When I met Vasilios Zoupounidis, I was eager to learn how he achieved such highly-acclaimed success, even drawing the attention of the King of Sweden, who honoured him as the Business Pioneer of the Year in 2011. What I found was that the entrepreneur had an entirely different starting point, and because of that, ended up with something quite special, and rare.
“I would say that most problems in society stem from bad morals in people, and as a result of that, in companies,” says Zoupounidis. “I think the main problem is greed. Without greed, I think this would be a better world. I truly believe that morality can make a business transcend ordinary boundaries.”
Zoupounidis and his family immigrated to Sweden when he was 2 years old, leaving Greece behind but keeping its classical culture and values close to his heart. His father had been an orphan and instilled in his son the value of hard work and sacrificing for others, qualities that the future business leader would carry with him through his professional life.
“I have never made ‘having fun’ for myself a priority,” says Zoupounidis, who started his first business at 18 years old. “My focus has been more that my employees should have fun, not I. I actually believe more in suffering through it all.” He laughs, and jokes that he must sound quite dull, meanwhile revealing a much deeper life perspective. “I feel the happiest when I have overcome a problem through hard work and big effort.”
Growing up, Zoupounidis was fascinated by history’s deepest thinkers, including Socrates, whom he considers to be the greatest philosopher in the Western world. “Greece is the cradle of Western civilization — its myths and legends carry deep meaning and can teach us modern people a lot,” he says.
“The same goes for the ancient Chinese civilization — its ancient stories can teach us about morality and how to become a better person.” He remembers his brothers sharing Kung Fu magazines with him as a child, introducing him to Eastern culture, which seemed surprisingly familiar to his own heritage.
“What appealed to me most was not the fighting, but the philosophy,” he says. “Both Buddhism and Christianity teach compassion, so they have a common fundamental principle.” He points out that the swastika symbol seen on Buddha statues for 2,500 years can also be found at the Acropolis in Greece.
Hungry for more Eastern culture as a teenager, Zoupounidis started learning karate, which he studied for years before exploring internal qigong practices. But he’d soon find a practice that would change his life, both inside and out, personally and professionally.
In the spring of 1998, Zoupounidis found online what he had always been looking for — Falun Dafa, a Chinese internal self-cultivation practice. He was so touched by the teachings, he avidly read all the books in one weekend. Soon after practicing, his allergies and back pain disappeared, and the practice began to help him with his high-stress job as a salesperson.
“The exercises in the morning make me energized and, at the same time, relaxed and calm, allowing me to take on any difficulties,” he says. He recalls a colleague years ago who could even tell whether Zoupounidis had practiced in the morning before work.
“The office manager used to tell me to go and practice if I looked too anxious due to a big workload,” says Zoupounidis. “It is that obvious and effective!”
Falun Dafa’s principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance inspired Zoupounidis to be a better person, seeing more clearly than ever his shortcomings. “Things change when I let go of an attachment,” he says. “Problems don’t get solved because I change something on the surface, but because I let something go in my heart.”
Since he had been a successful salesperson for so long, an attachment to money was an obvious shortcoming that he worked hard to let go.
“Most people want a lot of money; they think it is the key to happiness. However, I found out that it’s not so at all,” he says. “The key to happiness is letting go of all attachments, money being one of them.” He emphasized that it’s not about physically giving away wealth, but letting go of the neediness and greediness for it.
In 1999, a year after Zoupounidis began practicing Falun Dafa, the communist regime in China launched a brutal persecution, surprising him and his wife, who had started practicing with him.
“My wife and I wondered how a government could ban something that’s so good for people and for society,” he says. But after Zoupounidis began studying the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he realized it’s a common pattern to target a different group of people every 10 to 15 years. “This is just the way the CCP works. It has been persecuting its own people since it came to power.”
Zoupounidis and his wife began volunteering for different human rights projects, sending mass emails into China explaining the truth about Falun Dafa, combatting massive propaganda broadcast by the CCP. But he discovered that emails could be blocked through China’s severe internet censorship, so the businessman came up with a new strategy.
“I thought that if I had my own company, I would have a lot of phone lines, so I would be able to fax news to China,” he says, explaining that a fax is a physical piece of paper that can’t be blocked like email. “So the idea was to work during the daytime, using the phone lines to sell products and services to Swedish companies, and then fax to China during nighttime and weekends to tell the Chinese people about the persecution of Falun Dafa.”
At the end of 2003, Zoupounidis launched his own sales company with the purpose of creating an infrastructure and earning revenue to be used for his human rights work.
“I find that the most important thing is to stay true to yourself. Knowing the purpose of why you do this is very important.”
— Vasilios Zoupounidis
“Everyone who runs a business knows that it’s not an easy thing, working from early in the morning to late at night, especially the first years, when the revenue is very small. Difficulties are always present,” he says. “The main challenge is actually to have the stamina to get through it all.”
Zoupounidis says the Falun Dafa exercises and soul-searching principles helped fortify his will and improved his leadership as the head of the company.<
“With some sales people, their attitude is just to close deals,” he says. “But if guided according to truthfulness, compassion and tolerance, asking them to think about the clients first, then they’re happy, work more efficiently, and close deals even faster.”
While self-cultivation helped him day-to-day, it also gave him overall clarity and direction, something that could be lost at times when faced with the challenges of creating a successful start-up.
“I think that if you ask any person running a business for advice in starting one, he or she would tell you similar things, like believing in yourself when no one else does, sticking through it, working hard, having a mentor, building a team and so on,” he says. “All those things are, of course, important, but I find that the most important thing is to stay true to yourself. Knowing the purpose of why you do this is very important.”
Six months later, Zoupounidis launched his human rights initiative, sending faxes into China, soon discovering that his human rights project would be as difficult and time-consuming as running his sales business during the day. Organizing the information to fax into China, managing several teams at night, and developing software to streamline the process tested the budding entrepreneur on many levels. But Zoupounidis never quit — each struggle, each challenge became an opportunity for personal growth.
During the summer of 2004, Zoupounidis’ sales company closed down for the entire month of July, but instead of taking a vacation, he and his team faxed into China around the clock. A few months later, the phone line operator called Zoupounidis to investigate if criminals had hijacked the company’s modems, a common practice at the time, where people made money off of illegal long distance calls. When Zoupounidis asked why, the phone operator told him 152,000 calls had been made in the month of July alone, which meant a staggering 152,000 faxes had been sent into China that exposed the persecution of Falun Dafa.
“Many people were involved. It was a team effort, with everyone cooperating,” he says. “That’s why it was so successful.”
One might think devoting so much spare time to a human rights project and away from his core sales business would hurt his company’s bottom line. The founder found the opposite, in fact.
Zoupounidis’ company grew to six cities in Sweden, with 50 employees, and an annual revenue of ten million. He was honoured with several awards as well.
“The idea to start the company actually originated from the wish to tell the truth to the Chinese people,” he says. “There is a saying, ‘What goes around comes around.’ In Swedish we say, ‘As you sow you get to harvest.’ In Chinese, I believe it is ‘Shan you shan bao, e you e bao,’ meaning ‘if you do good you get good, if you do bad you get bad.’ So I actually believe that the fundamental cause for my company’s success is this principle. I did something good for others, so I also received some good back.”