Empowering Armenia’s women—through a cycle of support
By Laura L. Constantine
2018 is a watershed year for women’s issues around the world. Long silenced voices are finally part of the mainstream conversation, taking on an urgency to right the wrongs of the past. The key theme emerging from this new global narrative is “empowerment”—a word that carries as many interpretations as the millions of women on the planet who still aspire to it.
In Armenia, the conversation is just beginning to address the deeply entrenched barriers to an empowered life: the high rate of sex selective abortions second only to that of China; the longstanding normalization of domestic violence—recently addressed in parliament with baseline legislation; and the “grandmother power” that exists in intergenerational households, perpetuating conservative notions of the feminine ideal. Added to these values and image issues are the growing number of women suddenly thrust into the role of head of household as large numbers of underemployed or jobless men search for a livelihood across borders, often abandoning their families and starting a new life.
Long before women’s issues became the focus of public discourse, a number of progressive local women’s groups and non-government organizations from the West took up the cause of Armenia’s women, bringing sensitive subjects out of the shadows and seeking solutions that break barriers and open new doors. AGBU is one such pioneer, setting goals consistent with its century-old mission to improve the lives of all Armenians, especially women and girls who shouldered unimaginable burdens in the post-genocide era. Their stories of resilience and resourcefulness light the way for women in Armenia now struggling to redefine themselves in this new climate of social change.
According to Talar Kazanjian, the executive director of AGBU Armenia, “In thinking about what role AGBU could play in helping Armenian women overcome these regressive barriers, it soon became clear that the prospects for change were very much rooted in the economic realities of their lives. There’s no denying that the degree to which a woman is liberated is a function of her economic independence. Taking charge of one’s own financial destiny can go a long way to resolve the other factors involved in the empowerment equation. For example, learning how to turn an idea into a self-sustaining and profitable enterprise is a confidence builder with far-reaching effects on attitudes, behavior and identity.”
Kazanjian also emphasizes that another important avenue to uplift Armenian women involves “developing new role models whose individual success stories could point the way to others, until change would become generational.” In all corners of Armenia, urban and rural, there exists those rare individuals endowed with the entrepreneurial spirit, women who possess bright ideas, but lack the resources or know how to get their dream from drawing board to market place. “The three things holding them back,” she observed, “are lack of financial resources, real-world business skills and the social affirmation to venture out on their own.” With the aim of building their capacity to attain these goals, the pilot of the AGBU Women’s Empowerment program, otherwise known as W.E. was launched in 2017.
“AGBU firmly believes that only by valuing the role of women in society can the Armenian nation thrive as a whole,” says Karen Papazian, director of global outreach and development for the AGBU Central Office in New York City. “Full empowerment of women means upgrading their level of education, business skills, market competencies and integration into the economy,” she stated. To this end, AGBU commissioned a broad-based needs assessment study, which also included interviews and discussions with NGO’s and local civil society organizations.
The combined research and analyses yielded many deep insights that would build a compelling case for a comprehensive program to help enterprising women achieve extraordinary things to benefit both themselves and the communities in which they live.
What women’s empowerment can look like in Armenia
The perspectives and principles that informed the AGBU W.E. program were translated into three main components: Education and Entrepreneurship; Job Opportunities and Mini Grants; and Mentorship and Networking. The pilot program was launched with an array of services provided to all participants free of charge, thanks to AGBU donors and benefactors who recognized the value of giving these self-starters a helping hand along their personal journey to self-realization.
This mindset aligns with the thinking of one of W.E. program’s most enthusiastic supporters, who donated the substantial funds needed to launch AGBU W.E. for the 2018-2019 cycle, a two- year commitment. His name is Hriair Cabayan, Ph.D., a seemingly improbable donor but whose unique story proves just the opposite. (See inset box).
After a rigorous selection process, 25 women made the cut to participate in the pilot program, 75% of whom were intentionally drawn from the regions outside of Yerevan, in which oppressive social and family dynamics are typically strongest. This explains why the program began with free leadership and entrepreneurial courses offered at AGBU, in partnership with the American University of Armenia Extension Program. It was an opportunity to which these women would ordinarily have neither the access nor the funds. The course curriculum addresses the specific needs and challenges faced by these women as well as teaches business fundamentals, basic skills and innovative strategies for starting and successfully running a small business.
Seda Vardanyan, a Finance and Entrepreneurship instructor at the AUA Extension Program, reflected on her experience working with the participants. “Having taught as well as worked in private and public sectors, I have time and again come across the huge potential of women, which unfortunately has not been explored or tapped into. However, most of the time, women do not have the support system or the necessary skills to bring their ideas to fruition.”
As free enterprise is by definition a competitive act, the pilot culminated with a pitch battle for an AGBU mini grant of up to the equivalent of $2000 USD, awarded to each of four best business projects. Staff mentors guided and supported each candidate through the application and business plan process. During the implementation phase, the winners were required to submit a summary and report on how the funds were actually used as well as attend check-in meetings with the AGBU program coordinator.
Winning solutions to pressing market needs
Though the diversity of business pitches reflected variances by region, three of the four grant winners offered a unique solution to the same problem: accessibility to food in the rural areas. For example, Anik Asatryan, a resident of Zangakatun, made the case that her village was not developing its agricultural base “because the distance between the village and Yerevan creates obstacles for villagers to sell their harvest.” To solve this problem while raising the quality of life of her neighbors, she decided to establish a dried fruit production unit. This way, perishability would not be a limiting factor and workers could remain in their ancestral homes while working at the facility.
In contrast to Anik’s dried foods solution, Irina Mrktchyan’s project was all about fresh produce, specifically herbs. “Herbs are in high demand in Armenia,” she says. “However, transporting them, keeping them fresh and growing them throughout the year are not easy tasks.” She explained how her idea involves cooperation with several villagers in various regions of Armenia who will plant and grow the herbs and then place them in the pots with their roots. “That will improve our agriculture output and support domestic producers,” Irina explained. “It will also satisfy our customers’ needs by offering them fresh and healthy produce which they can grow by themselves. Now we are working on a construction of a greenhouse.”
Another winning agriculture-based project was hatched by Hripsime Petrosyan from Krashen village in the Shirak region. “In Krashen, people have to cross a long distance to Gyumri, the regional center, simply to buy eggs and chicken,” she said. “To save their time and money and create new jobs, my dream is to open a local poultry farm.”
Lastly, winner Gayane Markosyan set her entrepreneurial sights on the hospitality/tourism sector with her idea for a guesthouse in Vanadzor in the picturesque region of Lori—an attraction for eco-tourists and heritage hunters alike. As Gayane explains it, “Vanadzor is a developing city. According to official statistics, its potential to reach maximum capacity is almost realized. To manage the upcoming flow of tourists and offer visitors a convenient and pleasant stay, my dream is to open a hostel,” she explained.
Given that the tourism and agriculture have been identified as industry sectors most viable for socio-economic growth in Armenia, the winning projects had special appeal to the selection committee, a body representing diverse but relevant organizations operating in-country: Marina Mkhitaryan, the lab lead of Kolba Innovations, a United Nations Development Program (UNDP); Liana Tadevosyan, the general manager of Nova Hotel Yerevan; Sergey Tantushyan, the director of AUA Extension Program; Arpine Vardanyan, the grants manager of the AGBU Bridge Program; and Vasken Yacoubian, AGBU-Armenia’s president and Central Board member.
Other intriguing project ideas worthy of mention are as diverse as opening a Montessori-based “Children’s development center” center in Yerevan, a village clothing rental service, a hiking tour service to Garni, and a restaurant in one of the caves in the hidden canyon Vayots Dzor, among other novel submissions relevant to regional and community markets or niche industries such as artisanal products, handmade gifts, personal shopper services and shoe manufacturing.
The difference of W.E.— A full year of support
All participants, including the grant winners, receive yearlong continuous counseling and trainings based on the needs assessment survey and site visit results. In addition, participants enjoy access to free legal, tax and financial advice, plus financial management and administrative support, business plan and model reviews as well as branding advice. As part of the networking component, they are invited to social events, workshops and lectures for the chance to make valuable business contacts. AGBU covers the transportation expenses so that participants across the country can participate regularly.
“Other programs in the mini-grants space tend to diminish or phase out support once the funds are awarded,” noted Karen Papazian. “On the contrary, AGBU W.E. remains actively on board to support each participant every step of the way. Our “cycle of support” approach has already proven itself as exemplary for the category.
Expansion is key to the long-term impact of the program, stressed Papazian. “We want more women to access AGBU W.E. and build their own networks of support. With additional donor involvement, either financial, technical or inspirational—AGBU W.E. can be an effective catalyst for sweeping changes in Armenia’s society. After all, a clear indicator of a nation’s level of advancement is the extent to which its women have their fair share of the socio-economic pie.”
Stepping Up For the Self-Starters of AGBU W.E.
Hriar Cabayan is an award-winning science advisor for the Joint Staff of the U.S. Pentagon with deep expertise in strategic multi-layered culture change in war zones like Afghanistan, North Korea and other countries in which the U.S. military engages with indigenous societies both civilian and across enemy lines. His essential piece of advice to the W.E. team is that culture change must come from within, from the bottom up, until it reaches capacity to impact the wider culture. “You can’t steer cultures the way you want,” he says. “A culture has to evolve under its own dynamics, otherwise all you’ll get is the opposite reaction. He explained that this pilot program appealed to him as its approach aligned with his own work. “All you can do from the outside is to help, and like the AGBU project, you don’t threaten the culture as a whole. Or, you will get stiff resistance.”
Cabayan is also a fierce proponent of a proven organizational management practice called Cognitive Diversity, which has gained traction among global companies and organizations looking to optimize decision-making. “In my work, Cognitive Diversity is very important,” says Cabayan. “If I walk into a meeting room and see only men of the same race and age group and a difficult decision is to be made, I get a little bit worried.” He went on to emphasize that Cognitive Diversity is purely selfish. “If you’re in a project and you want it to succeed you have to bring along folks from different cognitive backgrounds and views, different brains, otherwise the chance of succeeding diminishes. In reference to Armenia, he argued that “for a country to not take advantage of half of its population is disaster,” adding that “it’s important to remind Armenians that diversity is the name of the game. That’s why this women’s empowerment program resonated with me.”
A native of Damascus Syria, Cabayan moved to the states to complete his PhD at the University of Illinois; eventually his family members settled in the Chicago area as well. He described how he happened to stumble upon the W.E. program. Initially, he was looking to support his ancestral homeland in a way that would not only relate to his professional and academic expertise and worldview but also would honor the memory of his now deceased parents whose ancestors were genocide survivors. “I asked around about what were some of the main challenges in Armenia that could use support and soon recognized a troubling pattern; how the men come home, they don’t have a job, take too much alcohol and mistreat the women. I thought that is where I should put my attention.” Very soon after getting comfortable with the concept, as Cabayan tells it, he realized that the women’s entrepreneurship program “was the cause that I didn’t know that I was looking for.” After several deep dive conference calls with the AGBU team leaders, he enlisted his cousin Peter Dumanian, a start-up expert in Silicon Valley. “I am a scientist in the Pentagon but have no idea how best to proceed with startups. So Peter came on board as an advisor to us and was with us on the calls with the team over there. They put the plan together, they explained it in detailed briefs and the more I heard the more impressed I became.”
Yet Cabayan was still a bit concerned that the pilot would be too costly starting out from scratch. “But when I was assured that the infrastructure was there, the team was there, and the process was in place, it clinched it for me,” recounts Cabayan. “From thousands of miles away, I could tell that this team was feeling so good about what they were doing, I could hear the dedication in their voices. If the staffers are happy with the progress they’re making, for me that’s a good indicator of success.”