Anna Ouroumian is changing the face of business. The intrepid social entrepreneur and outspoken education activist helps empower and transform America’s high-school students from underrepresented and underprivileged communities into the business leaders of tomorrow. A daughter of war-torn Lebanon, she is fearless in the face of adversity. “It’s all in the mindset,” explains Ouroumian, who leads the Academy of Business Leadership (ABL)—a charity that instills in youth the idea that they can create their own wealth. “The minute the kids stop feeling sorry for themselves and start believing in themselves, they flourish.”
It’s all in the mindset. The minute the kids stop feeling sorry for themselves and start believing in themselves, they flourish.
Over the course of a seven-week summer session, the students in Ouroumian’s program break into groups and write comprehensive 50-page business plans for their dream companies. Among the unique ideas are a 17th-century-themed bed and breakfast, a drive-through espresso café and an auto parts shop geared for teenagers with modified tuner cars. The aspiring young entrepreneurs are then required to support their plans with real-world data and experience. They visit companies and listen to success stories from executives with diverse backgrounds, manage imaginary $100,000 stock portfolios in competitions for cash prizes and often are provided with mentors and internships with companies as prestigious as Google.
To help inspire and motivate her students, Ouroumian does not shy away from recounting her own life story as a model of what can be achieved through determination, vigilance and hard work. It is a story that reads like a movie script unfolding in and around a bullet-riddled orphanage in Bzoummar, Lebanon, some 36 km northeast of Beirut. “I opened my eyes and there was a war going on,” she recalls.
No one knew exactly when her birthday was but Ouroumian always felt older. “I had a mouth on me and I felt like I was born with binoculars,” she continues with a charming smile that conceals the traces of a traumatic childhood.
Growing up in an orphanage, Anna and her younger sister would pray for a kind nun to stay with them. Their prayers were answered when Sister Aghavni entered their life. “I was an angry kid,” Ouroumian says, ”who would often get into trouble.” One day Sister Aghavni said to her “Anna, my daughter, who do you think you are hurting? What would Jesus have done if He were in your shoes?” Those were the first words of wisdom Anna had ever received. Notions of kindness and forgiveness—then unknown and strange—suddenly began to penetrate Anna’s consciousness. “I decided to become a nun,” laughs Ouroumian, who has since moved to the United States and graduated from UCLA with a degree in economics.
Her formative years in and out of 11 orphanages taught her never to take anything for granted. As a young girl she was often homeless during holidays and summer breaks. “During war time, my uncles and aunts didn’t want us over the holidays and would send us from one relative to another in a taxi,” she recalls. Overwhelmed with memories, she pauses for a breath and suddenly realizes it is the Christmas season. Less than 25 years ago around this time she would be all by herself in an orphanage, feeling rejected, angry and hopeless. Today her home is a luxury high-rise condo in Long Beach, California and she is full of enthusiasm and optimism. But the memories endure—barely holding back tears, this self-made, bold and confident woman cannot help but acknowledge the virtue of life.
Fluent in French, Arabic and English, Ouroumian remembers convincing older students to teach her Armenian letters and sounds. Books provided a temporary respite from the cruelty and bleakness of war. The green doors of the local bookstore were the gateway to her dreams. “Leaving Lebanon was the only real way out,” she says.
At the time as an orphan teenager in the midst of a war zone, she miraculously escaped to Cyprus and made it to the United States Embassy. After waiting for seven long hours at the embassy and witnessing denial after denial, she was the only person to get a visa. At the age of 17, with two books under her arm and $160 in her pocket, Anna landed in Los Angeles.
Five years later she graduated at the top of her class, interned for one of her role models, former President Ronald Reagan, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation where she immersed herself in the world of philanthropy. Her dedicated work in training and outreach was duly recognized in 2003 when she was nominated to join the Women’s Leadership Board at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Boston, becoming its youngest member.
“AGBU covered my school tuition without even blinking,” remembers Ouroumian with gratitude in her voice. “I called them, introduced myself, told them I was admitted but had no way of covering my tuition and they just paid it for which I am eternally grateful.”
The 48-year-old shines a bright smile as she talks about her program at ABL. “I believe in capitalism with my heart and soul,” she says. “And that’s what we teach our students.” With an annual fundraising budget of $700,000 in addition to support from Merrill Lynch, Bank of America and the investment management firm PIMCO, Ouroumian practices what she preaches. She is currently seeking a long-term sustainable model and is in the process of remodeling the program to incorporate multimedia platforms.
Among her many business ventures, she recently partnered with renowned celebrity designer Jack Armstrong to create the world’s most expensive art bike. Listed at $3 million the Cosmic-Star Cruiser ArtBike is a one-of-a-kind luxury art piece awaiting its new owner.
Once a girl who lived through a war dreaming of a bicycle, now a CEO of an organization striving to help students make their dreams come true, she has this to say to all those who dream but are fearful: “Feel the fear and still do it, go after passion, not money, and stay true to yourself.”
Banner photo by Hagop Vanesian