Returning to my… Olive Roots – From stocks & bonds to honey, oregano & olives
By Katerina Barka, MSF, Founder & CEO, Olive Roots Ltd, www.myoliveroots.com
One morning like all the others, I was casually reading the economic news while sipping my coffee in my office in Boston’s burbs—this is how I would typically start my day before the battle with spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, emails and meetings ensued-when I noticed an interesting image online. It was a black circle with a dot somewhere in the middle. The circle represented “your comfort zone.” Then an arrow pointed outside of the circle to these gripping words: “Where the magic happens”. After staring at it for a while, I sent it to the printer and, a few minutes later, it was pinned on my wall among sticky notes, economic indicator tables and stocks index charts. Fast forward three years later, I am now sitting in my new office in a small town in Cyprus, and I’m surrounded by samples of olive oil, carob powder, honey, oregano and various dried mushrooms while typing this article. You are wondering what happened? Well, I stepped out of my comfort zone, quit my job and career in finance and investments, and returned to my roots in order to start a business that aims to fill America’s shelves with the finest Greek products.
While in the USA, I was managing money for affluent families as part of a reputable corporation. Most of the time, I would be in front of two large screens working on spreadsheets and trading, or meeting with my clients in our lux conference rooms or their ultra-lux houses. I loved my job and my clients, and I think they really liked the Greek girl who would occasionally treat them with a bottle of her family’s olive oil.
And here is where it gets interesting.
During my first year in wealth management, I had my first meeting with a client. He was in his 80s and came from a very wealthy American family. When we started talking, he asked: “Where is this accent from?” I replied “Greece” and his face changed. He said that he had visited Greece when he was very young for a summer school history program, and added that it was a trip full of unforgettable moments with truly authentic local people. He became friends with one of those people and later on, he named his son after him. Next time I saw this client, I gave him a bottle of my family’s olive oil as a gift. When he opened the bottle and smelled the olive oil, his facial expression changed as if that smell had brought back a lot of good memories.
I realized that Greece has a unique way of staying in people’s hearts forever in some way or another: shaping their perspective, changing their lifestyles, inspiring the name of their children, or simply adding olive oil to their daily meals. This story was repeated many times day after day, year after year. Bottles of my family’s olive oil would occasionally become part of my meeting kit when visiting a client’s house. I loved my clients’ reactions and how careful they were with each drop of it, as if it was something sacred and very-very expensive.
They say that to start a business you need to identify a problem. The business will offer the solution.
I felt right in my comfort zone since my very first day in finance but, at the same time, I could hear my inner voice saying that I wasn’t in the right place. I realized there was a conflict as soon as I compared my serious face when talking about investments to my glowing face when talking about olive oil. I soon realized that my glowing face had a growing audience, whether it was my American friends, professors, co-workers or clients. They would all surprise me by how interested they were in hearing my stories about Greek food, and in learning about olive oil and why a certain “Greek style yogurt” brand-which is very popular in the States–is far from authentic Greek yogurt. Through those discussions (and some research), I realized that the word “Greek” on food packaging gave the expectation of “great taste and authenticity” and awakened those memories from that “trip to Mykonos & Santorini.” I realized that this was not a positive image of Greek specialty foods in the American market, as most “Greek/Greek style” foods on the shelves did not rise to the level of taste that authentic Greek food offers. And of course, they were not made in Greece.
On the one hand, I had a market which appreciates Greek food, but has yet to experience a consistently good presence of great quality Greek products on the shelves of local super markets. On the other hand, Greece had become a volt of artisan producers and products seeking opportunities to place their products on international shelves.
Somehow, I had discovered my next endeavor: I decided to create a bridge that would connect America with local, seasonal, sustainable and delicious specialty foods from Greece and Cyprus; a bridge based on honesty, trust, strong values and dedication to its products and consumers; a bridge that would be built with the level of professionalism that America had taught me. This was my opportunity to apply the values and skills I had obtained during my career in money management, such as detailed research, due diligence, clear communication and incorporation of short term and long term goals to business planning. I applied these skills to my very own business plan and Olive Roots was born.
And here we are at the present.
Following my heart, I moved to Cyprus, a blessed island with fascinating history and amazing products, like halloumi cheese and commandaria wine. Olive Roots operates in two time zones in order to keep up with the producers in Greece and Cyprus on the one hand, and with client communications in the States on the other. I once read that an entrepreneur is someone who will work 80 hours a week in order to avoid working 40 hours a week. Whoever said this is totally right.
Leaving a corporate career to become an entrepreneur is not the easy way to go, and I am sure it takes even the bravest of us out of our comfort zones, at least for a while. I risked a lot financially in order to return to my roots and my people with the mission to invest in something I firmly believe in: Greek specialty foods and the people behind them. This business aims to help Greek food reach its potential in the US market, and help Americans eat healthier and understand how to distinguish authentic Greek products from not so authentic “Greek-style” products, thereby improving their lifestyle by eating and living #LikeAGreek. As with everything, time will show if persistence and hard work will once again lead to success. Stay tuned!
Eurokerdos published the article “Returning to my… Olive Roots” as part of a series of articles by AIPFE’s members aimed to empower motivate and connect. For more info about AIPFE click www.aipfe.com