For a country to not take advantage of half of its population is disaster. 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.
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 participants enrolled in AGBU Women Entrepreneurs (WE.) 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.”