Robert Bound reporting from Yerevan: From its start-up scene to coping with the pandemic, Armenia shows how a small nation can benefit from building strong ties to its powerful diaspora.
Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, lies in the flatlands and foothills of a biblical mountain, nestled like a goose in lush grass. Noah’s Ark was spared on the summit of Ararat and on bone-cold days its snow shines as brilliant as a lighthouse, like a full moon trapped in daylight. In fine weather the mountain dominates the city and every view is a view of Ararat. Often it isn’t the horizon, it’s the sky.
Ararat dominates supermarkets, services and shopfronts too: the mountain lends its name and silhouette to a famous brandy, to cafés and car dealerships. But the mountain, like a few things of which Armenia is proud, no longer lies in the country. The Ottoman genocide and landgrab of the early 20th century leaves the mountain sitting in Turkey. Ararat itself is part of a potent, engaged and, perhaps, homesick, Armenian diaspora. Perhaps their history, like their mountain, causes Armenians to look up, to look onward.
“The population of Armenia is three times smaller than the number of Armenians abroad,” says Zareh Sinanyan, high commissioner for diaspora affairs of the almost three million-strong republic. Part of his main job is to lure back the best and brightest of the supposed nine million or so living elsewhere. “We at the commission focus on economic affairs and repatriation – that’s one of our mega goals.”
Sinanyan – trim, smiling and sharp in his sun-soaked office near Republic Square – is himself a good advertisement for this relatively new government programme. “Yup, I was the mayor of Glendale in California and I just resigned all my positions and came over in June of last year,” says Sinanyan, who was born in Armenia but sounds about as American as a former US mayor should. “I was president of the airport and I was on the metropolitan water board, which distributes 70 per cent of California’s water. But since I’ve come back I’ve met a lot of people who’ve done the same; they hadcomfortable lives where they were but they said, ‘I want to be part of this.’”
“This” is an Armenia striving to eradicate corruption, shake off an economic and cultural Soviet hangover and now deal with the fallout from coronavirus. The diaspora is proving critical for all of it. Recently many have volunteered and asked how they can help with the pandemic, says Sinanyan. “We received a shipment of medical equipment speedily deployed from the US west coast,” he says. “And an online training programme has been set up with the help of our virologists in the diaspora – that has been a great help.”
The prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, led a velvet revolution in 2018 that promised democracy, accountability and opportunity. Until now the economy has been doing well, enjoying 5.2 per cent GDP growth in the first half of last year, low inflation and a general reduction in poverty. Finding and hiring the people to sustain this positive development is, in part, Sinanyan’s work. “Number one on my wish list is more involvement from highly professional individuals for the governance of the country, real civil servants,” he says, punctuating the words to show that he means they should be both civil and servants of the public. “We need people who can negate the Soviet culture and mentality, and replace it with the can-do, problem-solving attitude that we’re used to in the west.” The current difficulties have offered an unplanned test of the state and people’s trust in it. “Oh, for sure,” says Sinanyan. “We have tried to make everything transparent – no matter how bad the news – so that we can fight it together. And there has been a lot of buy-in from the public.”
Sinanyan is very involved with Neruzh (“potential”), a government-backed talent contest for new businesses, often but not exclusively in IT. The prize is office or manufacturing space, plus consulting, financial, legal and accounting services. The only proviso? They have to move to and operate their business in Armenia. “And you know – there is no shortage of people who want to do that,” says the high commissioner.
One such a person is Armenian-born, Dutch-raised Narek Aramjan, whose logistics technology firm Storegear became part of Neruzh in 2018. Aramjan shifted the nuts, bolts and laptops of his operation from Rotterdam to Yerevan, where he employs 10 engineers to design and develop software for, at the moment, an entirely Dutch client base that includes dhl and Co-op supermarkets. He is currently expanding to meet demand. “There’s a good talent pool here,” he says. “There are plenty of engineers with a mathematical background – that’s what we can tap into. The skills are great; they just need experience. But hopefully we are giving people interesting problems to solve.” Yerevan’s problems are not those of the Netherlands: few Armenians are swiping a screen to demand a cake be delivered in a mean half hour.
Storegear’s office is in the same building as the Armenian Coding Academy, where there is a palpable desire to complete the jigsaw puzzle of start-up success by advising, recommending, hiring, nudging and bringing people together. “Yes, it’s a bit of a conveyor belt,” says Aramjan. “It’s very convenient.
Armenia in numbers
Population online: 72 per cent
GDP growth: 5.2 per cent (in first half of 2019)
Unemployment: 17.7 per cent
Exports total: $2.4bn (€2.2bn)
Exports by product: Copper ore (35 per cent), tobacco (9.5 per cent), liquor (8.4 per cent)
Sectors of largest companies: Mining, smelting, gas extraction and heavy industry.
On the floor below his office, Aramjan introduces me to the folk of the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology (Fast), a nonprofit organisation funded by a wealthy diaspora of Armenians that helps small businesses. The network in this building is very real despite using the language of the virtual: funding is supplied by “angels”, advice is an “incubator”, knowing people is an “ecosystem”, success is “leapfrogging” and so on. Fast is set up like the standard Silicon Valley office: an adult playpen. I’m shown to a meditation room with as much hushed reverence as that attendant to the birth of a panda in captivity. Yet the intention is very clear and the staff arrow-straight in their ambition and hunger for the future. “We want to become a strong scientific nation again,” says Suzanna Shamakhyan, Fast’s vice-president of partnerships and programmes. “So we work with start-ups that need funding, especially in AI and biotech. We also focus on advanced materials and robotics, scientific fields that will give Armenia the opportunity to be part of the global value chain.”
Every October, Fast stages its Global Innovation Forum in Yerevan, providing a platform for science, business, investors and policymakers to meet. Last year’s event entertained delegates from Microsoft, Google’s AI offshoot Deepmind, Facebook, mit and Stanford University. “Now there is hype and hope, says Shamakhyan. “Because of the recent political changes people no longer think that Armenia is too corrupt or too conservative to do anything new. People think, ‘We can invest our time and effort here.’” (Just don’t show them the meditation room.)
The grand vision and noble sentiments of some of the wealthier elements of the Armenian diaspora are nowhere more evident than in the work of Tumo. Founded and funded by the Sam and Sylva Simonian Foundation (the Beirut-born, Dallas-based Simonians made their fortune in telecoms technology), the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies was set up in 2011 to offer a state-of-the-art education facility for teenagers. Harmick Azarian – of course, an Armenian, though from Wales – is chief of staff and designed much of the technology for the hundreds of students, who can learn photography, film-making, illustration, graphic design, robotics, web programming and music production under this one roof.
“We try to push people away from believing that they’re either a creative person or a technology person,” says Azarian. “The best product at the end is when you can do both.” He describes the Simonians’ funding as, “very targeted philanthropy with a real focus on the future”. It feels that way at Tumo – as though the future is something these young people will grasp this evening on their way home, that it might be close enough to touch.
The latest addition to the Tumo family is the design workshop Tumo Studios that opened its doors in 2017 thanks to funding from the John and Hasmik Mgrdichian Foundation (based in Los Angeles) and offers free courses in everything from printmaking to ceramics. Based in a once-grand 19th-century apartment building, it sings with a sort of happy creativity. Professionals from beyond Armenia teach courses every month: Reza Abadini, an Iranian graphic designer, is overseeing the hanging of his students’ print works in one room while Chiharu Ishikawa, a Japanese ceramicist, leads a pottery session.
Maral Mikirditsian – another diaspora Armenian who grew up in Beirut – is head of Tumo Studios and breezes from room toroom showing off young designers’ work. “We’re young, we’re fresh and it’s very powerful to feel that we’re building this country,” says Mikirditsian. “We teach people but we encourage them to be ambitious too, to make their own brands, to be involved in the market, to be entrepreneurial. When a student can see their designs being bought and enjoyed it’s amazing.”
There’s some very joined-up thinking at work here: everyone at Tumo is encouraged to test their ideas in the real world. Tumo Center is now exporting its expertise: three other sites around Armenia and two in Paris and Beirut do a similar thing on a smaller scale. They will soon be joined by openings in Berlin, Moscow and Kiev. The diaspora marches onward.
In the Old Testament, after the flood, on the plains beneath Ararat, Noah planted the first vineyard, had a good harvest and got a bit merry. Armenian wine was the first to be written about but, according to Vahe Keushguerian, vintner and founder of WineWorks, for years it was not something to write home about. “Sure, there was wine but it was Soviet style,” says Keushguerian. “The Russians saw a European wine press and made a bad copy of it. There was no new investment so it was horrible.” Vineyards existed to slake the thirst of Armenia’s brandy industry and wine became like moonshine; people made their own and held their noses as they drank.
Since 2011, Keushguerian and his daughter Aimee have run WineWorks, creating their own reds, whites and sparkling wines as well as consulting and making wine for others. “Other winemakers came with their grapes and asked if I could make their wine for them,” says Keushguerian. “Now it’s become a business model. We’ve done 14 or 15 projects like this that have sped up the culture and the industry.”
Keushguerian’s journey to revamping Armenia’s wine industry has been long and eventful. “I was born in Syria and grew up in Lebanon until I was 19,” he says. “I went to Italy for three years and discovered politics, socialism and everything that goes with it, so 1975 and 1976 was a good time,” he adds with a smirk as we drive to his winery on the outskirts of town. “Then what? Oh yeah, I went to the US to finish my studies, I opened a restaurant in the Bay area, became a wine importer and then moved to Tuscany with my 11-month-old twins. I was there 12 years, had vineyards, made wine and then, in 1997, I came to Armenia and caught the bug. I guess I came home.”
Ask around in a Yerevan wine bar, of which there is now a giddy concentration, and people will tell you that Keushguerian is Armenia’s Mr Wine and can take credit for bottling a renaissance. Export is the big hope, the next stop on a journey that will be steered by Aimee over the coming years. The tasting is a fine way to finish the day, the wines excellent, the blood singing with khatuni, areni, tozot and more than a dozen other unhailed grape varietals. Ararat glows in the sunset and tomorrow Yerevan seems primed to bask in a bright dawn.
Armenian diaspora figures funding development
1. The John and Hasmik Mgrdichian Foundation funds Tumo Studios as well as college scholarships.
2. The Sam and Sylva Simonian Foundation founded and funds Tumo.
3. Serj Tankian, frontman of Armenian-American metal band System of a Down, sits on the advisory board of Tumo.
4. French-Armenian businessman Serge Tchuruk was chairman of Alcatel-Lucent and is a member of Fast’s board.