Life Gave ’Em Lemons. They Made Laundry

Ithica Laundry

A middle-aged homeless man lays a plastic bag bursting with clothes in front of a van in downtown Athens, Greece. “Come back in about two hours,” says a younger man to the older one. “They’ll be waiting for you, clean and dry.” Inside the van, along with the young volunteer? Two washing machines and dryers.

Ithaca Laundry, the country’s first free mobile laundry service, will wash about 25 bags of clothes today. Due in part to the Greek debt crisis as well as a steady influx of refugees, there has recently been an increase in people without homes in Athens. But where there is disaster, there is also opportunity. That’s what Thanos Spiliopoulos, founder and CEO of Ithaca Laundry, discovered.

Illustration of homeless men with overflowing baskets of laundry next to the Ithaca Laundry van.
Ithaca Laundry washes about 25 bags of clothes for the homeless population per day. Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

Homelessness is not unique to Greece, of course, and social enterprises around the world are tackling the problem in their own neighborhoods. Whether through art-related programs like Wrap Up Homelessness, which supports those transitioning out of homelessness, or projects such as SucSeed, a community garden that provides meaningful work to at-risk youth, these businesses are striving to make an impact. In Washington, D.C., three young brothers initially founded the candle company Frères Branchiaux to make money to buy video games, but they balanced it with an important cause—10 percent of the proceeds from their store supports local shelters.

In some ways, Thanos’s journey to make a difference began in December 2014. Then 22, he was completing his bachelor’s degree in management science and technology at the Athens University of Economics and Business. His options were dismal. He could have stayed in Greece and risked joining the over 50 percent of youth under 25 who were unemployed at the time, while competing to find a job for 500 euros a month (less than $600 USD, the starting salary for employees in his age group). Or, he could have fled the country, like many of his peers were doing. One day he read an article about Australia’s Orange Sky Laundry, the world’s first free mobile laundry service for people without homes. “It dawned on me that this was what Athens was missing,” Thanos says.

He shared this epiphany with friends Fanis Tsonas, a chemical engineer, and Andili Rachouti, a graphic designer. His friends liked the idea; in no time, they had formed a trio to run their nonprofit.

Procuring funds during a financial crisis wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Their big break came in 2015, when the trio approached Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, a former director of Athens’s 2004 Olympic Games and an ambassador for the Clinton Global Initiative. She provided them with 10,000 euros (less than $12,000USD) in funding, Thanos says. But it wasn’t enough to fully form a sustainable venture, so they entered—and won—two contests aimed at entrepreneurs, securing another 18,000 euros ($20,000USD). Then they struck a deal with multinational electronics company LG, allowing them to buy a van and transform it into a mobile laundry service. Georgia Stavropoulou, marketing manager of LG Electronics Hellas, says the company tries to “embrace and support” Ithaca and is “committed to contributing as much as possible to create opportunities for dignity and a better life.”

Illustration of three silhouetted figures against a round cut out of the Greek flag, above a white Ithaca Laundry van with washing machines and supplies.
Ithaca Laundry's founder enlisted friends—a chemical engineer and a graphic designer—to help run it. Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

They launched a pilot operation at just one spot in 2016, and nearly a year later they hired their first employees. In 2018, they were visiting five different spots per week and continuously expanding,” says Ithaca’s operations manager, Dimitra Kountourioti, who joined the team in 2017. Dimitra, who is in her 30s, is one of a few paid employees—others have included former recipients of the service—and they have helped around 350 people per month. Though she had been paid more in her role as a manager at a fashion label, Dimitra says what gives her job meaning is assisting others in restoring their dignity.

So far, in addition to LG, Ithaca has attracted sponsorships from brands including Cosmote (the largest mobile network in Greece) and global charitable organization Hellenic Initiative. Meanwhile, multinational consumer goods firm Procter & Gamble supplies the team with detergents, pharmaceutical company Sanitas provides gloves and bags, and automobile manufacturer Nissan has even given the team a car. Recently, Dimitra was approached by accounting giant Deloitte about enlisting their staff as volunteers. “There is a change in companies, mostly in companies that make profit. They want to give back but also to improve their public image,” says Dimitra. “This makes a great form of social advertising.”

Though the idea for Ithaca Laundry emerged out of a somber state of affairs, Thanos is beginning to see a brighter future for himself and the people for whom Ithaca was created. They’ve attracted patronage, employed socially vulnerable people, and set up a team that can continue to create social impact. Now that the company is running smoothly, Thanos says, the core trio can concentrate on setting future strategy and finding ways whereby those on the streets of Athens can find their own Ithaca, their own way home.

Words by Stav Dimitropoulos
Feature image by Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo