Go ethnic with the first online Livethnic city guides

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The big city can be a cold place unless you know people - but also a good place for ethnic food and shopping and culture if you know how to navigate the streets of the Greektown, or Little Italy, or Little San Juan in practically every American city.
That’s where Livethnic comes in.

by Dimitri C. Michalakis

The first ethnic city guide on the Web (www.livethnic.com), Livethnic will not only find the restaurant or shop or club you might want, but everything else as well (including professionals, schools, houses of worship, media, festivals, community groups) for 12 ethnic groups in the cities of New York, Miami and Los Angeles (including Greek, and with more ethnicities and cities to come).

It will also give you a chance to create a profile, share media and join groups.

“Culture and background are such an integral part of our lives and important factors in shaping our identities,” says Justin Bozonelis, the 36-year-old CEO and founder of the site. “Livethnic provides a way to better identify with our own backgrounds and understand the culture of others.”

He got the idea about six years ago when he moved back to Manhattan from Miami Beach and discovered that even with a huge population of young Greeks, nobody in the city was in touch or getting together.

“As such, I started an informal e-mail list among a handful of friends with the promise of sending out a message when something interesting popped-up in our community worth attending,” he says.
That took off and last March he decided to broaden the service to an online “ethnic guide” with listings for everything from eating to worship and make it available for a wide range of ethnic groups from Greek to Nigerian and also make it interactive, so shoppers of the service can offer their own suggestions and help it grow and also create their own social network.

“Members who are looking to become more involved can form or join groups within the Community section,” he explains. “After joining a group, members can make announcements, post events, receive related email updates and further build their networks. This is a fun, interactive part of the site that appeals to those who want a more proactive experience.”

Livethnic has already become a go-to place for ethnics looking for an ethnic experience both in, and out, of their own group and Bozonelis wants to make the list of groups covered within the three major cities even more extensive before he expands to other projected locales, such as Chicago, Houston and San Francisco.

“A critical mass of around 30 ethnicities per city,” he says is the target. “To do this effectively takes time. We are niche information source, not a fly-by-night Web company. We have a long-term goal of providing rich content to our visitors and additional value-added services to our members.”

The human touch and other value-added services differentiate Livethnic from larger sites like Yelp and CitySearch which conduct large automated sweeps and often produce imperfect matches.

“This automated approach also does not allow for human opinion and judgment as to what truly belongs within a search category,” says Bozonelis. “Livethnic employs a trained research team which populates the correct listings within each category to best meet the search criteria of the cultural enthusiast. Furthermore, Livethnic members can submit listings themselves so that the site continues to build itself out organically.”

The need to personally explore came early on for Bozonelis and he credits his mother with fostering it.

“From the time I was a boy, my mom would take my sister and me into New York City to visit neighborhoods like Little Italy, Astoria, Mott Street and Arthur Avenue,” he says (he grew up in Chatham, NJ). “I credit her for being the real genesis of this site, as that curiosity stayed with me throughout the decades to come. I make it a point to scout our locations when I can and to me that is the most fun part of the job. I joke that I really created this site for myself.”

And the opportunities to make new finds are endless because, he says, the ethnic world out there is ever-growing and incredibly diverse.

“Many people broadly speak of Miami as a Latin city or make sweeping categorizations about other areas as well,” he says. “Truth be told, shifting demographics have made most U.S. cities diverse and culturally rich havens. It is fun discovering hidden gems and enclaves, experiencing them in your own city and when visiting others.”

How does Livethnic decide what merits consideration?

“We have a concerted goal to be as authentic as possible,” he says. “There is a big difference between an Irish Bar that serves a Greek wine and a Greek restaurant or bar that does so as well. The former will get picked up by the larger listing providers, the latter belongs on Livethnic. Our decision to use people (presumably including his own forays, as well) instead of automated databases is critical here and in making such judgments.”

A former investment banker (Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers), he gave up his day job to work on Livethnic full-time and got help from John Varsamis of The Web Empire web design and development firm. “John and I spent hours together on a daily basis dealing with technical aspects, architecture, design and web strategy,” he says. “He and his firm have been a tremendous asset. My investment banking background helped me get going quickly on the business end in dealing with hiring, research, sales and all other aspects which comprise the business. It consumes me and I love the work.”

A Dean’s Merit Scholar with a BS from NYU’s Stern School of Business, Bozonelis has his own ethnic identity down (he was a head acolyte at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Westfield) and is a member of the Leadership 100 and a “New Generation Leader.”

He is also a board member of the Hellenic American Chamber of Commerce Young Professionals, a supporter of the Greek America Foundation (and selected as a “Forty Under 40”), a former trustee of the Archdiocesan Cathedral appointed by his Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, on the advisory council of the Association of Greek American Professional Women, and he’s hosted political fundraisers for Greek-American Senate and House candidates across both parties.

His father is Judge B. Theodore Bozonelis (retired as chief judge from the New Jersey State Superior Court), his mother Helen is a published author of children’s history textbooks, and his sister Liz is a West Hollywood-based screenwriter.

And like every Greek family, they are his biggest boosters.

I am constantly bouncing ideas off of them and both respect and appreciate their guidance,” he says. “They are not directly involved, but do provide assistance on a daily basis, whether it be my father with legal issues, or mother and sister with writing content.”

How does he see Livethnic in ten years?

“Like any business owner, I want to see this business boom,” he says, “but I want it to grow in a smart and controlled fashion. The sky is the limit with a platform like this: ten years from now I would like the brand recognized internationally.”

Can anybody catch him? There is, he says, that “tertiary” competition from bigger brands.

“But that said, bigger doesn’t always mean better. I like to think that we are good at what we do: and that’s providing ethnic community information to cultural enthusiasts who want a true and authentic information experience.”


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