In Unbinding the Heart, Agapi Stassinopoulos begins her book reflecting on the childhood she shared with sister Arianna Huffington growing up in Greece. Both of their parents were deeply impacted by events that happened during World War II. Their mother risked her life working for the Red Cross while their father was caught by the Germans running an underground newspaper in Greece and sent to a concentration camp. Their parents eventually split and the sisters were raised by their mother. Having lived through political and personal hardships, their mother’s determination left a lifelong impression of courage and reaching for what others would think is unattainable. One example Agapi gives is when Arianna saw a picture of Cambridge University in a magazine and said she wanted to go. While others laughed, their mother encouraged her to apply and when she got in, borrowed money and moved with her daughters to London. Agapi meanwhile attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London where she flourished as an actress and was invited to Hollywood to make her first movie.
Upon arriving in Hollywood, Agapi was constantly told she was talented yet her career as an actress never quite took off as she had hoped. As she struggled to find an alternative career path, she writes that most of her positive transformation came when things in life didn’t work out or she didn’t get what she thought she wanted at the time. Rather then seeing certain experiences as failures, she encourages readers to not see failures as endings but rather new beginnings and “opportunities to go deeper into ourselves to discover the miraculous truth of who we are.”
She speaks to The Wharton Journal on characteristics common to some of the most successful entrepreneurs, managing success and leadership, her own journey as an entrepreneur, and her sister’s path to success in creating the Huffington Post.
Steve Jobs often used the example of calling Bill Hewlett when he was 12. He said what separates the people that do things from the people that dream is to act and be willing to fail. You write of similar experiences in your book, why do you think asking is easier for some people to do than others?
I think that the willingness to ask for help is in part a reflection of a belief in one’s own worth and abilities. The person that’s willing to ask for help is honoring and nurturing themselves because they know they are worth helping and that they have something valuable to contribute. They are also usually the type of people who would be willing to help others if they were needed.
Once you’ve reached a certain point of success, what advice do you have to offer on how to maintain and manage it? Is managing success something you’ve seen people struggle with?
The people that maintain their success are those who find other people who share and support their vision. They don’t try to control others around them, but rather empower others to be creative. The people who struggle with success are the ones who try to control it and keep it to themselves.
Your mother’s personality was very kind-hearted and giving. At the same time she was very bold and fearless. Are such leadership traits unique to women or do you see it as something universal of all good leaders?
I see a lot of women who undermine their leadership by being people pleasers. You can’t be a good leader and try to please everybody otherwise you’re bound to fail. A good leader is somebody whose vision and cause for good is bigger than a desire to be liked. I think that my mother’s fearlessness came a lot from her passion to give me and Arianna the best she could, and educate us, and provide a life us that would be a dream come true. Yes, she was bold and fearless and those are also characteristics that people can develop by not caving in and moving forward no matter what.
In terms of media moguls, names like Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch come to mind. In a male dominated arena, your sister has reached similar ranks of success with the Huffington Post and in many ways helped innovate and disrupt an industry that was transforming. How do you see her evolution from where she began to how it has grown?
My sister started the Huffington Post with a desire to give people a platform where they could voice their opinions. She saw a gap that needed to be filled. It was a very common sense thing if you think about it. So many people who never thought of putting things in writing and sharing them with people were encouraged and supported. She also had great business partners and creative partners who found a format that really worked. There were a lot of logistics and things to figure out. There were many roadblocks to overcome, but she never did it alone. She had a fantastic team throughout the growth process, and some core people who she worked. She also had a very strong vision of service.
In your book you write of going through the experience of understanding your strengths and weaknesses. How were you able to find the balance between moving forward to pursue a goal versus accepting something that may not be right for you?
In the beginning of my career, I went for the acting jobs, only to find out that I wasn’t getting the jobs I wanted. For a long time, I struggled with my identity being wrapped up in acting. However, when I was able to let go and find something that was uniquely mine, I created my one-woman show “Conversations with the Goddesses,” that became successful. Out of that, I was asked to write a book. All sorts of doors opened for me once I took matters into my own hands.
How important are the roles of mentors?
Hugely important, we must mentor others as they mentor us. It’s one of the most impactful things we can do in our lives, to allow others to show us the way and assist us to grow in all different ways. For me, mentors have been a huge part of my life. I had mentors in acting. I found a brilliant spiritual teacher that I studied with. In the books I wrote, I had people who mentored me to find the confidence in my own voice, and also how to structure a book. In my life, I mentor people on how to open up their voice, how to find their strength and confidence and move beyond their fears to accomplish their dreams.
You have a multicultural background growing up in Greece, living in the UK and also the US. Did that impact the way you see the world? How do you see that influencing you most?
What I realized is that people are the same, no matter where they come from. We all want to be loved and cared for. We all have dreams and ambition. We all want connection. Culturally, people are different, but fundamentally, people are the same. This is what my book really emphasizes, that certain qualities are universal, such as generosity, compassion and goodness.
What do you identify as some of the most important leadership qualities?
One of the most important qualities leaders have is the ability to allow themselves to be supported by others. John F. Kennedy, for example, had a vision and got people to support him to become elected. Leaders build teams by choosing people who are great at what they do and have the ability to self correct quickly. A good leader is not afraid to make mistakes, admit them, and then move to take the right actions. In other words, good leaders have healthy egos and can accept their own mistakes. A good dose of selfishness is also important for leaders, so that they can put themselves first and take care of what they have to do.
How would you describe your entrepreneurial spirit?
I consider myself an entrepreneur and move on the things that I am inspired by and will allow other people to also benefit from them. I am a self-starter and get things going that I have an enthusiasm for. I also like to have fun with what I do and inspire others to have fun and to do things that make them happy and bring them joy. A good example of someone with similar qualities is Richard Branson who is one of the ultimate fun makers in the field.
Rahilla Zafar is a Master of Environmental Studies candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently working on a book project highlighting female leaders and entrepreneurs in the Middle East.
You can purchase Agapi Stassinopoulos’s Unbinding the Heart on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Agapi-Stassinopoulos/e/B001H6L2WQ).