I have always been surrounded by business. My Armenian-American great-grandfather started a machine shop in California over 60 years ago. His daughter, my grandmother, is a powerhouse economic mind, who helped businesses in our Californian hometown thrive and grow. Her son, my father, is now a leader within the machine shop, planning what the next 60 years might look like for the business in the face of a shifting and globalized American economy. I was on a plane to Yerevan just three days after receiving my diploma for a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington – the first in my family to attain a Master’s and the first to return to Armenia since the 1890s. I only had 6 weeks to make an impact on a company here in Yerevan before I returned to the US to start my post-MBA career.
Choosing an Armenian Tech Startup
I knew I would work for an Armenian technology startup. Working in the constantly shifting environment of a startup was attractive for two reasons. First, the chance for another practical application of my recently completed business education. Second, introduction and integration into the technology ecosystem in Armenia.
Growing up in Silicon Valley and now living in Seattle, technology startups have been a constant presence. Thousands of companies are founded every year, promising to disrupt life as we know it (in a good way, usually) and promise their investors massive growth and huge returns. While this spirit is not limited to those two pockets of activity, I will admit I knew nothing about what Armenia’s business environment would look like: Was it a tight, close-knit community of the same people founding companies over and over again? Is it full of international talent? Or domestic-focused? Who invests here? Do they even have internet in Yerevan? What is the next big thing to come out of the Armenian business sector?
Discovering Armenia's Entrepreneurial Spirit
I am near the end of my time here, and I have a few answers. There are both serial entrepreneurs and dreamers embarking on their first journey. Armenians, Syrians, French, Spaniards, Americans, and more have come to this place to create and innovate. The investment in these companies is varied – from Armenians looking to support local invention to multinational entities trying to find the next unicorn (for my non-start-up folks, this is a $1 billion value company). And yes, they do have internet in Yerevan. Armenia is just like Silicon Valley or Seattle – there are real people, with exciting ideas, trying to change the world through business.
Along the way, I have found answers within myself as well. My family fled from Western Armenian, Erzurum, and Van, specifically. Notably, my great-great-grandmother, Vartanoosh Tarzian, made her way through the deserts as a little girl. Through the kindness of distant family and strangers, she finally landed in New Jersey, US, where she came to know Thomas Edison as she tailored his clothes. While I can only see these places from a distance, walking through old monasteries, learning traditional dances, sharing meals, and interacting and living with Armenians throughout the country have been more rewarding than I could have hoped. Birthright Armenia’s havaks and lectures offer more academic settings to understand historical and contemporary events. After arriving with no language ability, I can now confidently exchange pleasantries in Armenian on the street and stumble my way through deeper conversations with some assistance, thanks to free language classes provided by the organization and some late nights with my host brother (a local educator). I know the connections created with locals and other volunteers are only the beginning of partnerships that will last through the rest of my life. My only regret is that I could not spend more time here.
Challenges and Opportunities
Successful businesses move with speed and adapt to change. I see similarities across the Yerevan skyline – massive condominium, apartment, and office buildings sprouting and turning once flat, rocky, empty lots into orchards of brick and glass. The Armenian IT sector is growing 23% annually, supported by $700M USD from both domestic and foreign investment. Armenia can thrive in this internet age; we can look to Israel’s rise as a technology center in the Middle East and find many similarities to Armenia’s position in the Caucuses – economically and geopolitically. Perhaps this can be Armenia’s model for explosive economic growth.
But there are also opportunities. On my metro ride from Garegin Nzhdeh Square in Nerkin Shengavit to the city center, I see expanses of abandoned infrastructure: Soviet factories long empty as a free market found no need for the manufacturing buildings of a centrally planned economy; decades-old, structurally unsound housing facilities; half-finished building shells. There is room to grow here, whether in physical buildings or a shift in the business landscape.
Continuous Impact and the Multiplier Effect
Growth in business means jobs for Armenians, which means wages, which in turn means spending and economic stimulus. At the country level, we often talk of the multiplier effect: the concept that money is spent many times over after it enters the economic system. For example, someone invests in a company, that funding pays for business operations, and the business makes a profit and pays workers, these workers spend their wages on restaurants, the restaurant makes a profit and pays its workers, who then spend their wages on groceries and housing, and those businesses…you see the repetition. This cycle helps not just the original business, but many businesses and many people across a wide variety of industries. As we engage in this process, the economy grows, increasing the standard of living for its residents and making the country a more attractive place for further investment.
How do we close the gap from theory to practice? What I did in Armenia over 6 weeks is part of that process. I assisted an Armenian technology start-up with business strategy, product pricing models, and venture capital fundraising preparation. By leveraging the knowledge I gained from my MBA, the business gained additional perspectives and challenges to their existing assumptions so they can become a stronger organization as they look to enter their market and become a revenue-generating business. Once successful, this company will hire more salespeople, marketing experts, and software engineers – giving Armenians job prospects and the means to a more stable economic life.
Invitation to Experience Armenia
Be mindful – one internship for 6 weeks will not cause those factories to start producing again. But many volunteers, helping many people across this country, can have an impact. What begins as drops of individual activity will unite as an ocean of change and impact.
The work is continuous, which is a thrilling prospect! I plan to remain involved in the business community here in Armenia, even though I will be (almost exactly) half a world away in Seattle. I will offer my experience and advice to Armenians who want it in the near term and eventually with monetary investments of my own in inspiring businesses here. There is an energy and a drive amongst Armenian entrepreneurs that is exciting and intoxicating to be around.
Whether returning to the homeland through Birthright Armenia or as a member of the Armenian Volunteer Corps – You should come here and experience it for yourself.