Dušan Duffek and Stylianos Lambrou are serial entrepreneurs: startup specialists, spinning out new ideas at a prolific rate, building companies across different sectors, and investing in meaningful projects while supporting the growth of talent, a strategy that can lead to very good things.
But what does that actually mean? What is good, objectively? Well, while many investors focus on either the environmental, the social, or the governance aspects of ESG, they often fail to link them up in a coherent strategy, or highlight one area to the detriment of others. Often, the result feels greenwashed. Instead, both Dušan and Stylianos, in their individual and joint ventures, are fundamentally people-centric, inclusive, and about linking opportunity with talent. Perhaps actually caring about people comes before the ‘S’ in ‘ESG’?
Dušan, from Slovakia, first met Stylianos, from Cyprus, during entrepreneurship studies at the University of Cambridge. Coming from prior respective educational tracks in management and software engineering, they could both have embarked on more ‘typical’ international career pathways with management consultancies or the Googles of the world. Instead, they both decided to start businesses in their home countries.
Under 0100 Ventures, Dušan began in startups and collaboration, together with his co-founders creating one of the most renowned coworking brands in Slovakia ,Campus Cowork, a pan-European venture capital and private equity conferencing platform,communications and investor tech products, and ZeroGravity Capital, a €23M fund for startups across Central Europe. Project Zero2Hero creates content to engage self-awareness in young entrepreneurs, an outlet for drive and energy that implores them to take action and simply create. The businesses form a mutually responsive ecosystem of offerings that place innovative minds at its centre and fosters the kind of go-getter mindset needed for experimentation and growth in the country.
In Cyprus, Stylianos founded the Heart Group, a portfolio of businesses operating around real estate acquisitions, hospitality, events, tech and media, both in his hometown of Limassol and regionally, throughout Europe. The leading premise of the projects is to be ‘’heart-centered’’, to generate something meaningful. In the context of real estate, this translates as creating positive externalities that benefit both the local communities as well as customers, then the greater region by extension. To date, 17 projects have been undertaken, two of which are in Athens, others in Cyprus. One the one hand, benefit is derived by following the simplest precept of environmentally-conscious building: reuse. By using built forms and materials already in situ. The restoration of historic or abandoned structures has helped to preserve and upgrade the city of Limassol’s historic core into boutique hotel, commercial, and residential spaces. On the other hand, affordable housing is being developed outside the city that caters to the growing number of tech employees relocating to the area. Both approaches are ESG-focussed in terms of the ‘S’ in particular, since the benefit is targeted, primarily, socially.
The nonprofit Techisland, on whose board both men serve, meanwhile, brings together the island’s largest tech company founders and has generated several million Euros in donations for impact-driven projects, making Cyprus more inclusive for non-EU talent as well. This initiative reflects the driving force of tech in all their projects, with the aim being both promote tech growth as key to innovation, while supporting the development of robust regulation around its implementation, as well as in giving voice and security to emerging regional companies.
Creating Impact - Emerging Doers
And there is the key, defining what ‘inclusivity’ actually means. On the one hand, crossover VC investment between projects in both countries supports a diversifying Cypriot economy, notably in the tech boom, and nurtures innovation and tech talent in Central Europe. However, the motivation extends further afield, with the notion of creating impact as being synonymous with creating access to opportunity and inclusivity for bright ideas from an emerging Europe that extends beyond the EU.
The geography of the collaboration shines when you consider things less EU-centrically, less on the westernised axis of European economic activity, and more with open access to emerging markets in mind. Cyprus sits at an ancient, and now modern, crossroads between the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. Always a cosmopolitan island, Stylianos and Dušan’s work is helping to increase funding access for myriad interests: think Lebanon, Saudi, Egypt, Albania and Romania, all vastly differing cultural and religious backgrounds that make up a mix of business cultures that has too often been too tough to navigate or harmonise with a common purpose.
The ‘doers’ they are attracting are in tech, but another key difference goes back to our ’S’, and that means leading with a discussion on what working culture actually entails. Both Stylianos and Dušan are openly pragmatic about the inherent dangers associated with startup culture, of tech burnout, of the lack of its recognition, or the need to provide psychologists and coaching as a foundational aspect of doing business. The challenge is to open the discussion on mental health as key to the human capital, and therefore social, health of a company; and as passionate advocates for this conversation, both men speak regularly with founders in their portfolio to raise the issue.
While both Stylianos and Dušan are currently committed to leading their own, respective, VC funds, they continue to work closely to tap into the important elements of how they have been doing business from the start: “We believe in a new way of doing business. Through our funds, we are both looking to harness the untapped potential of the best startups in emerging Europe, support their path to success and create an honest return for our investors”. And “honest” is the key word here, with pragmatism and transparency driving the approach to impact and ESG, more than we generally observe in the investment sector. It starts with entrepreneurs and ideas, then seeks to openly discuss what impact actually means and how it can deliver long-term benefit. In this regard, impact comes first, when many funds may scramble to offer definitions of ESG. Their mission is clearly stated: “Through the access to capital and our startup support, we empower entrepreneurs to create their own impact and legacy”.
Providing a model for intercultural business experimentation means confronting the notion of identity, what it means, and how it is respected. Companies love to tout their cultural values and how they inform a sense of mission, especially when it comes to a statement of ESG intent. However, by actually trying to intermix cultures and markets, the operating model necessarily confronts how certain demographics, nationalities, and ethnicities have been adversely perceived till now. As Stylianos remarks, “Cyprus is often underestimated as it's a small country. However, its talent and the potential of the country is really big." “The same is true for Slovaks”, echoes Dušan. Respecting people’s identity, including instead of marginalising, this is “being human, actually caring about the impact of the funds we work with”.
We all need the support of people who care and can help us out. We access this reciprocally, respecting personal lives and identity, caring on a general level: caring and being human.
So, the target audience for this experimentation is not ‘defined’. Rather, it is broad. From the outset, both Dušan and Stylianos’ businesses have interlinked to test actual collaboration across borders, to first connect Cypriots with Slovaks in small events during 2017. This bridge expanded and the power of the platform to connect the dots increased, resulting in the ongoing annual Reflect Festival, the island's biggest tech and entrepreneurial event, which opens its door again for three days between 19-21 October, for 5,000 attendees from around the region to simply create. Ideas, projects, partnerships, who knows? The core meaning of innovation is that entirely new things will happen.
There is no magic formula that states how ESG principles must be implemented, or whether environmental, social, or governance do, or need to, take any kind of precedence. The formula will be different for different companies. What is fundamental is that, much as we are collectively now custodians of the planet and moving into position to address the systemic problems we have caused, it is the people who constitute businesses, companies, and organisations on whom we must first focus to be healthy, so we can make headway on the other challenges.
We haven’t necessarily seen how ESG is ‘front and centre’ here, and this is the point. ESG grows out of respect: for people, for mutual understanding, for the planet and how we choose to operate. It isn’t a top-down edict that you must follow, but something that grows from a place of personal and organisational responsibility. ‘Business as usual’ must acknowledge where and why gaps occur before it can suggest how to bridge them.
Perhaps it’s as simple as that. Speaking to Dušan and Stylianos, it is actually evident that they are genuine, open-hearted and confident people. Inclusive, encouraging, and respectful. Caring is simply more impactful than other ‘strategies’, because it provides the strongest foundation.
They do move fast, but I’m pretty sure they don’t break things on the way.