How Do We Rise to the Occasion?

Featuring Eve Geroulis, Director, MSM Program, Senior Lecturer
Description Observing parallels between the Plague of Athens and our current moment, Eve Geroulis expounds upon learning from history and finding clarity in our values during times of upheaval.
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Season Season 6: Hopes for the Future
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Rick Sindt   

This week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Professor Eve Geroulis, resident soothsayer at the Quinlan School of Business. We talked about how the role of work in our lives will be reevaluated moving forward, how she believes the pandemic has exposed fissures and fractions that hopefully we can look at more honestly and try to heal, and how she believes the rising generation in business is going to redefine the laws of business and how we operate. Perhaps most interestingly, we talk about how history doesn't repeat itself but quite often rhymes and compare the plague of Athens to the current COVID-19 pandemic and the effects it's having on the United States of America.  

But first a brief fact check. In our conversation, we speak about Germany's desire to light up their stadium in Munich in the rainbow flag of the LGBTQ+ community to protest recent discriminatory laws passed by the government of Viktor Orban in Hungary. An assertion is made the Germany did light up the stadium in this fashion. However, this action was denied by the Union of European Football Association or UEFA and the stadium was lit normally during the Germany versus Hungary game of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament. 

Rick Sindt   

Eve I'm so glad you can join us today, when we first envisioned this series I didn't think I could do it without our resident prognosticator and soothsayer at the Quinlan School of Business. 

Eve Geroulis   

You're too kind. It's nice to see you, it's nice to hear your voice, Iit's nice to be with you today. I mean it. 

Rick Sindt   

Thank you so much, that means a lot. So, what have you been paying attention to over the past 15 or so months? 

Eve Geroulis   

You know, there's this sort of left brain, right brain response to that for me. The mother in me has been constantly worried about, and festering over, where any one of my four children are at any given moment, and how they're faring. [I worry about] their mental health, their physical health, their medical health. Now, as a parent, as a mother, I would argue that took over quite a lot of my daily ritualistic concern and focus.  

And, once I knew everybody was okay, if I was going to direct my professional interests, or focus, or concentration, it was to this notion that the value proposition that is the cornerstone of brand equities–we're talking business in this moment–that brands finally rose to meet the challenge of the moment. They were going to speak their values in a way that we cajoled them to, encourage them, hoped, aspired they would, [and] they did. They rose and whether it was the economic challenges, whether it was the frenetic political threat to our democracy, you saw brands standing up and speaking truth to power, and showing a bit of bravery and courage at a moment when I think we really needed that because brands have been entirely too wishy washy. One of the central themes I hope I've integrated into most of my classes over the years at Loyola is this notion that a brand is defined not by what it says, “yes” to. But–all too often–what a brand says, “no” to is even more definitive. It’s human nature. I cajoled my children when they were young by saying, “Don't get wrapped up in the moment” and what you say, “no” to as a kid can be as defining as or more defining. I feel it's the same with branding and a lot of brands stood up to meet the challenge.  

We're seeing it even in this moment that you and I are speaking, because during the German vs. Hungary game yesterday–for those of you that don't know exactly what I'm talking about, they lit up the stadium in Germany with pride colors [for Pride Month] and it caused apoplectic reaction among certain corners of Euro Cup soccer. 

Rick Sindt   

Well, and they did it in response to anti-LGBT laws that were passed in Hungary. 

Eve Geroulis   

And the Hungarians went completely crazy. And that's putting it delicately, okay. 

Rick Sindt   

Were they able to do that? Because I thought Euro Soccer told them they couldn't do that to the stadium. 

Eve Geroulis   

Well, they did. And here's the problem. Here's a company, here's a country, here's a stadium, here's a people that want to identify with certain values and they're being threatened or shut down or discouraged precisely at a moment when they have this global platform.  

I think that increasingly, as we rise out of our rabbit holes, at a point where I think we're all beginning to realize–in late June of 2021–that this is a recovery of two worlds. In the same way that our COVID recovery here in the states is best expressed as we are two countries arising out of COVID right now.  

We’re living at a moment where Uber Eats, is actually giving people $50 cards, to drive through certain restaurants to get vaccinated, or make an appointment to have someone come to my home and vaccinate me and then they'll give me a $50 Uber Eats card. [Meanwhile,] the rest of the world is desperate, desperate for vaccines, and we're begging Americans to get vaccinated with door prizes, or lotteries in some states, cash incentives.  

That's really what's been haunting me, more than a lot of other things, is paying attention to this duality. Of brands rising to speak truth to power, speak their values, when we've been asking them to do that, or encouraging and hoping they would. But at the same time, when you talk about again, door prizes, and lotteries to cajole and convince people to get vaccinated. It's a victory for neoliberalism. This is the ultimate victory of capitalism. It has seeped into the temple of everything, culturally. Those are the things that worry me, those are the things that keep me up at night.  

Coming back to where I started as a parent, what I'm feeling is my own mortality as of late and I wonder: “what kind of world am I leaving for my four kids?” And every generation leaves a tarnished intergenerational legacy for the generations after it, but there are some pretty crazy existential threats that we're facing right now.  

There's a massive heatwave in Europe, there's a massive heatwave in California and the Southwest, and we've got to stop calling this a drought. A drought suggests that next year the rain and everything will be fine. It's not a drought, it's just the new reality, right? In our declining climate eco-reality. This is the stuff that I think we all need to be worried about whether we are business people, or artists, citizens of the world. We [should] live–as Socrates instructed us two and a half thousand years ago–in a borderless world [because] increasingly what happens in one corner affects the other. We're seeing that clearly with COVID and I think it's going to take a long time before we really do get this under control. There's a lot of richness and opportunity there if people, and brands, are brave enough to harness it. 

Rick Sindt   

So, if you were to read the tea leaves, what are you anticipating or seeing in the next year, five years, or 10 years? 

Eve Geroulis   

I think, again, it's generational. I think older citizens are yearning for a pre-COVID reality. If you were comfortable pre-COVID and if you were able to… you know, we were lucky enough, you and I, right [to] have industry careers that allowed us to continue our work over computers and in pajama pants. We've grown accustomed to this new reality and maybe we want to return to the office. I went to the office yesterday for the first time. I walked back into Schreiber for the first time since March of 2020, and it was really eerie, I won't lie. I went to pick up some books and papers that I needed, because I'm getting ready to teach a class overseas, and it was eerie. At the same time, it was kind of exciting; the idea that I'll be back in a classroom and physically with my students once again. I know they're equally as excited about in person learning and I hope it gives rise to learning with purpose and passion and intent. There are a lot of things we won't take for granted coming out of this. Things that we did take for granted, like just showing up in a classroom with colleagues and professors.  

I think young people will be excited about that. Young people are going to be braver coming out of this. I saw signs of that pre-COVID, but I think they're going to knock it out of the park because if they lost a job or were furloughed, because of COVID and they didn't like that job–or they felt it was dead end–they got real creative during COVID to survive. And I think that creativity is going to snowball into the recognition that they have to take control. I see a spirit and a courage in younger generations that I didn't necessarily see in my own. We had this, “we have to pay our dues” sensibility in the go-go 80s. We had these horrible jobs. I remember my first job in the ad industry, where I'd be putting in six days a week, 12 hours a day, for years on end, and convinced myself that, “well, that's just the way it is,” “that's what you got to do to get promoted and prove yourself.” I don't see that with these young people.  

As officially “An Old Lady,” it's kind of cool to see them taking risks like that. These are digital natives. These are young people that are very comfortable in this, “Earth 2.0” kind of reality relative to my “Earth 1.0.” So that's one of the big, exciting elements that I'm looking forward to: what are they going to create? How are they going to redefine the laws of business? What are they going to celebrate, and elevate and take to the next level? And what are they going to discard and replace with better alternatives?  

That's inspiring for me, that fuels my imagination. It excites me, it really does excite me. It gives rise to my ambitions as an educator to inspire them to push the boundaries of conventional thinking, to recognize that–to paraphrase former Mayor Rahm Emanuel when he was in the Obama White House–a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. And we're dealing with dual crises here: a horrific, horrific medical crisis coupled with a stunting economic crisis. And both of them are working in tandem. Without recovering one, you can't execute the other. I think young people are super, super smart to that, super wise to that. So, I'm going to sit back with a sort of old person glee and watch what they create.  

I think we never really recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. The social injustices and the cultural and economic inequalities that were cemented because of 2008 we're just exposed when COVID let loose. What this pandemic exposed were the fissures and fractures already in our society, there was no more papering over the cracks. We have an opportunity as we rise out of this, hopefully, to look at each other, and society more honestly, to recognize that as much as I'd love to contemplate and consider the ancient whispers from antiquity and the lessons of the past as we embrace modern tools to answer the problems and the challenges we now face; that's the luxury of an academic. The vast majority of us are just trying to get food on the table, make sure our kids are okay, that our job is secure. If we find time a couple of days a week to sit quietly with the people we love most in this world, and spend meaningful time with them, then it's a good day, or it's a good week, or it's a good month, and we lose sight of that. 

Rick Sindt   

There's a privilege of distance.  

Eve Geroulis  

I make a living reading. I feel very blessed every day that this is what I do professionally. I've never taken my work for granted. But there's a lot of twilight in many of the 20th century institutions and realities that we assumed would never go away. I think we're facing a very threatening twilight for democracy, twilight for capitalism in its current manifestation, a twilight for racial or gender imbalances and inequalities. [We are] at the dawn of an explosive genetic revolution. If the 20th century was defined by computer code, the 21st will be designed by genetic code, as evidenced by this extraordinary technology behind these remarkable vaccines that science produced in record time. 

Rick Sindt   

I'm wondering if you can maybe expand more on these twilights you mentioned, specifically, because you've also said today–and I agree with both sentiments–that we've also reached the… I can't remember how you said it… the completion of neoliberalism, or capitalism has seeped into everything. So, it's interesting to hear–and I believe both things can be true–but to hear you say “this is so pervasive now, it is everywhere” and then also hear, “I see it twilighting.” 

Eve Geroulis   

When Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History [and the Last Man] it was in response to his professor and mentor’s work in the form of Samuel Huntington. So, Samuel Huntington in response to his student and protégé writing The End of History crafts one of Foreign Affairs Magazine's most read articles, which is called “The Clash of Civilizations”–imagine being so pissed at your former student, that you write an article to disclaim and discredit his argument that this is the end of history, capitalism won, the West won, the Soviet empire collapsed, the wall fell. This was the death and the final nail in the coffin of communism and even socialism. It was a victory for capitalists and democrats [meaning democracies] everywhere. Then, all of a sudden, 9-11 happens and we realize that's not the case.  

One of America's greatest gifts but at the same time a curse, in my opinion, is this infallibility. Failure to even consider the possibility of failure. We're just eternal optimists in our core, [we have this belief] that tomorrow will be better. But I think we've reached the point where we can no longer assume that capitalism, or democracy, in its current expression is as strong and vital as we think. And if the pandemic exposed anything it was that democracy's veneer and civilization's veneer is like über thin. Throw in a January 6, throw in a political climate where 75% of registered Republicans, to this day, still believe that Joe Biden didn't win fairly. These are the elements that we tend to ignore and I think we should have always known.  

History has this way of reaching into our private lives and rearranging them. As somebody who is teaching the plague of Athens of 429 BC–fifth century Athens–and the lessons that can be gleaned, supplanted, and use to understand our own moment of global pandemic. Athens never recovered. Athens was in the second year of the Peloponnesian Wars against the aristocracy of Sparta. The militarism of Sparta was very threatened by the economic wealth and the rising sort of stature of Athens under Pericles, super threatened by that. And that's what brought about this war between these two great city-states. And ultimately, after 20 years, both come crashing down.  

And you see parallels to our own moments, in our own era. The two great superpowers: China and the United States duking it out, Europe in the middle. China aligning itself with her Asian neighbors, creating the bridge and road initiative to unite the whole world while expanding Chinese interests. Then you've got the Russians, you've got the Latins, you've got the rising African continent. At a moment when we've all got to figure out how to interrelate and help all nations rise out of this, but we're still finding huge divisiveness. I think we are stronger in addressing the mistakes or the things we misunderstand [together], but we still seem to want to remain divided. At a moment where we really need to seriously rethink what democracy looks like in the digital age, and what happens in a world of fake news and lies and lies and lies, because that's what they are, they're lies. We're living in a world just awash in lies and we also fail to calibrate what's important.  

When my cell phone beams me a text message from my child, a breaking news story from the BBC, a sale on an item that I wanted, all at once? How do I prioritize what garners my attention? So, it's no wonder when people are trying to pay the bills, keep food on the table, keep their job, these higher order–very important, but you know, certainly higher order issues, 

Rick Sindt   

You can't tend to them, you don't have the capacity. 

Eve Geroulis   

You only have so much bandwidth. So, who's making the rules? Who's imagining the questions that we are going to ask and are not going to ask? [We have] an opportunity to rise out of this and create the world we want but do we have the collective will?  

In a moment when politics is at a standstill, when economic growth is really truly resembling what it was pre-COVID. Granted, it's terrific people want to be back out in stores, and retail wants to rise and people want to get on airplanes and eat in restaurants and go to cinema and live theater and concerts–it was really cool to see The Foo Fighters [sold out] at Madison Square Garden. I'm a big Euro Cup fan so it's great to see–okay, 25% capacity–but real fans across the European and in the Copa competitions in South America right now. It's good to see that, it reminds us that we can rise and we've made a lot of sacrifices in the last year, year and a half. Let's not hope it was for nothing.  

 Because, there's a great book written by Timothy Snyder, a couple years back called On Tyranny; 20 Lessons from the 20th Century and one of the quotes that stand out in particular for me was talking about how quickly democracy, or open liberal societies, can be replaced by illiberal authoritarianism. He said, “you don't know you're making love for the last time, until you make love for the last time” and he applied it to voting. You don't know when your vote might be the last time you have that luxury and that freedom.  

 That's what COVID did for me. It threw me for a loop. It gave me the time I needed to really think about what it is that's important to me. And, at the end of the day, we all say the same thing, that as my own life flashes before my eyes, at the end, I'm not going to be worried about how much money I have in my bank account. or how much respect I have professionally. It's going to be: did I leave moral, ethical, courageous children behind? Did I spend enough time with them? Did I make them my priority? Did I live a life that didn't compromise my values? And that's what I see in young people more than I think they garner credit for. It's this willingness to stand up and fight for certain social values that are important to them but–at the same time–ignoring some of the institutional hierarchies that they feel are inhibitors. They hate politics but without it the legislation doesn't get passed to reinvigorate policing in America, or provide racial justice, or reparations, or gender rights, or climate rights, climate justice. All of that comes from politics. So, there's this incongruity, that can be frustrating.  

 We tend to forget that skepticism is normal, it's been normal for millennia. Socrates walked around the ancient Greek of Bora, filthy and old, stopping people and asking them, “why?” and being outraged that more people weren't. We've been doing this for a long time. Unity is the outlier. The anomaly. Skepticism and disorder is the norm and I think it's going to be messy for four or five, six, ten years. I think there's going to be a lot of movement, a lot of kinetic energy, a lot of amoebas trying to figure out how to form matter out of mass. And for the younger people listening, I think that's vital and invigorating and super exciting. Most nights, I'm just happy if I'm not asleep at eight o'clock! So, for young people, I think it's a cool time to be.  

 I do think there's going to be a roaring 20s and a “YOLO” world for the next several years. People are going to want to let loose, maybe throw down their technology and get visceral and physical and [perhaps] corporeal politics may rise again. And we may actually resurrect the physicality of interaction. And that's equally exciting. And I think companies are going to have to tap into that zeitgeist and appeal to it, respond to it, recognize that it's real. Because people under the age of 40, are not really hip to get back into their cars and battled traffic on the Kennedy five days a week if they can do it two days a week remotely, or three, in their pajamas, while their toddler is playing at their feet.  

It's work life balance issues, it's recognizing and prioritizing, as we say consumer behavior all the time, 30 days of learned behavior and it becomes locked and loaded. So, it'll be interesting after this summer–when businesses reopen, when schools reopen–to see how people react. There's probably going to be another wave in '22. Everyone is projecting and it's not unlike what happened in 430 and 429 and 427, it went on for four and a half years, the plague of Athens. Now, they're suggesting–based on some DNA testing from some mass graves they found outside the walls of Athens–that it could have been an early version of typhoid or ebola that brought ancient, classical Greece to her knees.  

Who knows, but what will science say about this moment? 100 years from now, 1000 years from now, how will we be judged? What intellectual will be writing a white paper about Coronavirus 2020 and what will they say about us? 

Rick Sindt   

One of the reasons I wanted to have these conversations is it seems like we're at a place where we very much have the power to decide what it is that they're going to write about us. And I am curious about what we want that to be. 

 Eve Geroulis   

I don't know. And I think that's what that's what COVID did for m, it allowed me the freedom and the opportunity to say, “I don't know. I just don't know.” It's human nature to feel compelled to have an answer [and] there are a lot of things I cannot answer. I don't know. I don't know what the future holds in so many realms and that's what makes life interesting and frightening at the same time. 

 Rick Sindt   

Do you feel like the thing you're coming out of this with is more comfort with uncertainty, 

 Eve Geroulis   

Yes, and the recognition that for 58 years the essential sort of vortex of my existence has been my family and losing a parent during COVID… all of my children–we're empty nesters, my husband and I–they're gone. I've been strong for so long, for so many people, that I love more than myself that I realized maybe I'm not as strong as I thought I was. That's what COVID did for me. It pulled back the kimono on my own intellectual and emotional weaknesses. And that's been freeing in a way. 

 I think it exposed my vulnerabilities in a world where we're not allowed to show them. 

 And that's been that's been beneficial for me. And I hope it's a lesson that I can impart in a practical way to my kids, and–ultimately–have discussions like this with my students. Because this was a horrible way for young people to learn. The last year and a half, these last three semesters of university, were tortured. For the rising college freshmen who had to begin university in his or her childhood bedroom. The graduating university senior that finished classes in an apartment, over a computer [and] wasn't able to walk across the podium, to have the rite of passage that comes with it. These [circumstances] will forever mark who these young people are. Character is built when no one's watching and to suggest that we just push all of this away, and that 2020 becomes something we don't want to talk about or referred to, I think would be a mistake.  

 I think we need to take the good and bad from last year and become more compassionate, more caring, more curious, and more courageous. 

*This transcript has been edited for clarity.