Roosevelt Review, Fall 2012 [ PDF ]
When E. Van Vlahakis immigrated to America from Greece in 1953, he never imagined his life would be chronicled in a Hollywood movie, or that a trailer for the movie called A Green Story would be screened at Roosevelt University’s Spring 2012 Commencement where he received an honorary degree.
Then again, the “E” in the Roosevelt alumnus’ first name stands for Eftichios. In Greek, that means lucky. And certainly, the founder and CEO of Earth Friendly Products, a global environmentally friendly cleaning products firm, had luck and timing on his side when he started his business just as environmental awareness was taking off in the 1960s.
“There was a lot of information coming out at that time about things that were bad for you,” recalls Vlahakis, a 1958 chemistry graduate who credits Roosevelt with “teaching me how to think, solve problems and to work with people.”
At the time, the U.S. Surgeon General was reporting for the first time that cigarettes could be dangerous. Vlahakis quit smoking. Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, which questioned the safety and side effects of the insecticide DDT, had just come out. He read it cover to cover and trusted its findings.
News that the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange to defoliate forests and crops in Vietnam might be dangerous was coming out. It was impossible for him not to be troubled and to take note. “I educated myself about the harm some of these chemicals can have, and then I looked for ways in my own business to develop plant-based products that don’t hurt the environment or people,” said Vlahakis, now 77.
Early in life, Vlahakis was anything but lucky. As a child, he lived through attacks by the Germans during World War II, which destroyed his home, his family’s lifestyle and chances for early schooling. He also lost his father, who returned to his family only three days before his death, which was a result of being overworked in German camps.
Finishing high school in Athens after the war, Vlahakis took a boat to America on the advice of an older brother in Chicago. Peter Vlahakis wanted his younger brother to go to college and recommended Roosevelt University. Van arrived with $22 in his pocket, anticipating Peter would take him under his wing. But after just two days in Chicago, Van was on the street, Pete being unable to support or shepherd him during that time.
The 18-year-old took jobs as a busboy and waiter. He also spent time in homeless shelters before finding a room and roommate, also a Greek immigrant, to help pay the $10 weekly rent.
“A lot of us worked very hard to become something,” said Thomas Hassapis, a 1959 chemistry graduate of Roosevelt and a friend who lived for a time with Vlahakis and other Greek immigrants in a North State Street apartment building that they called ‘The Greek Embassy.’
“It was serious business and we all had the same goal in mind – and that was to succeed,” said Hassapis, who went on to develop a line of products for Neutrogena Corp. and later worked for many years for Dial and Tone soaps.
CLEAN AND GREEN
Made largely from plants, Earth Friendly's cleaning products are free of ingredients known to harm people, animals and the environment.
When Vlahakis entered the University in the fall of 1953, some of the seats in Roosevelt’s Auditorium Building classrooms were filled by international students who came from more than 32 countries. Many of those students, including Vlahakis, couldn’t speak much English. “I didn’t realize how difficult it would be for me,” recalled Vlahakis, who relied on an English-to-Greek dictionary to comprehend his classes. At one point during an exam, he angered a professor who thought he was cheating since he received high scores but was not able to speak much English. Vlahakis was able to clarify for the professor that many Greek root words were used in chemistry, which is why he was able to succeed.
Going to school days and working evenings, Vlahakis frequented the University’s second-floor dining lounge where Greek students had their own table.
“We were just a bunch of Greeks getting together at lunch and on our breaks,” said Tom Topalis, a 1958 chemistry graduate and friend. “We would laugh, joke, have some fun, and talk about our classes, but we all had the same thing in our mind – and that was to make something of ourselves,” added Topalis, who became a chemist for Johnson & Johnson, and later a food scientist for the Quaker Oats Co.
Vlahakis’ academic interests gravitated toward chemistry, a discipline he found easy to follow. “It was simple, very easy for me, and I became a chemistry nut,” he said.
Like some of his Greek colleagues from Roosevelt, Vlahakis started working for others in the chemistry field after graduation. That changed in December 1966 when the company he was working for let him go with a generous severance package.
“I always knew that Van would have a business,” said George Alexopoulos, a fellow 1958 Roosevelt graduate in physics who went on to teach as an assistant professor at Roosevelt from 1964-67, and later became a 15-year professor at Wright Community College in Chicago. Now retired, Alexopoulos today sits on the Oakton Community College Board of Trustees.
“He was not shy about it: He told me a number of times that he wanted to work for himself,” said Alexopoulos.
With his severance pay as seed money, Vlahakis started his own company in 1967. Beginning with very little in his basement, he began developing formulas for cosmetics, and later chose cleaning products, having a hunch that cleaners would be more lucrative. “By the end of six months I was doing okay in business, and for 45 years it has just gone on and on,” he said.
His first money-maker was Nature’s Miracle, a line of pet products, including a pet stain and odor remover, which was safe for animals. The Earth Friendly line of soaps, detergents, pet products and other cleaning items followed.
Today, Vlahakis has 19 patents that adhere to Earth Friendly’s Freedom Code, which bans approximately 40 substances, largely synthetics that may have the potential to do damage to people, animals and/or the environment.
Items on this list that are strictly forbidden include ammonia, animal ingredients and testing, artificial fragrances and colors, benzene, boron, chlorine, dioxane, formaldehyde, isopropanol or rubbing alcohol, kerosene, lye, mineral spirits, petroleum distillates/ petroleum-based ingredients, phosphates, sodium hydroxide or caustic soda, sulfates and trace or heavy metals.
“The company that my father started in 1967 as a one-man show in his basement has now grown to five manufacturing centers, world-wide distribution and 300 employees,” said Kelly Vlahakis- Hanks, Vlahakis’ daughter and vice president of Earth Friendly Products.
The multi-million-dollar cleaning products empire sells its line coast-tocoast in stores like Costco, Sam’s Club, WalMart and Whole Foods. Solar-powered manufacturing plants now operate in Illinois, California, Florida, New Jersey and Washington state, and plans are in the works to open a sixth Earth Friendly facility in Greece to service markets in Europe and the Middle East.
“It’s an amazing story,” said Nika Agiashvili, who is co-founder of Paramyth Films and the director of A Green Story. The movie stars Shannon Elizabeth, Ed O’Ross, Billy Zane and Anabella Sciorra and is the rags-to-riches story of Vlahakis’ life and amazing accomplishments. It features footage from an organic chemistry laboratory in Roosevelt’s Auditorium Building where Vlahakis once studied with chemistry professor emeritus Harry Cohen.
“It takes more than chemistry to get ahead the way that Van has done,” said Cohen, who is now 97 years of age, residing in an assisted living facility in Rochester, N.Y. “He’s an example of what I believe to be true, and that is this: When you get people who are first generation immigrants in this country, they are able to do things. Van has put his mind to business and that’s why he’s a success,” said Cohen.
Vlahakis has four boats, three cars, all of them hybrids, and homes in Huntington Beach, Calif., Key Largo, Fla., and the Turks and Caicos Islands, all of which use solar panels to produce electricity.
He recently contributed $500,000 to Roosevelt University for the development and use of the Eftichios Van Vlahakis organic chemistry lab in the new Wabash Building, where he hopes students will work to find new formulas and products based entirely on renewable resources. “You are told that you’re graduating at a time when there are no jobs out there, but I’m here to tell you it isn’t true,” Vlahakis said in his May 4 Commencement address.
“Energy will be the next huge revolution,” he predicted. “There will be no oil left, but there will be plenty of opportunities if you look for answers in farms, forests or the sun…and you will have the opportunity to make a lot of money.”
One of his aims is to open a new manufacturing facility next summer in his native Greece where Earth Friendly detergents will be made using olive oil – an innovation that he hopes will help revitalize the financially troubled country with green jobs and a green economy. Vlahakis also is planning a visit to France, where lavender is plentiful, and its plant, flowers and oils are used in his Ecos laundry detergent and a new product, Disney Baby Ecos.
“I don’t need any more money and it’s not my first goal to make the most money,” he said, suggesting that it is the world’s agrichemical corporations, frequently using the cheapest and potentially most harmful ingredients that are the real money-grubbers.
“I’m not the one who initiated the green movement,” said Vlahakis. “I’m simply someone who committed to participate in it, and I believe if all of us put a little effort into it, we can change things for the better for our health, our future and the environment.”
Release of A Green Story being planned for this spring
Indican Pictures is planning a spring release in the United States, in conjunction with Earth Day, of the new movie, A Green Story. Directed by Nika Agiashvili and starring Shannon Elizabeth, Ed O’Ross, Billy Zane and Annabella Sciorra, the film chronicles the life of Roosevelt alumnus E. Van Vlahakis, a Greek immigrant who arrived in America with only $22 in his pocket and eventually founded the multi-million-dollar green company, Earth Friendly Products. A science laboratory in the University’s Auditorium Building where Vlahakis first fell in love with chemistry is featured in the new film.
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