“I was losing my whole identity – I thought I’d become irrelevant”: Angela Vithoulkas

After an uncharacteristic crisis of confidence, City of Sydney Councillor Angela Vithoulkas, pictured, is raring to have a tilt at a third council term. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

Small Business Party founder and leader Angela Vithoulkas on losing her business – and why she changed her mind on running for a third council term at the City of Sydney. By Gary Nunn.

How hard can it be?

These five words have come to define the life of City of Sydney Councillor Angela Vithoulkas.

“It’s a common flaw of mine, that one,” she says as we discuss her involvement in the class action to fairly compensate small business owners impacted by Sydney’s light rail construction, which drew infamy for interminable timeline and budgetary blowouts.

It’s these same five words, Vithoulkas says, which inspired her to start her first business (she has owned 17 hospitality businesses) and then enter local politics. 

“I’d be serving sex workers first thing in the morning and business people at lunch time – I got to know all walks of life in this city,” she says.

The Erin Brockovich of Sydney

A twice elected City of Sydney councillor (2012 and 2016), Vithoulkas made an unsuccessful run in 2019 for the federal seat of Wentworth as an independent and also for state parliament after in 2017 establishing the Small Business Matters party.

But it’s the city council where she’s been able to make herself heard, as a passionate advocate for local business owners with a unique voice. 

It’s using that voice that galvanised her with multiple other business owners to challenge the “unfairness” in the compensation offered to business owners impacted by the light rail.

“The state government provided some financial assistance after me fighting for 18 months, using $40,000 of my own money for it – but it only covers those who had a shop directly on the light rail construction line. So, not those with businesses upstairs. They were equally impacted. And that’s unfair,” she says. “I couldn’t abandon everyone else. So I set about single mindedly trying to change it, thinking: how hard can it be?”

She compares it to Erin Brockovich’s fight, and says she feels equally underestimated: “As far as anyone in government or mainstream media is concerned, I’m not the go to person for small business,” she says. “The National Retailers Association is: any middle aged man who’s got a CEO position and university qualification … and who’s never worked a day in a small business.”

It isn’t the first time she’s used her own funds to – literally – put her money where her mouth is; she sold her house to help fund her campaign for a second term, and to make up for losses caused by the light rail construction.

“No one thought I could do it,” she says of taking on the fight. “But then no one ever thinks I can. No one ever thought I could get elected the first time in 2012. Or the second in 2016. And nobody thinks I can do it again, either.”

The Erin Brockovich of Sydney? Angela Vithoulkas, pictured, says she has felt similarly underestimated. Photo: supplied.

Vivo: the cafe with a difference

Vivo cafe – which Vithoulkas owned and ran with her brother, Con, for 18 years, is one of the driving forces behind her passion.

She knows the exact date it closed: 24 August 2018, a casualty of the light rail.

It’s a grief she’s still very much processing today.

“For 18 years, it was a place people knew they could find me, you always knew I’d be there,” she says.

“And suddenly, that next day, I had nowhere to go. I was unemployed for the first time in my life.”

Vivo was a CBD cafe with a difference – inside, as a feature, was its very own radio station – Eagle Waves Radio, set up by Vithoulkas.

“I couldn’t get a gig on mainstream media – they just didn’t want to hear from women in small business. We weren’t big enough. Men could get gigs in the media without sponsors.” 

She also faced sexism in her political career: a former Liberal councillor characterised her attendance at networking events as an attempt to “find a husband.”

It’s something that clearly still stings: “Sometimes I wonder what it is I have to do to be taken seriously.”

Undeterred, she has always fought on, in business, politics and innovations. “I actually remember thinking: how hard can it be to build your own radio station? I found a community radio station to partner with and it went from there,” she says.

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The unusual radio booth became a unique feature and talking point in the cafe. 

Vithoulkas produced seven live shows a week. She hosted two shows herself and advertised for hosts for the others, running a financial show, sports show, startup show and a women’s show.

“It brought brand attention to the business – people could see we were more than just a cafe. It fed my soul,” she says. “Plus, if you’re a control freak, you could sit in the radio booth and still watch your customers [through the clear booth panels]!”

The radio show was a way for her to speak directly to other small business owners and connect with them to truly understand their needs, she says.

The loss of Vivo, as the light rail path bulldozed right outside the front door, hit extremely hard. She still feels the effects today. “I loved that shop so much – I didn’t ever want to leave.” 

She still sees former regular customers around the city. They were like part of her extended family: “These are people I saw get married, divorced, have kids, the kids got married, changed jobs, got promoted, got demoted,” she says.

She pauses and gathers herself as she reflects on the grief. “You know, it’s been three years and I still can’t believe it. It feels like a long weekend, then I’ll be going back to Vivo. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. I’ve never experienced that kind of loss before,” she says. 

“Walking out that shop for the last time was … I lost my father in 2013 and, even though it feels weird to say it, dad’s death didn’t affect me as much as losing the shop. It was losing my whole identity, I thought that when we closed the door for the last time, I’d become irrelevant.”

“Businesses deserve a vote”

Growing up with hardworking Greek immigrant parents taught Vithoulkas about resilience. She’d sometimes help her father, who was never fully fluent in English, to translate legal documents so he could set up his own businesses. 

She disagrees that businesses being given two votes in the upcoming 4 December local government election is a gerrymander, but she’s clear that she only ever asked for business owners to have one vote.

“I remember in the last election speaking at a rally where many were against this. I was the only politician game enough to front up to them and say: ‘We [small business owners] are your community. We employ you and your families. We just want a fair voice and opportunity to be heard, and play a part in your city.’ I wasn’t booed, I was accepted. That’s why I’ve been elected twice.”

She’s concerned about the campaign for the business vote to be removed. “If you say those who don’t live in the city but run a small business here don’t get a vote, where do you draw the line? At renters? Because they’re transient? It’s concerning,” she says. 

She says she wasn’t going to run a third time until she heard Clover Moore’s campaign manager, independent state MP Alex Greenwich, “bragging” about his optimism of winning a “super majority” of eight seats (out of ten): “I felt sick because I thought: why would anyone bother? The arrogance of announcing so early made me change my mind and want to run again. There’s never been a political result like that in Australia, aside from Labor’s recent landslide in WA. It’d be bad for accountability, transparency and democracy.” 

A City of Sydney councillor since 2012, Angela Vithoulkas, pictured, is seeking a third term when the NSW local government elections are held on Saturday, 4 December, 2021. Photo: supplied.

“The system is broken”

Vithoulkas has a “deep, profound” respect for Clover Moore, for her almost four decades in politics and having never lost an election, and believes that respect is mutual.

But she harbours concerns about how processes are run within the city, citing the latest Oxford Street proposal as an example.

“When I decided I’d run again, I realised I’ve got to articulate my why. And it’s got to be more than ‘we need parks and bike lanes and zero emissions.’ Those big picture things rate well on social media, but it’s not why I’ve done this for nine years.”

She claims current decision-making processes are broken.

“Every one of the ten councillors is hardworking. They’re high calibre; they all care about something specific in the community. But how many of them fight and push back against the system when it’s wrong?” she says. 

With the Oxford Street proposal, she cites concerns that 10m extra height granted to buildings will wipe out sunlight for nearby terraces, and also has parking concerns around Moore’s “car-free agenda”.

“Moore is responding to residents with concerns by speaking ‘on behalf of all councillors’ – well, she doesn’t speak for me – and she’s only leaving me 48 hours to prepare for an item – and that’s if it even makes it onto the agenda. Council staff are excellent but they drip feed us information and only give us half the picture. It’s my job to be given enough time to consult with residents so we get the full picture. This is why a super eight majority to Clover would be dangerous for democracy.”

It’s this fear of local democracy being diminished that has influenced some of her policies: a three term cap on Lord Mayoral terms and better transparency by establishing “questions without notice” sessions. 

Knowing it’s unlikely she’ll become Lord Mayor, Vithoulkas simply aspires to have a seat at the table to represent the small business owners she’s spent her life advocating for, and the local residents she has come to know well through her years in small business and local politics.

“So that’s why I’m hoping to make it a hat-trick for a third term,” she says. “How hard can it be?”

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.