The GSB Interview: Anastasia Zotou; Bringing Green-Sports to Greece

So you think building awareness and the impact of Green-Sports is challenging in North America? Try doing so in Greece, a country that continues to be ravaged from the after effects of the 2008 global financial collapse. Yet that’s exactly what Anastasia Zotou is doing with her consulting firm, Zoten. GSB talked to Ms. Zotou about her inspiration, the work she is doing, and what the future for Green-Sports looks like in the country that gave the world the Olympic Games.

 

GreenSportsBlog: The Green-Sports movement started in the largest, wealthiest economies—North America, Great Britain, Germany, France. No surprise there. So I jumped at the opportunity to talk to a woman who is pioneering Green-Sports in Greece. Greece is a relatively small country with a great sporting culture — it of course is the home of the ancient and modern Olympic Games. It also is, arguably, the European Union (EU) member that is suffering the most from the 2008 global financial crisis. So, I figured this would be a unique story for GSB readers. Anastasia; thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Anastasia Zotou: Thank you, Lew. My story starts in Seattle, where I was born to parents from Greece. I first visited Greece when I was 17—it was a major culture shock. Said I would never go back.

 

Anastasia Zotou Dionisis Nikolopoulos

Anastasia Zotou (Photo credit: Dionisis Nikolopoulos)

 

GSB: Somehow I have a feeling that “never” really didn’t last that long.

AZ: You’re right. I gave Greece another chance, went back when I was 21. I had a much better experience. Came home to finish up my Business Administration studies at Central Washington University with a plan to go into banking. Then I went back to Athens after graduation with no real plan. But I felt like this was the place for me. Learned Greek. Started teaching English. Got married. I started looking into Masters programs before my son was born but wasn’t able to take the entrance exam because I was giving birth on the exact day and time as the exam. It was a little difficult to be there so I waited for next year’s test.

GSB: To get an MBA in Banking?

AZ: No. In Environmental Management and Policy. Turns out I wasn’t passionate about corporate business. Was disgusted with it, tell you the truth. I was outdoorsy and felt — hoped — that sustainable business was something that was going to take off in Greece. I found a remote Masters program on the island of Lesbos…

GSB: The island where many Syrian and other refugees from that part of the world enter Greece…

AZ: That’s right.

GSB: Wow…

AZ: Yeah…It’s a very difficult situation there, obviously. But I did the program remotely — I finished in a little more than two and a half years. Turns out I was much older than most of the Greeks in the program — I was 35 when I started. This was just not done. In fact, I had to deal with that during the application process…

GSB: Meaning “why should I give this spot to you, a 35 year old?”

AZ: Exactly. And I was a mother, which also was unusual. When I was doing research back in 2008 for my dissertation, “Environmental Management Systems,” I would take my one year old son around with me to a mall in Athens where I was conducting surveys. People there were very surprised to see me there with my son.

GSB: That stinks! I’m glad you didn’t let it stop you. What were you surveying at the mall?

AZ: I was trying to find out if the management of the mall and of the stores in the mall were interested in cooperating on environmental management systems — waste management, energy efficiency, water efficiency — that sort of thing. I was able to demonstrate that the ROI was quick. But mall management wouldn’t talk to me at first and most of the store management personnel I talked to were confused, they weren’t really clued in on what environmental management systems meant — some of the younger folks got it but that was it.

GSB: Did that discourage you? I imagine your son was ok with it.

AZ: I wasn’t deterred. I just kept showing up until the people would talk to me. But, as I was finishing the dissertation, the economic crash happened. Sustainability consulting was what I wanted to do — but with the crash and a young family, it was very hard to pursue at that time.

GSB: So what did you do?

AZ: I continued to teach English and started working out of my house on environmental projects to save on office expenses, but it was challenging to stay focused working from home and managing my teaching at the same time. For my family it was and is a struggle, but there are many, many people in Greece who are having an even harder time with the job cuts and salary reductions. I will tell you, almost ten years after the crash, the country is still in a bad, bad situation.

GSB: And that’s the environment in which you wanted to start a new company in a category that didn’t exist? Piece of cake! So how and when did you start your environmental consulting work? And where did Green-Sports come in?

AZ: My initial plan was to work with businesses in sustainability. This was challenging because it’s hard for businesses to invest in sustainability when they can’t keep their doors open nor keep up with expenses. It really was sports that kicked things into another gear. You see, at around that time, I took up running. Which was surprising because I really hated to run!

GSB: Were you an athlete of any stripe?

AZ: I had played soccer and lacrosse when I was young but nothing really once I had gotten to Greece aside from running a bit on a treadmill at home. But, one of the school parents said “why don’t you come to the track?” So I went. And I saw an older man talking to some of the runners at the track. I kept seeing him almost every time I’d go to the track. Finally, I was introduced to Panayiotis Skoulis aka “The Teacher.” Turns out, he had been a runner his whole life and is an amazing, inspirational man. Holds various age group records in Greece in the marathon. In fact, he was the first man in modern times to retrace the route of Pheidippides from Athens to Sparta to Athens (149 miles each way), without a support team in his 50s. In his early 60s, he got Parkinson’s disease and kept running races, including a 50 km race (31 miles) against his doctor’s advice. Anyway, that first day we met, he asked me what my running plan was. Running plan?!?! I had none. So I blurted out I’d like to run a marathon. I didn’t want to run a marathon but, for some reason, those words came out of my mouth! The next day, he came to the track with a training program for me. I was one of the first runners in what would become a 40-person running team that he coaches, including women who had never run before and who are now running races over 60 km in some cases. Every day. For free. He’s now 81 and can’t run anymore but he still coaches us. And I built up to run a marathon — not fast, mind you, but I completed it — the 2013 Athens Marathon.

 

Anastasia Coach

Panayiotis Skoulis, aka “The Teacher,” and Anastasia Zotou (Photo credit: Anastasia Zotou)

 

GSB: What an amazing guy your coach is! Congratulations on your transformation from “running hater” to marathoner. But how does a Green-Sports consulting startup come from this?

AZ: Well, as I was running my first marathon, I noticed how much waste there was along the route. I started playing around with the idea of reducing waste at road races and thought I am going to start a consulting firm to do just that! So about a year ago I finally made the decision to take the risk and open a consulting office in Athens.

GSB: I love that! And you called it Zoten. What does that name mean?

AZ: One of my students suggested I combine my last name, Zotou, and environment. And, voilà, Zoten became our name.

GSB: I like it! So how did you get started?

AZ: ‘The Teacher’ introduced me to athletic clubs who organize races all over Greece. I asked them if they’d be interested in a green race. Just like the store owners at the mall I spoke to for my dissertation, these folks didn’t really get it at first but once I explained the idea of recycling and waste reduction, they began to listen more intently. So we started in 2015 pitching small athletic clubs with maybe 200-500 members. Their races might draw 200 runners to a couple thousand. Our basic proposal included waste management, and environmental awareness of the event itself…

GSB: …You weren’t going into Scope 3 emissions, and getting into the emissions of their supply chains, my guess…

AZ: You’re right. Anything more than the basics would be too much.

GSB: So with all those challenges, have you found some races that would work with you?

AZ: Yes. One thing that has impacted our success has been whether the host cities would cooperate with us. One race will have a great partnership with a city; in another race, the city will neglect or forget to bring recycling bins.

GSB: Yikes!! Talk about some of those clients…

AZ: One was the municipality of Andros Island in collaboration with A.C.C. (Athletic Cultural Club) Telmessos North Makris-Marathon who organized a half marathon there. The municipality was cooperative with us and we were able to work with the local recycling company who provided us with recycling bins and weighed the waste collected after the race was finished. There were about 250 runners, 450 biodegradable cups were used at the water stations, 1600 plastic water bottles were used but we managed to collect over 35 kilos of recyclable waste after the race. This may not sound like a large amount but considering the fact that this had never been done before and we managed to divert this waste from the landfill, we considered it a success.

 

Andros Recycling

Recycling installation and signage from Zoten at the Telmessos North Makris-Marathon (Photo credit: Anastasia Zotou)

 

GSB: Hey you gotta start small. And from small things, come big things.

AZ: Absolutely! Another client was a 10k in the center of Athens organized by the Athenian Runners Club.  In this case the municipality did not bring the appropriate bins to the race as requested. It also took place in the middle of the terrible garbage strike a couple of months ago. That clearly was not ideal for an environmental effort.

GSB: You might say…

AZ: But we press on, so I am currently finishing an assignment with the club on sustainability for the 2017 Pheidippides Race. These projects were pro bono as the concept of sustainable races was new and we needed to prove the concept. As we demonstrate our ability to reduce waste, save energy and save the race organizers money, revenue will follow.

GSB: I am glad you are bullish. Plus it seems to me like you’re working from a “low base” — meaning that environmental consciousness is low in Greece, so the only direction to go is up, it seems.

AV: You’re right. Recycling in Greece is not nearly as advanced as in the US. There’s a lack of sophistication and interest from consumers, companies and governments. But it’s getting better slowly.

GSB: What about composting?

AZ: Races aren’t there yet but there is interest…Composting is part of our next step plan, which also includes better public transportation planning for sports events, more prominent signage and other forms of fan education.

GSB: Does climate change figure into the equation at all with the races, with fan education?

AZ: Not yet.

GSB: Don’t worry; we’re still working on communicating climate change — its challenges and opportunities — through sports here in the States. We’ve got a long way to go. I guess in Greece, you have to crawl before you can walk before you can run, Green-Sports-wise.

AZ: Absolutely. And I am pushing it. Not only in adding to our toolkit for our smaller races, but using our success to attract the bigger races.

GSB: What about going beyond running races to events in stadiums and arenas? I’m thinking Olympiacos F.C., the number one soccer club in the Athens area, and its 32,000+ seat Karaiskaki Stadium and/or AEK Athens, which plays at 69,000 seat Olympic Stadium, would benefit from saving money and being greener.

 

Olympiacos Stadium

Karaiskaki Stadium, home of Olympiacos F.C. in Athens (Photo credit: Olympiacos F.C.)

 

AZ: Soccer and basketball, the two biggest team sports in Greece, are certainly on our radar screen. We would like to use the approach (recycling, waste management) that has been successful with road races in stadiums and arenas. As a startup, a big key to branching out to the stadium/arena sports is connections. That’s why I made the investment to go to Paris a couple of months ago for the Sports and Sustainability International (SandSI) conference. Meeting people in the European Green-Sports world gave me a needed jolt of enthusiasm as well as providing me some contacts at higher levels to expand our business to higher profile events.

 


 

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