Northeastern student’s passion for business and sustainability reinforced by co-op in Greece

headshot of Helena D'Alessandro in Greece
Helena D’Alessandro, a second-year student at Northeastern studying international business with concentrations in finance and social innovation and entrepreneurship, has been living in Athens, Greece, since January, doing a co-op at the Institute for Sustainable Development at the European Public Law Organization. Courtesy Photo

Growing up in New York City, as well as the rich nature of Brazil, Helena D’Alessandro developed a strong interest in sustainability and environmental studies—and a love for traveling. 

So when she saw an option to do a co-op in Greece at the Institute for Sustainable Development at the European Public Law Organization (EPLO), D’Alessandro seized the opportunity.

“And I’m actually really happy that I did,” says D’Alessandro, a rising third-year student at Northeastern University. 

She was born in New York City but spent many summers and Christmas holidays in Brazil where her Italian-Brazilian parents are from. There, she developed a love for nature and interest in environment, sustainability and social causes. She also realized she wanted to travel more.

“I’ve always had this close relationship to Brazil ever since I was little, but that meant that we never really traveled to other places,” D’Alessandro says.

Since January, D’Alessandro has been living in Greece. She commutes from a village outside of Athens to the city for work. On other days, she goes island-hopping in the Aegean Sea.

EPLO is an international organization, established in 2007, that aggregates and shares knowledge in the area of public law and governance. The organization seeks to better generations of lawyers and democratic institutions worldwide and promotes European values through multiple institutes and educational programs. EPLO has an observer status at the United Nations and works with other EU missions. 

The Institute for Sustainable Development, which hired D’Alessandro for the co-op, is one of the entities within EPLO. It supports public and private organizations in developed and developing countries in tackling issues included in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. The 17 goals include ending poverty and hunger, fighting inequalities, tackling climate change and protecting the planet, among others.

D’Alessandro discovered EPLO through the NUworks platform. The co-op perfectly matched the focus of her studies—international business with concentrations in finance and social innovation and entrepreneurship—at the D’Amore McKim School of Business.

During the co-op, D’Alessandro has been learning about impact investing, which focuses on investing private capital into ventures that would generate measurable positive social and environmental impact besides financial return. She has been conducting research on European startups, venture capitalists, incubators and accelerators that might be interested in working with EPLO on sustainability projects. Moreover, she has performed some financial analysis and has also been creating content for social media and newsletters about recent actions of EPLO.

“It’s been really interesting for me so far,” she says.

Greece has been behind some other countries in getting involved with sustainability projects, D’Alessandro says, and it was useful for her to see how such initiatives can take off and develop. 

The institute is currently working on boosting the development of Southern European tech startups that focus on sustainability. Selected businesses will be connected to  accelerators and venture capitalists to increase their funding. One of the exciting projects she has learned about at the co-op is the first zero-waste island in the world, the island of Tilos. 

Another is a startup that is developing small robots to regenerate coral reefs by replanting small pieces of them. A third is a new business venture that is going to use vending machines for collecting recyclable plastic containers in exchange for points.

“You can redeem them while shopping or for recreational activities, so it’s a huge incentive for you to go and recycle, and be sustainable,” D’Alessandro says.

She says this co-op reinforced her desire to combine her passions for business and sustainability and make a career out of it. Impact investing would be one way to do that. 

She believes that corporations and big companies whose activities contribute to environmental damage and climate change should invest into sustainable business practices or sustainability startups.

“The Institute of Sustainable Development is really allowing me to gain more insight into this field and learn about the impacts that startups have [on these issues],” D’Alessandro says.

At the same time, she was surprised the most by the work culture in Greece.

“They really don’t expect you to be working 24/7. It’s a very calm environment,” D’Alessadro says, “and you have to go after all these opportunities and challenges for yourself, which is what I think makes it rewarding.”

She believes she was able to build trust with her hosts because she was proactively asking for assignments, showing that she wanted to be involved. She did some research on her own that helped her gain confidence in sharing her opinions and have a say in the institute’s work. 

This experience of living abroad also taught D’Alessadro to be more comfortable on her own, traveling and meeting new people.

“At first, I was a bit homesick,” she says. “It was my first experience traveling solo.”

This didn’t stop her from exploring Athens, the Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion, some Greek islands and Barcelona, Spain. She met a lot of people at hostels and was delighted to learn their stories. 

“At the end of my co-op, I’m going to try and see if I can go to other places because I am already here,” she says.

D’Alessandro says she has gained a lot of confidence in herself. 

“I feel I can get through anything,” she says. “And it makes me even more inspired to continue with my career and create a social impact.” 

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.