“My positions at Kraft, Panasonic and Samsung have sent me all around the world—mostly to Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Japan—and gave me a chance to see how Armenians are perceived in different parts of the world. Being Armenian abroad has always been a huge benefit. I have almost always been greeted with warmth when my colleagues discover my heritage.”
Christine Amirian is the vice president of corporate strategy and marketing for Samsung Electronics America. But long before she launched her high-powered career in business, Christine was a camper at Camp Nubar, spending her summers swimming in Lake Arax, battling it out in Color War and building friendships that she still treasures today.
In our conversation, Christine reflects on her time at Camp Nubar and on the lessons she learned in her bicultural household that have helped her succeed in the corporate world.
Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing and your family?
I was born in New York where my maternal grandmother settled after fleeing the genocide. Although she was a survivor, we didn’t talk about the genocide very much at home. In 1979, her younger brother Kerop Bedoukian wrote a book about their escape, Some of Us Survived. That’s how I learned the details about what she went through. My father’s family was from Alexandria, Egypt, and he settled here after my parents married. When I was young, we moved from New York to New Jersey. My younger years were filled with Armenian school and Sunday school, which supplemented the Armenian that I heard at home from my parents.
Tell us about your time at Camp Nubar. Do you think it had an impact on your sense of Armenian identity?
My sister and I started going to Camp Nubar in 1973. Back then, the camp wasn’t nearly as international as it is today—most of the campers were from the Northeast. But nevertheless, it was a great place to meet Armenians my age whom I didn’t know from school or church. I loved my time at Camp Nubar and I feel it helped round out my Armenian identity. It sounds corny, but I felt very much at home there and some of my closest friends to this day are my fellow campers.
My role at Camp Nubar grew with me. Over the years, I was a camper, a counselor-in-training, and finally a junior counselor the summer before I left for college. There have been moments, though, where skills I learned at camp come rushing back. One time while my husband and I were traveling through Thailand, our car malfunctioned and we needed water to cool down the brakes. I saw a roadside well, sprang into action and starting pumping water like I had learned at camp so many years before. I definitely shocked my husband, who had always thought of me as a city slicker!
What were the early years of your career like? Did your identity as an Armenian ever serve as an asset professionally?
I majored in economics at Columbia and worked in advertising for eight years before heading to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. My first position out of graduate school was at Kraft Foods where I worked in brand management for Kraft products like Kool-Aid. This position, and later my job at Panasonic, sent me all around the world—mostly to Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Japan—and gave me a chance to see how Armenians are perceived in different parts of the world.
Being Armenian abroad has always been a huge benefit. I have almost always been greeted with warmth when my colleagues discover that I am Armenian. The Middle East, in particular, was a breeze culturally. There were so many commonalities! I remember in Beirut, in particular, my co-workers were ecstatic to find out I was Armenian. They took me around to meet all kinds of people, showed me the Armenian quarter and got a kick out of some of the Arabic I’d learned from my dad. They gave me a very special kind of welcome that I don’t think I would have gotten otherwise.
Has your work ever taken you to Turkey?
Yes, while I was working for Kraft, I had an expat assignment based in Vienna, but working primarily with a Turkish team from Istanbul. I remember being torn about taking the assignment, but I kept hearing my grandmother’s voice in my head, telling me not to compromise my career and let the past dictate my future. I ended up taking the post and I’m very glad I did, because it gave me the chance to get to know some Turkish colleagues very well.
I hadn’t spent any time with Turkish people growing up, so this was really the first time I had a chance to get to know the people and culture as they are today. There was a bit of tension at first, but honestly, the person who was kindest to me while I was in Vienna was a Turkish co-worker. We shared a desk and an office and I found that we had very similar values. It was definitely a learning experience. I was surprised to see that so much was familiar. He used to hang up the phone with a “hayde, bye,” just like I had heard at home all those years. And when I went to Istanbul on business, the restaurants were like stepping into my grandmother’s kitchen.
Can you tell me about your positions at Samsung, Panasonic and Kraft?
For the past three and a half years, I’ve worked on corporate marketing for the Samsung brand. We support the Summer and Winter Olympics as a global sponsor and work on strategies for product integration. I’ve actually just finished working on a project to integrate products into the upcoming movie Jurassic World. What I like most is that things move incredibly fast in technology and you never know what is going to happen next. At Panasonic, I’m proud to have been a part of launching new television and camera brands in the United States and to have done some cutting-edge, award-winning work that was incredibly efficient. My first real experience working globally was at Kraft. It was fantastic to have contributed to launching products in the Czech Republic and Lebanon and to have fought off a strong competitor in Latin America.
Do you think growing up in a bicultural home has helped you in your roles at these multinational companies?
All cultural backgrounds are assets and I feel lucky to have had the benefit of exposure to another language—especially one with a different alphabet—at a young age. I strongly believe that this helped me learn other languages—like French and Italian—and gain an understanding of other cultures. It also gave me perspective with regard to language. At Panasonic and Samsung, I have travelled to Japan and South Korea and worked closely with colleagues who speak with me in English, their second or sometimes third language. I can empathize with the difficulties of navigating between languages and cultures and try to bridge that gap whenever and however I can.
Growing up in a bilingual home definitely taught me compassion. Everyone in our extended family spoke multiple languages and many spoke with accented English. I remember my father telling me: “Just remember, anyone speaking to you in an accent probably knows one more language than you do.” Now, as a result of that foundation, I find that it is much easier to flex between cultures. I also see this in my nine-year-old daughter, Arpineh, who not only corrects my Armenian, but seems to accept cultural differences much more easily than a child who has only been exposed to one culture.