BY ROGER STRAUCH
My relationship with Armenia started 46 years ago when, as a teenager, I visited Armenia with my brother and parents. It was the height of the Cold War and my father was one of our country’s senior representatives to the Soviet science community. My Dad was Chairman of the Harvard Physics Department. His mission was to seek out the best and brightest experimental physics labs in the Soviet “empire.”
On this quest, Dad befriended Dr. Artem Alikhanian, the Co- Director, with his brother, of the Yerevan Physics Institute. Alikhanian had cut a deal with Khrushchev and then Brezhnev to fund his lab with a simple value proposition–“You give me lots of money and I’ll take the talented scientists who are not welcome in Moscow and create a world class physics institute. I’ll take your Jews, Georgians, Siberians, and keep the Armenians and we will do work that will distinguish us worldwide.” Alikhanian did just that! And in 1970, Alikhanian invited my Dad and the family to Armenia, a very unusual occurrence. Here we are. That’s me on the far right, next to younger brother. We are enjoying vodka at noon.
Shortly after my Dad died in the year 2000, I was invited by the Armenian government to help get to know and to mentor the country’s IT community. Upon arrival, I was also greeted by some of the same scientists who had first met me as a 14 year old kid. They encouraged me to engage with Armenia commercially and philanthropically. In the U.S., I was already quite involved with the Armenian community. My wife, Dr. Julie Kulhanjian and I met as students at Stanford and were raising three kids as Armenian-Americans.
I had wanted very much to work in a developing nation and I knew Julie would support me if I focused my efforts in Armenia. I was inspired by Dad’s professional admiration for and appreciation of Armenian talent and culture. Since 2001, I spent about 1-2 months in Armenia every year.
As an entrepreneur and venture capitalist with over three decades of experience, I say there has never been a more exciting time to be an entrepreneur in Armenia. We have a critical mass of talented human resources, cool working environment, ability to create intellectual property that can be efficiently exported to the rest of the world, and a lovely lifestyle.
Today, there are about 400 IT enterprises employing about 15,000 IT professionals in Armenia. Those numbers are growing over 15% a year. There are thousands of open positions for engineers. About 15%-20% of our IT companies are developing and marketing their home grown, intellectual property. We are moving from 1 start up a week to one start up a day. I am excited about the increasing number of product designers and artists who are conceptualizing new products for international markets. And there are dozens of clever, hardworking entrepreneurs starting service businesses like delivering food and Uber-like taxi services with exportable business models. Yerevan is a great place to educate kids, eat, drink and enjoy life. You do not have to endure one hour commutes, expensive real estate and high labor costs. There is an organization called Repat Armenia to support those who commit to a year or more of professional engagement in the country. I am so excited for my fellow dreamers and for your opportunity to build a successful, world-class business in Armenia.
So what is it about being Armenian that will increase your probability of success? In the face of adversity, tragedy, limited resources, being a minority, Armenians have never ceased to dream of a better future and for making a positive impact on the entire world. You value education, tenacity, creativity, family, and your unique culture and language. You are respectful of and often burdened by your past, but you are ultimately empowered by the remarkable spirit and passion of your forefathers and mothers. You care deeply about honoring your heritage with good deeds and successes that will earn you, your family, and your people rewards and recognition. I admire and relate to those characteristics. So, as a first born American, as an American dreamer, the child of parents who lost almost everything and rebuilt their lives in America, I think I can appreciate the journey you are on, and join you as an Armenian by Choice. We share a value system and aspirations. You call people like me ABC’s (Armenian by Choice). I wear that label like a badge of honor. It is a privilege to work and live in our vibrant global Armenian community.
So let me tell you what I am doing in Armenia today:
My family and I have a nice home in Yerevan.
About 15 years ago, my first philanthropic effort was to help disabled people earn respect, rights and jobs. This led to the formation of The Paros Foundation.
Our Director, Peter Abajian leads The Paros Foundation which supports thousands of people daily throughout the country, with development, humanitarian, cultural, and education projects funded by hundreds of Diasporan families.
Here is our Gyumri children’s center — Debi Arach (moving forward) — that serves 140 severely economically disadvantaged kids, most of whom live in domiks. The mission of this after school program is to help lead these children towards a brighter economic future for themselves and their families. Our program provides intense academic support coupled with humanitarian services including a health clinic, delicious food and warm showers.
Here is the preschool we renovated on the Azerbaijan border, including Armenia’s first security wall so that the children would be protected from the all too frequent Azeri gunshots at their building.
Every year we have a one-month Service Armenia mission for young people to come and work on our projects – renovations of medical clinics or taking young people with developmental disabilities out for a pleasant day at an amusement park.
I have been working with the Center for Entrepreneurship and Executive Development, CEED, Jemma Israyelyan, and the Kassarjians of Repat Armenia to meet and mentor the many talented men and women of the startup and IT community.
I co-founded Armenia’s first broadband wireless service provider, Icon Communications. I proudly serve as an investor, co-investor and advisor to companies PicsArt, Solo Learn, Teamables, and to Granatus — Armenia’s first venture fund. Recently, I joined the amazing Impact Hub Community in Yerevan.
Here live from Yerevan are members of that community who have stayed up late to say hi and encourage you to check us out for being the coolest people and offering the snazziest work environment in the country.
I think we are reaching a point where it is better for some businesses to build in Yerevan rather than the States. That’s right: I think we are reaching a point where it is better for some businesses to build in Yerevan rather than the States.
Some people, particularly older Diasporans, are not so optimistic. They do not see Armenia as a land of opportunity. They observe and even experience corruption, and in some cases, limited free speech. These are real issues in Armenia. However, these are not reasons to avoid engagement in Armenia. Just look at what one ABC is able to do. We want more Diasporans to actively engage and take advantage of the opportunity to make a positive impact in Armenia and to enjoy the associated personal growth and satisfaction. Our community of intellectual property developers and exporters is living and working in a parallel universe without significant impediments or obstacles, except, of course, our own abilities. And we are harnessing what is best about Armenia: everything I have just talked about.
We can do some things better. Some say that we need easier access to investment capital. I say we need to develop stronger business plans to compete in the global market place. We need to improve our skills to effectively communicate our ideas to investors and partners. I am confident we will do so and that investors will come to our field of dreams and play ball!
So life has come full circle for me. Dad’s job was to identify world-class talent, to build new friendships, and to create new professional possibilities. Fifty years ago, Dad discovered what he was looking for in Armenia and shared this with his family. Now his son and his grandchildren are seizing the opportunity to do the same in an Armenian ecosystem that has all of the ingredients for a grand and enriching adventure ahead.