An interview with Dimitris Messinis, founder of Mindspace
By Kyveli Hatzizisi
Despite his young age, he knows how to demolish prevailing myths. That only those who want to be rich become entrepreneurs, for example. Or that a good idea is all you need to be a businessman. Dimitris Messinis runs Mindspace, a company educating young people on how and why they should get involved with business. The “recipe” to a successful entrepreneur has several interesting ingredients: risk, confidence, optimism, a good team and the right timing, a strong idea, an action plan. There must also be a demystification of failure because a failed entrepreneur can still, also, be a successful entrepreneur.
Dimitris Messinis is the founder of Mindspace, an entrepreneurship and innovation network for students and young graduates that operates in Athens, Patra, Thessaloniki and Xanthi. He discusses entrepreneurship as a career, but also as a way of life. Messinis is a graduate of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) run by the US State Department. He has a PhD in Systemic Pharmacology and a diploma in Mechanical Engineering from the National Technical University of Athens and is currently an Executive MBA candidate with Quantic. He has previously worked as a Science and Business Consultant at Philip Morris, a Data Scientist for the US Food and Drug Administration, a Partner in the Venture Capital BlueDome firm, as well as Program Head at biotech startup Protavio. Mindspace was one of this year’s Venture Impact Award recipients, run by the THI.
What led to the founding of Mindspace and what exactly does it to?
In 2011, the National Technical University of Athens organized an event focused on entrepreneurship, a competition entitled “Innovative Design”. A few years later, the competition was stopped because there were only two student applicants. As an aside, the word “entrepreneurship” was intentionally omitted from the title. The word “innovative” could already be considered extreme in the austere academic environment of the NTUA, where the creation of a commercial product based on research could even be considered “immoral”.
As a student at the NTUA, I was fortunate enough to visit universities in London and Boston, where I was confronted with a different approach to entrepreneurship. This experience shaped the concept of helping students in Greece by creating a supportive environment during their first steps, offering them the choice to learn more about entrepreneurship.
The goal of Mindspace (you can find more details here) is to provide the opportunity to young people to familiarize themselves with the entrepreneurial mindset. We offer them the option of achieving this either through Mindspace University, where participants practice setting up their business during a four-month program, or Mindspace Trip, which gives students the opportunity to experience first-hand the entrepreneurial spirit by travelling to areas where it is fully developed, like the United States.
What do young people think of when considering becoming businessmen? Do you see a greater interest among young men or women?
We see an equal representation of men and women in the applications received by Mindspace. Indicatively, women represented 45.2% of the participants of Mindspace University 2020. However, a recent study by Marathon VC of 27 Greek startups revealed a very limited number of female employees (18%) with just 3% in executive roles.
This illustrates that even though there is an equal initial interest in entrepreneurship by both men and women, for several reasons the representation of women in startups ends up being very small. These reasons must be better understood and the appropriate solutions must be devised, so that women who want to be involved in business do not have to face barriers.
Does the fear of failure inhibit startups? In Greece failure is sometimes seen as a disaster. What is your view on this?
It is natural that in an environment in which creating up a startup is not a common process, society would not be used to viewing failure as something natural. The rate of failure for startups, according to international estimates, is almost 90%. As a result, in an environment where many people choose to follow this path, like in the United States, failure simply means moving on to your next endeavour, with society recognizing the skills you acquired through your entrepreneurial efforts, irrespective of whether it was financially successful. For example, it is considered better to have failed entrepreneurial ventures on your CV than not having any at all.
What are some of the most innovative business ideas you have seen?
At Mindspace we are fortunate to see hundreds of business ideas every year, with some being very innovative. The two that stand out in my mind are “Enaleia” (the winners of Mindspace Challenge in 2017) that helps remove plastic waste from our waters and “E[gg]xcel” (winners of the Challenge in 2020) which seeks to use eggshells as a basic ingredient in developing carbon capture material. It is important to note that ideas alone are not worth anything, otherwise there would be an equivalent market in which someone could buy or sell an idea. The success of a business is a result of other factors, including the team, the action plan and good timing.
Is there some business sector that you believe most people attending your events are focused on?
During the early years of Mindspace we noticed that many entrepreneurial ideas by students focused on creating mobile applications to solve everyday issues, like finding somewhere to park or finding a roommate or facilitating playing a game of football with your friends. We even had several proposals for dating apps.
This makes sense, as participants embarked on the process and tried to find and solve an issue, without knowledge of the major issues concerning the industry today. We took this fact into account and when we were setting up Mindspace University we ensured that every round would focus on a different sector. This semester we are focusing on Smart Cities, with Agritech next. The goal was to inspire the development of quality ideas on specific sectors.
Why are Mindspace’s initiatives addressed exclusively to students? Is it available for other age groups?
The vision of Mindspace is not really limited by age. We want to see a society whose members have cultivated their entrepreneurial mindset in anything they chose to do. We have organized several limited activities for other age groups and we were among the finalists of the “AAL Smart Ageing Prize”.
However, it is true that we focus our activities on students. We have chosen this age group as we believe that in this way our activities will have the greatest societal impact. Our belief is partially founded on the fact that it is during our student years that we probably have the lowest opportunity cost of testing out other career opportunities.
As we are aware that someone must make an effort to acquire a business mindset, we suggest that students try it out during their years in university as, even if they fail, they will have earned a valuable toolset for their future endeavours.
What is the first lesson for someone who wants to get involved in business?
In my opinion, a valuable first lesson is that it is impossible to learn something about business from lessons and in classrooms. You only learn when you try.
Is entrepreneurship exclusively about money or is there something else to it?
One of the most common pieces of advice for prospective businesspeople is that if their motive is primarily financial, it substantially increases their risk of failure. One of the reasons for this is that during the creation of a business, founders will be faced with myriad problems. Unless they are doing something they really want to do with their life and have a motive, there is a high chance they will give up early when faced with great difficulties.
Is entrepreneurship just a career or is it a lifestyle/mindset?
It is definitely a mindset. As to what having an entrepreneurial mindset truly is, liberally quoting and paraphrasing investor and author Marina Hatsopoulos, it is the “in depth understanding of the relation between risk and result, as well as the emotional framework to accept and enjoy the risk, to the point where you are excited by situations in which there are many things at stake. This requires confidence – both internal and external – and optimism. It also requires that when one is faced with challenges, hurdles, denial, to constantly embrace these experiences for their teaching value, and to not succumb to the disappointment they cause”.
How important is the Venture Impact Award by THI that you recently won?
This award is primarily a recognition that the efforts of Mindspace are on the right track to change the prevailing mindset of Greek society, that may allow the country to once again be at the forefront of international developments. It is always difficult to immediately see the results of your efforts when you are active in education. How can we know if the people who participated in our training programs will succeed with the skills they gained? That the leadership and judges of The Hellenic Initiative believe our efforts are important for Greek society empowers us to continue and to focus on the path we chose to follow.
Venture Impact Makers: a series of interviews by αθηΝΕΑ with the winners of this year’s Venture Impact Award (VIA) of The Hellenic Initiative. The VIA aims to support Greece’s brightest and most talented teams, helping them create ventures that are scalable, sustainable and able to demonstrate not just a quick return on the investment but also a broader impact on the society at large. VIA was founded with the initial support of The Helidoni Foundation and the Estate of Charles C. Condes.