Thursday, May 16, 2013

Activating the hidden network

In my last post, I spoke about significant investments made in Armenia by Armenians living abroad (TUMO, AYB School, Luys Foundation), and how these are redefining the narrative in the country.  There are additional great examples of successful and wealthy Armenians living abroad "giving something back" to their homeland: Mr. Eduardo Eurnekian with Yerevan's International Airport, Mr. Ruben Vardanyan with the Wings of Datev, the AGBU with the American University of Armenia, Boghossian Gardens/Lover's Park.

There is another type of investment in Armenia that is less publicized, but is just as, if not more, important than these examples.  If one studies the opening of Armenia branches of well-known multinational companies, an interesting pattern appears:  many of these investments were made because of highly-placed, well-respected Armenians in these companies making a "pitch" to consider operations in Armenia, based on a well-educated workforce and tradition of achievements, especially in the core sciences and information technology.  This is true for companies such as Synopsys, Virage Logic, National Instruments, Mentor Graphics and others.

This phenomenon should not be overlooked, and indeed should form the basis for attracting new foreign direct investment into the country.  The emigration that we so worry about, starting 100 years ago as a result of genocide, continuing in the second half of the 20th century because of civil wars and unrest in Armenian communities in the Middle East, and finally the post-independence waves leaving Armenia in the past 20 years, has created a global network of successful Armenians in a number of fields, most notably in medicine, information technology, jewelry and several other fields.  This is the "hidden network" that we need to bring to life to flow private sector, for-profit investment into Armenia.

As an example, I am working on an initiative to attract a Research and Development lab of one of the world's largest consumer electronics companies to Armenia.  Our initial contact with this organization was through an Armenian (originally from Yerevan) who had risen through the ranks of the company's R&D division in their HQ in Asia.  The relationship was developed and confidence gained as a result of a very high-quality, globally competitive research project led by a local Professor and Member of the Academy of Sciences.  During this last phase, we discovered that there are 17 other Armenians working in R&D for this company that we will now leverage to continue to build the relationship.  We are working on weaving all of these threads into a viable investment opportunity for this company in Armenia.  Similarly, there are senior Armenian executives in many of the world's best-known technology firms.

How do we "activate" this network?  Why should a successful executive risk his position/reputation sponsoring such an investment given the "negative" narrative in Armenia?  It's a great question that deserves a comprehensive answer.  Here's a starting point:

1) Present this as a win-win opportunity:  The investing company gets access to a highly-educated workforce at a very attractive price, in a country that is secure, socially cohesive and now well-connected via state-of-the-art communications;  the local workforce has an opportunity to work in a western-managed company with attractive salaries and overall compensation; the government gets to publicize this kind of investment as a result of its efforts to liberalize the investment climate and drive economic growth

2) Achieving the win-win, however, requires commitment and in some cases leaps of faith by all involved.  In particular, the investing company (and in particular the Armenian executive sponsoring the investment), must find the right local partners to help them navigate through Armenian legislation and the reality on the ground.  Potential employees (and in particular graduating students) need to understand that these are highly-valuable positions that require full commitment and preparation from their side, and that compensation will rise according to productivity improvement.  Most importantly, the government must understand that this is a long-term, paradigm-shifting strategy and not a short-term tactical pursuit of cash infusions characteristic of previous sales of national assets. Furthermore, a comprehensive overhaul of the public university educational system is absolutely necessary.

3) Armenians (both in Armenia and abroad) that believe in the value of the hidden network and the importance of raising the standard in Armenia to attract these companies must collectively develop the "face" of Armenia to this network and their parent companies.  This means developing the right narrative, repeating the success stories, and connecting the best local talent with this network.

These successes will not materialize overnight; on the other hand, they are within reach and require focus, dedication and the firm collective belief that we have the ability to redirect the future path of Armenia.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The road less traveled, the story less shared

The popular narrative on Armenia continues to weave its course around the negative issues of the day:  emigration, election fraud, corruption, emigration, selling off national assets, oligarchy, emigration.  It’s easy to be carried by the same current, the same negative narrative echoed by people on the street, by opposition political figures, and magnified thousand-fold by Facebook posts, shares and comment strings.  After all, the latest net emigration numbers are published; post-election videos showcasing Yerevan’s “finest” are making their rounds online; political commentators are raising the crescendo of negative “I told you so’s”.  Blame is the most widely-circulated currency:  blame the government; blame the oligarchs; blame Raffi; blame the rest of the opposition; blame the “thick-necks” in the courtyards for forcing the vote in favor of the incumbent; blame the Diaspora for not caring; blame the Russians; blame the Azeris; blame the Turks.

Worst of all, some of the bravest and most dedicated young voices of the generation coming to the age of political influence are echoing the same words of despair, apathy and resignation, and planning their own departures.  If so many people are repeating the same story, it must be true, right?

Not necessarily.  At the same time, in the same Armenia, there is a different narrative being discussed, debated, and created.  This narrative is woven not out of indifference, aloofness or despair.  Its threads are based on experience, vision, rational and pragmatic thinking, and most importantly by a deep sense that the future of Armenia does matter, that it’s worth fighting for.

Becoming part of the solution
Last week, almost 100 Armenians and non-Armenians from abroad joined a large group of local Armenians to monitor the Yerevan municipal elections as part of a local NGO operating under Armenia’s law on election monitoring.  The energy focused on preparing for, actively participating in, and then documenting their observations post-fact was palpable, and was noticed as much by the local observers as by the startled precinct election commission members, political party proxies and their loyal “thick-necks”.  While the election results came out as expected, the process has changed – their slogan was “it’s not who, it’s how” created a completely different reality in the 60 precincts they were monitoring.

Brain Gain
They join those that preceded them with a vision and the will to make it happen.  For me, TUMO ( is impressive not because of the amazing interior space and the investment in technology and curriculum.  TUMO is impressive because it has a direct impact on 5000 12-18 year olds, showing them a different reality, and helping them write their own new narrative.  AYB School ( is impressive not because of the striking architecture, but because each year, a new graduating class is equipped with the education to prosper on a global scale.  Luys Foundation ( makes a world-class education at least thinkable, if not completely within reach to all who seek it.  And in response to the common criticism that these programs are helping more of our best and brightest leave Armenia, the cold reality is that some will have to leave in order to gain the education, perspective and experience to come back and turn Armenia into the country we all want it to be.  And believe me, some (but definitely not all) will come back.

Why are you going the wrong way?   
This week, I met/interacted with the following people in Armenia:  a partner at McKinsey & Co, the most prestigious strategy consulting firm in the world; a PhD candidate at Cambridge; a Harvard PhD and a Harvard MBA; graduates of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration and the Sorbonne, two of France’s most prestigious universities; a graduate of Lomonosov/Cambridge/Oxford.  All of these young professionals have countless opportunities to leverage their education in lucrative positions around the world.  Yet they focus on Armenia:  they live here, they work here, or they spend evenings and weekends working on making Armenia a better place for all Armenians.  They are joined by artists, directors, photographers, photojournalists, musicians, businessmen, winemakers, restauranteurs, doctors, lawyers, teachers and designers, all driving forward, rather than commenting bleakly from the sidelines.  

Too often, the first question that I get as a Repat is "why did you move here?  Were things not going well for you in the US?"  Ask each of the people listed above, or the hundreds of others who have made the same journey, and the response is most often:  "No - I wasn't running away from something - I was running toward my homeland."  These people are writing a new narrative - one that is based on action, not apathy; on finding a solution, not repeating the same problem; on seeing Armenia as the center of the solution, not the source of the problem. 

Having almost finished this note, I learned of the tragic deaths of two young recent repats to Armenia, Allen Yekikian and Sose Thomassian.  The news of their untimely death in a car accident in Georgia has shaken the Repat community in Yerevan, and I thought twice about posting a "positive" note as we come to terms with this terrible event.  Then, I read the following sentence in a post by one of their friends:  "They had a dream, and they lived it."  At the candlelight vigil in their honor tonight, someone else said: "they came here to make Armenia a better place - let's honor their memory by getting it done".  Here's to Allen and Sose, and all of those who want to take the road less traveled, and tell the story less shared.