Building New Roads to Success: Ioannina and the Epirus Region

Op-Ed by U.S. Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey R. Pyatt

for Newsit.gr

The road to Ioannina is a new one, and it represents so much more than just a throughway, as I learned in a recent visit to the region. For the residents of Epirus it is a promising new chapter in their rich, cultural history. It makes Epirus accessible for tourism, trade and commerce by providing easy access to its touristic gems including the Vikos Gorge, Dodoni archaeological site, and the fortress of Ioannina, which houses the Piraeus Bank Foundation’s outstanding Silver Smithing Museum.

In my first visit to the region, I had the chance to explore the unique Romaniote synagogue and hear the history of that community. I was profoundly impressed by how Ioannina’s multicultural identity and deep roots of religious tolerance with the Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim communities peacefully coexisting, laid a foundation for the city to integrate refugees into the community today. I also visited the Agia Eleni reception center which currently hosts around 350 asylum seekers, mostly families, from more than 20 nationalities. Ioannina has welcomed about 90 children into local primary and high schools. Local volunteers, municipal employees, and NGOs have worked hard to integrate these migrants into the economic fabric of their society, and I believe this generosity and creativity – Greek values passed down through the generations – open a space for economic revival in rural communities like Ioannina.

It also was inspiring to see the positive value created by the University of Ioannina’s Science and Technology Park, which provides space and infrastructure to companies interested in developing innovative technologies. These companies can provide a strategic next step for university graduates while giving the students an opportunity to co-mingle with the private sector. Ioannina’s aspiration to become a hub for developing technology in Greece was reflected in the enthusiastic students and entrepreneurs I met at the Science and Technology Park and their resolve to leverage technology for a better future.

The U.S. Embassy has made it a top priority to support education in the critical fields of technology and entrepreneurship. In particular, we have been championing increased opportunities for girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). This year, we brought our premier program in support of STEM opportunities for girls to the region of Ioannina. The program, CodeGirls, was offered to Greek girls between the ages of 10-16 across Greece. It was initiated with the intent to engage girls in programming and close the gender gap in technology, allowing them to shine and thrive in a peer setting. The program has made great strides in the area of youth digital literacy. I was inspired by the energy and creativity I saw among these new “coders” and am certain that as we expand this program it will encourage more women to work in the technology and engineering fields.

At the same time, the U.S. Embassy in Athens has also been investing in entrepreneurship programs, which we hope will boost economic activity and youth employability in Greece more broadly. Ioannina was the perfect fit for the Mindspace Challenge, a pitching competition supported by the Embassy that gives young entrepreneurs the opportunity to turn their ideas into reality, learn crucial presentation skills, and network with similar minded students from around the region. Last year’s winner of the Challenge, George Varvarelis from Volos, is now the Co-Founder and CEO of Agile Agriculture Technologies. He developed an innovative optical system that can be installed on fertilization farm vehicles to control the amount of fertilizer based on crop need and not guesswork, and he was an inspiration to this year’s participants. I was impressed by the two finalists chosen from Ioannina and wished them well in the final competition in Athens in June.

These young minds I met in Ioannina represented Greece’s tremendous human capital and unshakable entrepreneurial spirit. They are all part of a growing group of young entrepreneurs all over Greece, who are building start-ups and creating globally competitive companies. I have often said that the success of Greece’s startup community is one of the country’s untold success stories, and so I encourage all of the participants in our programs, the students at the University I met, and the residents of Ioannina to help us tell the story through their continued successes.

This was my first visit to Epirus, but it will certainly not be my last. I very much appreciated the generous hospitality of the mayor and deputy mayor of Ioannina, the mayor of Dodoni and the regional governor for sharing with me the rich history and culture of their region and the many others who took their time to share this region’s many national wonders. I look forward to returning to Epirus in the future and have many kilometers of the Vikos Gorge left to explore!