YEREVAN—On January 23, Mediamax journalist Aram Abrahamyan interviewed businessman and philanthropist, and founder of IDeA Charitable Foundation, Ruben Vardanian on Armenia’s Shant TV. Below is Vardanian’s discussion about his current and future projects in education, philanthropy and business.
Armenia 20-20 project
Over 10 years have passed since we started discussing the possible scenarios for Armenia’s future. It was a highly important exercise and to this end, we did our best to attract as many people of various views and professional skills as possible. It’s hard to accept the present-day reality if you don’t know what kind of future you may have. The understanding of the future is not an easy thing; it requires great efforts. Of course, what we used to do was a bit naïve but on the whole, I am pleased [with the results of this work], as despite all difficulties and disappointments many ideas and projects, which were born in the course of these discussions, were realized and they eventually came to exist on their own.
It’s quite different, that the discussion, unfortunately, was not continued and perhaps the current apathy and discontent observed in society are partially caused by people’s inability to understand how the future will be. I believe such a professional and serious discussion should be held on a regular and public basis.
Projects, ambitions and scales
I don’t like the word “ambitious” much; I prefer to use “large-scale” as an attribute, since our goal is not to surprise, but to change. Changes require huge efforts, and these are long-term projects.
Tatev Revival Project was launched in 2005 and will be completed in 2017. The idea of establishing an international school in Dilijan which will open this year was also the result of discussions held within the “Armenia-2020” project. We started more specific discussions over 2007-2008 and we hope that already in 2023, the school will be hosting 650 students every year. We are speaking of a vision of 15-20 years. There are several other projects being discussed at the moment, and they are also long-term and large-scale. There are many significant and important projects that should be implemented to make serious changes in Armenia.
We need “anchor” projects that will attract [other initiatives]. We choose projects which evoke changes in the region or in a separate field. Besides my family and me, a big number of people are involved in these projects – all the projects are jointly carried out. But the most important thing in our projects is that they are multi-effective, that is – the revival of the monastery or the construction of the school lead to the implementation of other important projects.
The principles [of all our projects]: Spillover effect, Long-term vision and perspective, global scope and collaboration [and engaging local population, gradual sustainability, best international standards]. It’s rather important to set local people in motion. People should feel that it’s their project and not just one that “came out of the blue”. It’s not less important to reach a level at which the projects will become self-sustainable. Capital investments are made on a charity basis but we aspire to make the projects self-reliant and independent from the sponsors. Another important thing is to make these projects meet best international standards.
Survival and traps
It’s one of the major problems in society. Over the last 20 years, we have been thinking of how to survive. It’s hard to look 15-20 years ahead when you live in survival mode. But if we do not readjust and develop long-term thinking, it will be too hard to overcome this pattern which is a serious trap. It will eventually cause the country to be in the continuous mode of survival or stagnation. Prosperity is a risk. You should take the risk and believe that your children will live better than you do today. The Soviet period thinking held that if you do something today you will ensure your children’s well-being tomorrow. We seem to have lost this perception, despite our independence and our victory in the war. The survival mode is not only conditioned by the economic situation but also our mental approach.
Education and Dilijan School
It’s a symbolic project for us, which is large-scale and required great efforts from us. Many things still lie ahead, but we can already see we are on the right path. The school will open its doors in September and the first 90 students aged 16-17 will start their studies here. The selection process in underway now and Armenian citizens can submit their applications to not only our school, but also 13 other UWC [United World Colleges] schools across the globe. UWC provides high-quality education; one of the bests by the number of graduates entering top universities. The [new] Director of [our] school has already commenced his work, the academic staff is being formed, and I am happy that the process is internationalized. We will have students from various countries, in this respect, the school is really unique for Armenia.
We are a nation with a passion for learning and it means we have a competitive edge because [gifted and educated] people are the main asset in the 21st century. I strongly believe in this, and that is the reason why we spend so much time and effort on education. We have two main areas of charity – IDeA [foundation] (Initiatives for Development of Armenia) and education, which have intersected in the territory of Armenia. I am pleased that our flagship project in school education (UWC Dilijan College) is being implemented in Armenia.
We have another project as well which was carried out in Russia with our partners and friends from various countries — it is SKOLKOVO Business School. These two schools are our key projects in the sphere of education, which are highly important for me.
Every country and economy has its bottle-necks. Transport is one of our weak points. Solving this issue will help improve life in Armenia, open more workplaces and create more opportunities for self-actualization.
I think it’s critical for Armenia to have a national carrier operating in the “open skies”. It means it will compete with other air companies based on market terms. It’s not easy as this industry is highly-competitive. We want two million people to fly to Armenia instead of 700 thousand on a yearly basis. It will be a great impetus to the economy, which will allow creating 20 thousand jobs, opening new hotels and restaurants; thus it will boost changes in Armenia. To this end, we need “open skies” in which various air companies with more resources and experience will operate. It will be quite hard for new air companies to enter the market and we consider it important to support this process but on market, and not monopoly terms.
I really hope that the stabilization of situation in Georgia will allow opening the railway connecting Armenia to Russia and will serve a serious impetus for the change of the economic situation. As a person, looking 15-20 years ahead I do realize that our economic state will not be changed [for the better] unless we address those issues and Armenia appears on the world travel map.
Yes, on the whole, it has nothing to do with our [projects] directly. I have never intended to and I am not going to get involved in aviation but I consider it fundamentally important for the development of Armenia, and a person who realizes the importance of the issue should have his contribution to its solution.
Armenia has many positive examples but against a background of general apathy they appear to be less significant.
One of my primary goals is to work out projects which will become a “magnet” for other investors to implement new projects. I am pleased with the opening of Hyatt Place Hotel in Armenia. The Tatev Revival Project gave an impetus for the opening of 10 new hotels in Goris. I believe that despite all difficulties and challenges we have unique competitive advantages which can be used in the implementation of specific projects in the spheres of education, medicine and tourism.
I am proud of this project as it’s one of the projects giving importance to my stay in Armenia. 15 years ago when I got acquainted with Andrew Mkrtchyan and his partners, they were only starting to launch a consulting business from scratch; they were working and competing with the best world companies. In this context, Ameriabank is a very good example of success and I do not try to advertise the bank this way.
There are 21 banks in Armenia, including respectful international brands: HSBC, Credit Agricole, VTB, Gazprombank. Our bank was purchased without a single customer; we virtually purchased the license, and in over five years the guys managed to turn Ameriabank into a leader in the banking system of Armenia by almost all key indicators.
I always used to act as a passive investor helping the guys but they used to do the work on their own. The first five years were years of development for the bank, and it was necessary for me to act as a “guarantor.” It’s already high time that Andrew Mkrtchyan took up the post of the bank’s Board of Directors; I am still a member of the board. Ameriabank’s Board of Directors is one of the best ones, particularly with the involvement of Robert von Rekowsky [Vice-President of the Emerging Markets division at Fidelity Investments], Noubar Afeyan [Managing Partner and CEO of Flagship Ventures, Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology], Gor Nakhapetyan [Vice-President of SKOLKOVO Russian Business School]. I find it right to change the Chairman of the Board of Directors every five years. It’s also part of the new culture and standards. Ameriabank pursues very correct corporate governance principles and I think rotation and changes are only beneficial for the bank.
I am in a transition period. I am completing a very important phase of my life: I used to be an investment banker for 22 years, headed Troika Dialog Company which became part of Sberbank [in 2012]. I still continue as advisor to the President [Chairman of the Board] of Sberbank German Gref but I am planning to be more actively involved in several areas, including charity projects related to Armenia and education. I have a large portfolio of projects which should be carried out and completed. It is highly important to be consistent and fulfill the promises.
I am still member of Ameriabank’s Board of Directors; I joined the Board of International Finance Corporation, which is part of the World Bank. I am a member of Boards of Directors of a number of companies in various countries, business-schools in Brazil, Japan and China.
My further activity is related to both business and public activities. I have many plans related to education, possibilities to work with interesting people who work out interesting projects in order to change our environment and make it more positive and successful so that our children can live in a country none the worse from those [countries] to where we love to travel.