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.

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