New York, NY: In celebration of International Women’s Day 2020 and the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the women’s right to vote in America, over 200 attendees from across the region, as well as from New England and California, spent the day in the company of exemplary female leaders who are making transformational change through their careers, philanthropy and volunteer work.
The sold-out Inaugural AGBU “Women Shaping the World” (WSTW) conference, held in downtown Manhattan on March 7, 2020, was organized by a committee of distinguished women with three goals in mind: to provide a forum for sharing insights and ideas on challenges and opportunities facing women socially and professionally; create a space to work in solidarity towards gender equality and women’s rights at home and abroad; and give women a platform for networking and exploring career development strategies, with guidance from industry specialists.
The diversity and scope of the conference attracted a mix of co-sponsors, including Seta Nazarian and the Englestad Foundation as primary contributors, as well as global names such as Citi® Private Banking, We Work,® and Loréal® Paris, in addition to Congès fine jewelry and Keremo cakes.
In her welcoming remarks, advisory committee co-chair Claudia Nazarian set the tone for the three-part agenda, promising a day in which “women of all ages and a few brave men will come together to share their stories and leave feeling enlightened, inspired and challenged to do more.” She assured guests that the conference was the first of many more to come.
The AGBU legacy of female empowerment
AGBU Central Board member and Co-Chair of the AGBU Global Women’s Empowerment Initiative Ani Manoukian presented a brief overview of AGBU’s century-old commitment to the elevation of Armenian women in society. She highlighted how, as early as 1917, AGBU women mobilized a multi-national clothing drive in behalf of child survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. AGBU also opened women’s shelters, orphanages and trade schools as well as took up the daunting task of rescuing abducted Armenian women from Turkish homes. By the 1940s, women were serving on the organization’s Central Board of Directors. The early 1990s saw Louise Manoogian Simone as AGBU’s fifth president, during the critical years of Armenia’s independence. Manoukian further noted that today 40% of AGBU chairs worldwide are women and, when looking solely at its Young Professionals leadership, the rate increases to 55%. She made a compelling case that Armenian women’s voices do matter.
“We can balance the conversation; we add value to the pool of visionaries and creators of our male counterparts. We are listeners, we are problem-solvers, we are collaborators,” Manoukian stated.
Wisdom and perspective
The guest speaker segment opened with keynote remarks by Suni Harford, the president of UBS Asset Management. Long known for her advocacy in support of women leaders in finance and business, Harford described her own career path as mostly unplanned, and more a succession of opportunities that opened doors to others. She emphasized the importance of women as consumers and drivers of change, underlining that female empowerment is connected to the bottom line and there must always be an economic component to the movement.
She also shared her “four pearls of wisdom” beginning with Visibility within the company’s power structure by taking positions or getting involved in special projects that allow access to key decisionmakers in the organization. Next, was Don’t Opt Out Early, when considering leaving the work world to start a family. “You don’t know what lies ahead, and you don’t know what your companies are going to look like,” she noted. Third on her list was to Take Risks, saying, “I do believe women have as many opportunities as men, but too many women wait for these opportunities and don't raise their hands to take that risk.” Her final token of advice was to Speak Up; recounting the time she applied for a leadership position in Tokyo to the surprise of her colleagues. “Everyone assumed I would never take that role, but I had never let anyone know that I wanted it.” Though Hartford’s big move never happened, she recalled that advocating for herself started an important dialogue in her workplace and opened other unanticipated doors in her career.
Picking up the threads of Harford’s speech, panel moderator Alexis Alexanian, an independent producer and former president of the New York Women in Film & Television, opened the discussion with two high-powered Armenian-American women who exemplified the “shaping the world” concept: Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking, the world’s largest network of microfinance institutions and banks; and Carineh Martin, a leading luxury brands executive who co-founded RAD, which partners with celebrity talent and brands to use the Red Carpet for advocacy and social good.
On the subject of using professional platforms to advance social progress, Martin made the case that good marketing can be authentic while creating social change, “Status and good design don’t cut it anymore. Who you are and what you believe in can have a purpose and create social progress.”
Iskenderian’s insights on empowering women financially were also instructive, “Finance can be a tool for change. When women are in control of resources, they play a much bigger role in household decision making, and money is spent unequivocally on saving towards goals.” She noted that study after study showed that, women who are lifted out of poverty and are in charge of the purse strings, spend disproportionately on educating their children. She also stressed the need for financial literacy, explaining that having a bank account, and even buying insurance, can be just as important as receiving a micro-loan.
This theme prompted consensus among the speakers that education is paramount to female empowerment and each of them owed much of their own success to their academic experiences. Martin mentioned that attending an all-girls high school led her to believe that women could do whatever they set their mind to, as the girl students assumed roles otherwise filled by boys. It wasn’t until she entered university that she understood that gender imbalance was real.
Each discussant spoke with great passion about the reward of giving back to others through their professional expertise, which provided them with the resources, tools, exposure and access to forge their own paths to uplift others. “We can take our platforms and use them to make people aware of what is happening in the world,” said Martin. “Shifting the culture is instrumental in creating change, and how we work together to change the culture in little ways can be impactful.”
On that point, Iskenderian—taking stock of the sea of Armenian women assembled—uttered a truth that resounded with many nodding heads throughout the room. “That ian/yan is like a secret handshake wherever you are. It’s something ineffable we all share.”
Alexanian expressed how impressed she was with the quality of the questions and issues raised, saying, “I’ve never been in a room with this many Armenian women, and it makes me emotional to be here today.” She continued, “We all need a forum like this, we need to talk about the things that bind us, our similarities, and we need to talk about the differences. This is how we define our network.”
The conversation continued over lunch, where attendees could talk shop with peers and make new social and professional connections. An hour later, they were back in their seats for the unveiling of AGBU EmpowerHer, presented by AGBU Central Board Member and Co-Chair of the AGBU Global Women’s Empowerment Initiative Arda Haratunian.
Launch of AGBU EmpowerHer
EmpowerHer is a multi-dimensional initiative designed to promote gender equality in the Republic of Armenia, a country in which women (who represent over half the country’s population) are still struggling for a seat at the table in business, economy and politics. They are also still grappling with outworn cultural norms that undervalue females in society and subject them to intergenerational household pressures that impede their personal growth.
Thanks to the early support of donors across the diaspora, the AGBU EmpowerHer model has the capacity to combine education, training, institutional support, mentorship, and expertise from program partners and collaborators worldwide, including AGBU Hye Geen Centers for pregnant women and the Women’s Support Center in Armenia for victims of domestic violence and abuse.
Haratunian highlighted multiple ways that EmpowerHer can help Armenia’s women gain social and economic independence, including learning workplace fundamentals and enrolling for trainings from Coding and IT to entrepreneurship and community leadership, along with a cycle of support through alumni services.
She also invited the attendees to get involved in the EmpowerHer initiative through volunteering, connecting, mentoring, fundraising, donating, and other ways to help enhance the role of Armenia’s women in business and society.
“When you transform the life of a woman, it will change their communities, the organizations they work in, and the nation they create. You are empowered to EmpowerHer,” said Haratunian.
Industry break-out sessions
The remainder of the day was dedicated to networking and advice-gathering through small roundtables grouped by industries. Each was led by a specialist in the category, including Mary Ellen Iskenderian (Finance), Alexis Alexanian (Film & Entertainment), Sara Anjargolian (Armenia Current Affairs); Ani Aydin (Medicine & Health); Tamar Donikyan (Law); Houry Geudelekian (Gender & Women’s Issues); Arda Haratunian (Communications and Marketing); Kris McGarry (NGO/Education); and Seta Nazarian (Philanthropy and Volunteerism).
The sessions allowed participants to explore industry-specific issues and questions. For example, the Finance group, representing entrepreneurs, small business owners, and leaders in global companies like PayPal, PWC, IBC, and the World Bank, discussed topics from creating informal female support systems in male dominated offices to asking for the same opportunities and responsibilities as men. “Being the only woman in the finance department used to be the narrative” said Elizabeth Akian. “But now we have women running departments and it’s fulfilling to see others grow.” Others also noted the importance of having female leaders. “We have a gift as women in the way we nurture relationships,” said Oriona Nikaj. “We can see that here today in this conference.”
The Medicine and Health group shared insights on how to approach mentors in their field and how best to offer their skills in the Armenian world, considering EmpowerHer’s new healthcare initiative. In the Armenia Current Affairs group, participants agreed with Sara Anjargolian, the chief of staff of Armenia’s Office of the High Commissioner of Diaspora Affairs, who said “nation building is not a spectator sport.” They discussed the changes in the country since the Velvet Revolution, and how unprecedented programs like “iGorts,” which invites Diaspora Armenian professionals to work in Armenia’s state institutions, are tapping Diaspora talent throughout the world.
The heavily attended Film, Television and Entertainment session explored ways for aspiring creative types to build their personal brands and profiles on social media, recognizing the power of digital media to increase visibility and exposure of their work. Meanwhile, the Communications and Marketing group discussed the benefits of finding mentors and proactively reaching out to established professionals without the fear of rejection. The Philanthropy and Volunteerism session weighed the pros and cons of starting a non-profit organization from scratch versus partnering with more established organizations, thereby ceding some of one’s decision-making power.
Insights and takeaways
Positive feedback from the sessions was consistent among the groups. “I really got something out of this discussion today, said Katia Ariyan. “I expanded my network of Armenians in my industry, made connections, and learned more about how to put myself out there toward what I want to do.”
Her sentiments were echoed by attendees, speakers, and organizers, alike. “Being at an event like this, I now feel like I could push my Armenian world one step further into a more career-driven, professional, and inspiring place,” said participant Shushan Sargsian. “I am so inspired by all of the amazing things Armenian women are doing here, in Armenia and all over the world, and this has given me a lot of ideas on how to get involved.” Another participant, Lernik Essayei chimed in, “This is why we all need to be connected at least once a year, to remind ourselves why we are doing what we are doing.”
At the close of the day, Alexanian made an astute observation, saying, “I think we identified an underserved audience that needs this forum for empowerment, bonding, ‘what Armenian means to me’ and inspiration. It’s so obvious. It was very impressive to see how many people are committed, passionate, want to network and connect.”
Nila Festekjian, the woman who first planted the seed of holding an International Women’s Day conference over a year ago, characterized the event as an “unqualified success” and invited attendees to email their thoughts, ideas and suggestions for future forums to EmpowerHer@agbu.org.