The Knight In The Boardroom

(As featured in Forbes- January 14, 2017)

Written by: Patrick Hanlon

 

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© Santi Visalli Photo by Santi Visalli

Fifth Avenue in New York City was bustling with holiday traffic on a recent Saturday morning, as an Uber driver pulled up to the curb in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A dark-haired man wearing a black tuxedo emerged from the car and dodged between holiday shoppers as he sprinted up the cathedral steps.

There was no way for passersby to realize that amidst the chutter of holidaze Manhattan, they were just a few meters away from a distinguished ancient ceremony. The unassuming figure just emerged from the Uber was in fact Demetri Argyropoulos, a Silicon Valley multi-millionaire dealmaker, a man about to become the youngest member of the most ancient and prestigious Order of Savoy.

He was about to become Sir Demetri Argyropoulos.

There are over 388,000,000 million entries for “knight” in Google Search, most of them having to do with Dungeons and Dragons or unicorns. It takes some doing to become a real knight.

In daily life Argyropoulos heads Avant Global, a flourishing strategic investment firm on the other side of the continent. Based in Santa Barbara, California, an hour South of Silicon Valley by jet, Argyropoulos has an accelerated schedule that demands he spend much of his time between San Francisco and New York City.

Argyropoulos has been the catalyst in successfully connecting, co-founding, or seeding many dozens of companies in industries from medical devices to Internet advertising. Argyropoulos was an early investor in Twitter. He has helped raise money for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, invested in a company co-founded by Lady Gaga, and created strategic relationships for the world’s top ten wealthiest families. In sum, Argyropoulos and his partners at Avant Global have generated over $10 billion in value for clients.

It has not been easy money. Sir Demetri Argyropoulos grew up in Santa Barbara California. His father worked in finance, his mother was a part-time interior designer and homemaker.

Santa Barbara is a special place. The town basks on sun-soaked hills between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The average temperature is 61 degrees, average rainfall only 18 inches. It is not weather, but the absence of it, that has made Santa Barbara a legendary basecamp for Hollywood actors, rock stars, retired executives and the entitled.

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‘Nicest guy’ and ‘connected’ are used to describe Demetri Argyropoulos © Santi Visalli Photo by Santi Visalli

Growing up in Santa Barbara, Demetri found himself immersed in the population of successful retired executives. “I had mentors from a very young age,” admits Argyropoulos. “I had a propensity to be very comfortable with older people. I think part of it was cultural. Greeks are known for having strong, healthy relationships with elders, so it was easy for me to spend time with older adults in business.”

Demetri also grew up very close to his grandfather, an electrical engineer who had worked with both Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. “He knew so many amazing people,” says Argyropoulos. “He knew Tesla.” (His grandfather died in 1996, at the age of 101.)

Exposure to influential people at a young age gave Argyropoulos confidence and courage, even if yet unmerited. It was a stepping stone.

While a student at local Westmont College, Demetri met some tech entrepreneurs. This was in 1995, still the early stages of the Internet, and relationships were fluid. Many Internet entrepreneurs were freewheelers who wanted to be in on the action, very few knew how.

“I was still a senior at college, living in the dorms, and I was introduced to some tech entrepreneurs,” recalls Argyropoulos. “One of whom was the first company to create public domain books and films on the Internet.”

It so happened that Argyropoulos was going to Europe as part of an international school program, because the entrepreneurs knew he had some relationships in Europe, they agreed to let Demetri help them forge new strategic partnerships.

“At that time, they had their highest European Internet penetration with Nokia and Ericsson,” says Demetri. “So I pieced together an international business development relationship with new content providers and carriers, to deliver content from this American company. That was my first client.”

The deal was a rite of passage. Importantly, the outcomes gave him confidence, courage and the nest capital to do new things.

Before the dot com bubble burst in 1999, he made another introduction for his client and raised $10 million. “I realized that if you put the right people together you can have great outcomes,” reflects Demetri. This led to new contacts, new partners, new horizons, and it made Argyropoulos a millionaire.

He was 23 years old.

“I have been around some of the smartest people, all of my adult life,” he declares. “I realized that if you build trust with the right people you can do amazing things.”

Together with his partners at Avant Global, Argyropoulos developed a string of relationships with dozens of fast-growing startups, billionaires and Fortune 1000 companies.

“What I started at that time was essentially a talent agency for business. From talent we were able to gain momentum, from momentum we were able to get equity from deals, exits from deals. And we were able to get to where we are today.”

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Demetri Argyropoulos standing in front of portrait of Henry Phipps, Jr., founder of Bessemer Trust © Santi Visalli Photo by Santi Visalli

Venture capitalism is filled with public stereotypes: from Daddy Warbucks and Batman’s Bruce Wayne to the modern antics of Jordan Belfort and Bobby Axelrod (Leonardo Di Caprio’s character in “The Wolf Of Wall Street” and the Damian Lewis character in “Billions”, respectively). There is the predator, the maverick, the opportunist, the lone hunter.

In truth, the universe of venture capitalism is a vast infinitude for most people, even for investors. The practice has its own shooting stars, planetary systems and supernovas, its own blazing suns with their unique gravitational pull. There are spheres of influence, Saturn-like rings and fresh new universes. The investor’s role is to find that single star flickering in the distance, then to churn the universe to make that star burn bright.

If stars were people, finding the right constellation could be crucial. In fact, finding the right people is where Demetri Argyropoulos excels.

“It’s like making a movie,” Argyropoulos serves up his own metaphor. “After you read a thousand scripts, you finally come upon a blockbuster. But then you need blockbuster talent, the right director, the right cameraman. You need the right chemistry on the set.”

Every startup faces a thousand small decisions that challenge their potential to become a blockbuster and relationships are every startup’s most valuable resource. Whether the company is run by a first-time founder, serial entrepreneur, or seasoned executive they all need trusted strategic relationships to fuel company growth.

David DiGiusto is executive director at Stanford Medicine, in Stanford, California. Part of his responsibility is research and developing new medical products.

“I met Demetri through a colleague when we were developing a new device,” recalls DiGiusto. “He was an incredible resource for connecting me with the right people to get my program moving forward. When he tells me he’s going to do something, it gets done. He’s a very credible, honorable person to have an association with.”

Two themes surface when talking about Demetri Argyropoulos: first, that he’s connected. And second, that he’s the nicest guy.

Demetri’s first question after answering the phone, is to ask how I’m doing. His manner is friendly, open, congenial. On the day we spoke, the knighthood was still fresh in his mind and he was preparing for a holiday party happening the next day. “It’s a hundred thirty people,” says Demetri. “People are flying in for it.”

Argyropoulos is trademarked for party skills. He likes bringing people together. It’s what he does. He brings in a special chef. He takes visitors on hikes at his ranch outside Santa Barbara. Guests jet home, raving about their experience.

Demetri arrives at meetings with a pad of yellow-lined legal paper and writes with a green marker. He is tall, dark-haired. He has the forehead, nose and chin commonly unearthed when digging up Classical antiquities. His face seems designed to frown but, instead, he smiles a lot. While talking about books he is reading, he stalks the room trying to find the latest book by Peter Diamandis [“Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think”]. His other favorites of the moment are “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor. “Negotiating The Impossible” by Deepak Malhotra. Nothing by John Grisham or James Patterson is on the table.

“If I’m not learning and growing everyday, then I’m not excited,” says Demetri. “That, for me, is the theme of my life and the theme of my company. To be constant learners.”

Many venture deals are accompanied by what might be described as “noise”. The chatter of pitch decks, market statistics, pattern thinking, analysis, square box diagnostics (spread sheets) and the sheer entrepreneurial adrenaline can be overwhelming. Which is why most venture capital firms make only a few deals a year. For Demetri Argyropoulos, it all boils down to the people. And the people who know the people.

“My Rubik’s cube has been turned in so many different directions,” says Argyropoulos. “I can see things that people can’t see. How the platforms are going to work, where the missing voids are, where pieces need to be filled. I’ve created hundreds of millions of dollars and created great value just by putting the right people together. It’s building, building, building trust.

“It’s really about the people,” Argyropoulos repeats. “Ultimately, the founder is the original salesperson. There has to be efficacy but there also has to be a vision, which has to be communicated. Someone who is extremely driven and a great communicator, who is extremely grateful.”

Constant traveling between coasts gives Demetri Argyropoulos perspective. “When I’m in New York or San Francisco you never have time for yourself. It’s always going going going,” he laughs. “When I get back to Santa Barbara, I’m working on all the stuff I picked up when I traveled. That’s one of my advantages. If I was in New York, I think I wouldn’t be as successful.”

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Demetri Argyropoulos at his home in Santa Barbara © Santi Visalli Photo by Santi Visalli

His geographic position also places Argyropoulos outside the Silicon Valley echo chambers.

“California is the epicenter of technology,” says Demetri Argyropoulos. “It has the most incredible minds in the world, all coming together in the same place and creating technology for the greatest change we’ve seen ever.

“Why would we want to go anywhere else when we’re right here?”

But because Avant Global is not actually inside Silicon Valley, nor headquartered in New York City, the capitol of capital, the firm has physical and philosophical distance that creates critical advantage. “We can maintain perspective,” says Demetri. “It’s good to have that balance.”

Argyropoulos insists that he works as well with old economy as with the new economy.

“I see ecosystems,” says Argyropoulos. “That’s my thing. It’s forecasting what ecosystems are going to be dominant—understanding that.” To that end, Demetri Argyropoulos has identified several sectors positioned for explosive growth in the years to come.

An example.

One of the problems defining the world right now is that food has become political. The more nutritious organic foodstuffs are more expensive to produce—and therefore more expensive to buy. This puts vitamin-rich organics out of the reach of families in lower economic circumstances—instead, they must rely upon cheaper mass processed foods.

“One of the biggest expenses in growing organic food is labor,” explains Argyropoulos. So, one of the companies in the Avant Global portfolio is an agricultural tech company that grows organic food with the help of robotics.

The farming operation has systems for temperature and water-control and even harvests and packages via robotics.

“If you look at the health hazards to food,” Argyropoulos pauses a moment to let the hypochondriac imagination roar. “If we can give people clean, healthy, affordable organic food,” he calculates. “Look at the benefits.”

Other sectors on the rise include financial technologies like blockchain and digital currencies.

New healthcare technologies including 3D printing, cell therapies, and telemedicine assisted by artificial intelligence will add new treatments and services.

Cybersecurity will become more important than ever, says Argyropoulos, engaged not only in data protection but also synthetic environments that can simulate situations and predict outcomes.

And the diversified platforms of new media.

Understanding a product’s market fit, quality, design, and engineering necessities—while building a platform and financing growth—depends on a large number of relationships serving a wide range of purposes.

As a result, Argyropoulos spends much of his time both learning and building his network. Just as network theory suggests that it’s your friend’s friend’s friend who will help you get your next job, it might be your friend’s friend’s friend who will help you locate, evaluate or finalize your next high impact project.

“It’s about how humans interact,” says Demetri. “Being devoid of ego. Being passionate about what you do, distinguishing yourself as intellectual property. That’s how I help build brands.”

John Mavredakis is the longest-tenured employee at Houlihan Lokey, the number one mergers and acquisitions advisor in the U.S., according to Thomson Reuters. “When I started there were 15 people, now there are 1400,” laughs Mavredakis. Who is now senior managing director and president of Houlihan Lokey Capital, Inc., the company’s investment banking subsidiary.

Mavredakis has had a relationship with Argyropoulos for nearly two decades. “When I first met Demetri, I was a little curious to see how successful he would really be,” admits Mavredakis, laughing. “I’ve had nothing but good experiences. He’s been very generous in introducing me to people, which has resulted in business. More often than not, if he doesn’t know them, he knows someone who does. When I need to connect, the people he connects me to are always very responsive. It’s been great!”

“Part of success is just sticking around long enough that people know you’re not going away,” smiles Argyropoulos. “And you can get good at what you do because you’ve stayed the course.”

Demetri Argyropoulos knows how to succeed. He also knows how to contribute.

Argyropoulos has raised tens of millions of dollars working with multi-national foundations, charities and non-government organizations including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Clinton Global Initiative, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, Muscular Dystrophy Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, and numerous others. In 2010, Demetri was the youngest person ever to win the GUSI Peace Prize.

Recently, he raised money for Andre Aggasi’s magnet schools in Las Vegas. “I like helping people,” says Demetri, “because I like the gratification of changing somebody’s life for the better.”

For this work and other socially conscious efforts to support the underprivileged, Demetri Argyropoulos was awarded a knighthood in the Order of Savoy.

Argyropoulos, who is now 39, has learned many lessons.

“I had mentors along the way giving me great advice on how to develop my business, negotiate deals, be a better leader,” Argyropoulos recalls. “And they also taught me about how to fail. When you learn from people that have so much experience you also learn what failure is like because a lot of successful entrepreneurs have failed themselves to success.”

Another thing learned. “You need to believe in what you do. And you need people who believe in what you do, who give you validation along the way.

The future? These days, Avant Global has three distinct business units: a strategic advisory, venture capital and investments, and a holding company.

“My biggest problem as a company is that I have created such a big network that it hasn’t even touched the surface of its potential,” he declares. “But I don’t have time to process all the requests of things people want me to do.”

“It’s about finding people and it’s also about finding mission critical solutions. I like people, it’s the root of who I am. It’s never boring.”

Demetri Argyropoulos, philanthropist, successful entrepreneur, youngest Knight in the Order of Savoy, grows quiet. “It about what impact we have,” he says quietly. “While we’re here just for a little while.”

Find the link to the full story below: http://www.forbes.com/sites/patrickhanlon/2017/01/14/the-knight-in-the-boardroom/#61e56f576abc