How My Greek Heritage Influenced My Business
Eleni Gianopulos, WE NYC Mentor

My name is Eleni Christopoulos Gianopulos. Clearly, I am Greek. Both my parents are 100% Greek, third generation, and my husband is 100% Greek, second generation. My experience growing up wasn’t anything like the experience portrayed in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” However, my Greek heritage did play a large role in my youth and in the path I eventually took as an entrepreneur.

My parents frequently took my brother and me to church. While they were not what I consider deeply religious, they fully embraced the culture and spirit of the Oakland, California Greek community. Both my mom and dad held elected positions within the Greek Orthodox church I attended as a child and where I got married in as an adult. The Greek community was central to my youth in many ways. I met my best friends outside of school through church, church summer camp, or through my parents’ close Greek family friends. I had the opportunity as an 11-year-old to stay in Greece for a month with a family we met through the church. My friends and I often thought of ourselves as almost cousins, even though in most cases there was no family connection.

Bringing your gift to the world can be not only a way to create a vibrant business but a way to honor a cultural tradition.

Eleni Gianopulos

Every spring the church would host its annual Greek Festival, a gathering that always featured food. I used to love to watch the “yiayias” (grandmothers) stoop over the boiling pots of oil as they made one of my favorite Greek desserts, loukoumades – Greek donuts.

As one of the finest cooks in the community, my mom usually demonstrated Greek cooking techniques at the festivals. Sometimes my mom would appear on local TV to demonstrate classics of Greek cuisine like baklava, spanakopita or avgolemono soup. My brother and I would always accompany her to the TV studio. We felt proud watching our mom smile and look so natural on TV, cooking as if she were right in our home. Occasionally, my mom would be commissioned to teach Greek cooking in the community or to create a special line of baklava for someone.

Being raised by a very fine cook who was extremely encouraging in the kitchen with my brother and me from the time we were very young had a big influence on my career choices. I saw firsthand that it was possible to make a living in the culinary world and carve out a unique path within that field. I’m certain this influenced my decision to start my own cookie company.

If your entrepreneurial dream came out of an early experience, you understand the power of your heritage. Bringing your gift to the world can be not only a way to create a vibrant business but a way to honor a cultural tradition.

The irony is when I first told my parents I wanted to start a dessert company, specifically selling baklava, they both voiced their concerns – loudly. “Are you nuts? You will never make it. No one buys baklava except during Easter.” And, when I presented both oatmeal cookies (my mom’s gluten-free recipe) and her baklava to what would turn out to be my first account, Grace’s Market Place on New York City’s Upper East Side, the manager said, “This is the best baklava I have ever had, but no one will buy it. Let’s start with the oatmeal cookies.”

And the cookie business was born. Although Eleni’s doesn’t sell any confections that are specifically Greek, there’s a little bit of my heritage in every bite.