connect them with mentors and with role models, with one goal,” Mr. Stavrou says. “And that goal is to make them excel and become leaders in their own right.”
Over the last 10 years, the educational foundation has developed a wide range of initiatives that aim to help young people to gain the necessary skills for succeeding in a rapidly changing employment market.
Among its most popular programs is the “NextGen Launchpad,” an online tool that helps students with career advice, and its “Master Classes,” which have brought more than 1,500 students together with prominent Greek-American professionals, who share their insider’s views on careers and trends in an array of fields.
Mr. Stavrou launched the Next Generation Initiative because he believed that [connecting with] students and young professionals was the missing piece of the Greek-American community, writes Kasfikis. Over the last two decades, traditional organizations like the cultural federations have observed a constant decline of their youth membership. [To understand why] Mr. Stavrou tried to figure out what are the actual needs of the community’s young members.
“So we said let’s see what they want. And we did a national survey by reaching out to as many as possible students to find out what was on their minds,” Mr. Stavrou explained. “And our young people replied that what they wanted was internships, career opportunities, and connections with other young professionals.”
The actual idea for launching the initiative arose one evening when a phone call interrupted a lively conversation with his wife and friends at the dinner table, and Mr. Stavrou, who by then was employed in the high-tech industry, heard an unknown voice on the other side of the line. It was a fellow Greek American asking if he knew anyone who could help his son who had recently graduated from the University of Michigan.
Mr. Stavrou explained to the caller that he had not been actively involved in the community for quite a few years, but he promised to do his best to help. He turned to his wife and said,
“You know, it’s really unfortunate that there isn’t some way to connect young people with all the resources out there in our community, and get their advice.”
Although it was a phone call that prompted Mr. Stavrou to take action and kickstart the Initiative, reports Kasfikis, he had woven the cloth of this idea many years before, when he was a young professional in Washington D.C.
After graduating from college, a young Leon Stavrou arrived in the capital without a job offer or knowing anyone. He ended up walking the halls of Congress looking for an entry level position. He started off his Washington career in a so-called “patronage” job — taking Senators up and down in a Senate elevator. Within the year, he was working on the staff of Sen. Barry Goldwater, doing constituent work.
On his way to building a career on Capitol Hill, he was unexpectedly invited by “legendary” Greek-American lobbyist Eugene Rossides to join the newly-formed American Hellenic Institute, founded in the wake of the 1974 invasion of Cyprus, to help him advocate against the illegal Turkish occupation of the northern portion of the Republic of Cyprus and take on the powerful Turkish lobby in Washington.
Mr. Stavrou accepted Rossides’ offer to work for the Institute, becoming, according to some records, the first registered Greek-American lobbyist in the U.S., while working around the clock with a “team” of philhellenes and Greek Americans in Congress (U.S. Senator Thomas Eagleton, and Representatives Ben Rosenthal, Paul Sarbanes and John Brademas), against seemingly insurmountable obstacles to address the unfolding political crisis.
This small group, which was assisted by prominent Greek-Americans like Andy Manatos, successfully laid the groundwork that paved the way for a Congressional vote that imposed a American military aid embargo against Turkey in 1975. The “team” had taken by surprise the Washington establishment and as Mr. Stavrou remembers it, “all hell broke loose.”
“People wondered who is this little group of Greek Americans out there, and what kind of influence do they think they have? Well, we proved them wrong,” Mr. Stavrou said.
“The next couple of days were unbelievable,” Stavrou told Kasfikis. “The Turks said ‘we are going to close your bases’ and everyone panicked. The pressure that was put on the members of Congress from the military establishment was unbelievable.”
Years later, President Carter ultimately yielded to that political pressure and lifted the embargo, without ensuring that the Turkish occupying forces would leave Cyprus.
At the time, though, the Turkish invasion had served as a wake up call for many Greek Americans who were not active members of the community.
After the embargo was imposed, however, the Greek front quickly disintegrated. “There was a certain passivity, and many of the Greek Americans, instead of [building on] their efforts, went their own way,” Mr. Stavrou explained.
But Mr. Stavrou never forgot the experience, which showed him that the Greek community had the potential to exercise a significant influence on the American political scene.
“Under the banner of the Cyprus issue, we united all the fragmented pieces of the Greek diaspora,” Mr. Stavrou told Kasfikis. “We brought together all these Greek Americans who didn’t belong to the community’s organizations. We proved that we can do miracles, when we all work together.”
Working to assembly a grassroots coalition in a pre-Internet era proved to be a demanding task. One of Mr. Stavrou’s jobs was to track down and recruit all the “inactive” Greek Americans, who were scattered across the country.
Even though he was disappointed to find out that many of the new recruits were not willing to stay active with the American Hellenic Institute after the embargo… he kept thinking back [to all the business owners and professionals he had met], believing that they were hidden opportunities for the community. He maintained contact with a lot of them, and was surprised to find out that they were actually eager to help in their own way.
“The outsiders were saying to me, ‘Leon, if you know any Greeks students, we would like to help them out.’ It was the first time I had actually heard that,” Mr. Stavrou said. “Our initiative is about all individuals like that, who want to help young people, but who, for one reason or another, don’t want to go through the traditional means.”
This was the original thread, writes Kasfikis, that almost 40 years later led Mr. Stavrou to perceive and pursue the idea of the Next Generation Initiative.
“We need, as a community, to invest in the new generation. We need to build a coordinated network. Where is the next Sen. Paul Sarbanes, the next George Stephanopoulos or George Hatsopoulos going to come from? You don’t want to sit back and wait to see if somehow, someday they might succeed and go all the way to the top. You want to grow them in the community,” Mr. Stavrou concluded.
The Next Generation Initiative is one of the few Greek-American institutions focusing exclusively on the needs of students. Leon Stavrou spearheads its efforts to help students to excel and become leaders. Read more at: newgreektv.com