For a long-established organization like the century-old AGBU, there is always that looming back-of-mind question: How do we stay relevant, yet true to our mission, in every generation? Twenty-five years ago, the solution became clear—just ask the up-and-comers who best represent the tenor of the times.
With that top of mind, in the early 1990’s, the AGBU Central Board, under the leadership of the late AGBU President Louise Manoogian Simone, decided to reach out to a handful of AGBU alumni—former campers, students, scholarship recipients, and interns—to get a read on how the AGBU mission could be applied to the new realities of the dynamic decade that unleashed the Information Revolution and transformed the world and society as we knew it.
“We needed to adapt to the fact that the Armenian reality was shifting,” explains AGBU Managing Director Anita Anserian, who was instrumental in the launch and expansion of the AGBU Young Professionals (YP) network. “The need for change was everywhere and AGBU sought out young, forward-thinking energy to help us reassess how to better reach the ‘new generation’.”
“The rest is history,” she adds, referring to the early conversations that led to the rapid and exponential rise of AGBU YPs, which is now a movement driven by 37 active local groups with a robust presence on five continents.
Time and time again, these movers and shakers have ignited long-lasting change in their communities, leaving behind their own stamp of originality and creativity to inspire newcomers to the fold. As AGBU celebrates 25 years of YP-inspired community-building programs, educational lectures and panels, professional networking, fundraising campaigns, and the forging of lifelong connections, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the movement is a phenomenon in community life unlike any other in the Armenian space.
The ad-hoc “think tank” of young alumni strategized a crisp take on professional networking that went above and beyond surface-level connections and generic events. Eager to push the bar and take part in shaping the next generation of AGBU, the first YP group was born in Los Angeles, known as YPLA. “We were a socially conscious group who wanted to meet and network, while also creating new initiatives for AGBU that would help promote our shared Armenian culture,” recalls Nora Janoyan Balikian, one of YPLA’s co-founders.
Ahead of its time in more ways than one, the energy and intentioned actions of these dreamers laid the groundwork for this platform of innovation. Not only were YPs given the chance to test-run their ideas, they had the latitude to take control of their projects and grow with their ideas as leaders.
The trial run be-came an instant success within the young Armenian community, a result of the strategic thinking of the YPs and the tactical support of AGBU leadership. “We organized ourselves into focused subcommittees which made us efficient in our interests and priorities. We hosted timely educational seminars that promoted voting, financial responsibility, and how to navigate the Internet,” reflects Balikian. In 1995, these events could not have been more relevant to a burgeoning young professional and the themes were attracting those within and new to the AGBU circle.
“Starting the YPs came more naturally than expected,” reflects Michael Agbabian, one of the YPLA original founders.
“Many of the early members already knew each other or had ties to AGBU so it seemed logical for us to formalize a group that represented who we were and what we wanted to accomplish.” But what this group didn’t realize was how planning high caliber events and breaking the mold on topics otherwise only discussed in non-Armenian settings would attract like-minded peers miles away.
Long before social media and globalization overtook the world to our current state, word of mouth was the name of the game. Shortly after the success of YPLA, professionals in nearby Northern California quickly asked to start a similar group. It was only a natural next step that soon thereafter a group in New York City would form and take flight. The three initial cities set the tone for impressive events and forums. With metropolitan locations driving inspiration, YP committee members made it a point to take advantage of the unique offerings of their cities.
One early example of the impressive events initiated was the groundbreaking AGBU Arvest in 1997. YPLA upped the ante hosting a large-scale evening attended by over 600 guests buzzing about in an immersive cultural experience featuring visual art, musical performances, poetry readings and music. “This big, one-night only art ‘salon’ concept was a huge hit in our community, and it really showed off what we were capable of,” reflects Agbabian. “We reserved high profile venues like the LA Public Library and created a full program of different literary and musical genres. We showcased established and up-and-coming artists. It was a tour de force of current Armenian culture all in one night, which we pulled off on a shoe-string budget.”
The prestigious locations and high-quality program content also elevated the status of AGBU as a welcome place for assimilated, well-educated Armenians exposed to more universal standards of excellence to see their ethnic identity reflected in a more sophisticated and progressive light. The ripple effect of the success of events like Arvest propelled the reputation of AGBU YP into international waters. In short order, groups emerged in North America and Europe. The network was poised to take the new millennium by storm.
Incubator of Ideas
“AGBU offers a safe space for people to bring their thoughts and perspectives. This is a huge draw for our YPs. Our organization provides the impressive reputation of a century-old organization, the wisdom of mature leadership and the willingness to bring in new ideas and perspectives,” stated AGBU President Berge Setrakian. “Twenty-five years ago we had the foresight to give these young adults the freedom to voice their opinions and test their leadership skills according to their own interests,” he observed. “There was no roadmap or guide for them, or for us as an organization, but we knew we had to invest in them and they, in turn, would invest in our organization.”
With a true balance of both autonomy and institutional oversight from AGBU and its leadership, AGBU YP has served as a true incubator for ideas. From its inception until now, YP committees innovate and push the envelope. Over the years YP groups have established longstanding AGBU programs like GenNext in Los Angeles and the Global Leadership Program’s professional mentorship experience. Throughout the years, YPs have also worked together on projects in Armenia like setting up AUA’s Digital Library in the early 2000s and a greenhouse project a decade later. “YP groups want to leave their mark and this means different things to different groups. The diversity of our groups and their interest drives innovation in many directions and we welcome it on all fronts,” noted Setrakian.
Twenty-five years ago we had the foresight to give these young adults the freedom to voice their opinions and test their leadership skills according to their own interests.
YP groups have also been the driver of AGBU program expansion. For example, the Global Leadership Program was launched in Los Angeles with the backing of YPLA in 1994. The same can be said for host cities London and Buenos Aires, both of which are run with the help of local young professionals. In 2001, AGBU FOCUS began as a one-time celebration in 2001, but the demand by international YP groups drove its evolution to a much anticipated biennial event hosted by a different YP committee each time.
YP activities are a launching pad for personal ventures supported by the community. In 2019, the Noubar Nazarian YP Innovators Fund (NNIF) offered YPs with social enterprises an opportunity to pitch concepts and receive a grant to support a project. The final award was decided by a peer-review vote. Robin Koulaksezian, recipient of the 2019 NNIF and founder of Little Armenias—a project documenting slices of Armenian life throughout the world—can confirm the importance of such a program. “Receiving the NNIF grant changed my life,” he says. “Financially speaking, it gave me the opportunity to take Little Armenias to the next level, leveraging technology in a way I would not have had. Emotionally speaking, it was a huge morale boost to have my peers support my project.”
The ‘safe space’ YPs offer has also allowed for a progressive home to explore, at times, provocative subjects or pressing current event matters. Wherever there is a hot topic or concerning theme, YPs will be the first to host the forum for it. YP committees work together with the AGBU Central Office and local chapters to ensure safe and responsible forums. With its positive reputation, YP committees have no problem attracting high profile thought-leaders to ignite compelling and timely dialogue.
Cultivating Leaders of Tomorrow
Serving on one of the close to 40 YP committees around the world offers a profound experience for volunteers of all backgrounds. The personal growth opportunities are immeasurable—developing new concepts, connecting with new peers, developing professional contacts, working with leaders from the Armenian community—it all shapes the trajectory of a young professional in mind, body and soul. For those new to the YP world, it is an exciting sea of opportunity making the global Armenian Nation seemingly accessible.
“Our network’s impact goes far beyond connecting professionally and socially,” says AGBU YP Coordinator and Liaison Heghine Musayelyan. “YP groups play a huge role in decreasing ‘identity emigration’ among the young Armenian diaspora. Attracting and retaining these young Armenians in an active Armenian community life is a crucial factor for the succession of the future Armenian leadership,” she notes.
Many AGBU YP constituents have risen to the ranks of AGBU leadership. In fact, we are seeing the YPs of yester-day and today slowly take on the chairmanship positions of current chapters. Haik Khanamiryan, YP Amsterdam co-founder, can personally attest to the crucial role YP played in his career as well as his long-term involvement with the community. “Co-founding YP Amsterdam was been driven by an intrinsic motivation to bring together the brightest minds to engage in networking and creating social impact,” he noted. “The experience has stayed with me and drives me to continue my work into regional efforts.” He now serves as a member of the AGBU Europe District Committee.
“This is an organization that believes in and nurtures its youth,” emphasizes Anserian. “It gives them a forum to grow and inspire. Look at how far they have come—South Korea, Spain, Uruguay and counting—the need is universal and the drive is everywhere,” she says. “We really do have the secret formula.”
It’s fair to say that AGBU YPs have already transformed the very fabric of AGBU and the landscape of community engagement throughout the Armenian world.