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From Paris, with Pride and Purpose

AGBU 90th General Assembly unites behind an inspired vision for the future 


The esprit de corps of hundreds of participants from across the globe was on full display as the AGBU 90th General Assembly weekend proceeded with a program of events from February 7 to 10, 2019. Over three momentous days and nights, the atmosphere was infused with optimism, perspective, gratitude, and pride, punctuated by the element of surprise for some of the unsuspecting individuals honored for their distinguished service and support. 

“The sheer presence of so many luminaries in our midst—from public servants, thought leaders and community heroes to legendary philanthropists and dedicated volunteers—spoke volumes about how far we have advanced as a people and as an organization,” observed AGBU President Berge Setrakian. “Such an exuberant show of solidarity from all corners of the AGBU network affirms the special role Armenians can play as global citizens.” 

From as far as Australia, Uruguay and Japan, Armenia and the Americas, AGBU faithful and friends joined their European counterparts to engage in stimulating interactions and panel discussions by day and social networking and cultural performances by night, culminating with the formal session of the 90th General Assembly, followed by a spectacular Gala finale. 

As an added attraction, all had the opportunity to experience the magic that is forever Paris. Thanks to the efforts of AGBU France, each event was hosted in a unique Parisian landmark venue—from the iconic Eiffel Tower to the futuristic Station F. Other period venues included La Salle Wagram, Les Jardins de Saint Dominique, and the grand spaces of Le Pavillion Ledoyen.

This special section recaptures the many unforgettable moments of this highly anticipated biennial occasion in which the global AGBU family gathers under one roof—a vivid representation of the timeless wisdom of AGBU’s founders:  “In unity is strength.”

AGBU Delegates’ Leadership Meeting

As a lead up to the official program of events, formal representatives from across the global AGBU network, including chairs of AGBU districts, chapters, schools, and young professionals, convened with AGBU Central Board members and staff for an exchange of ideas, presentations, best practices, and institutional next steps. 

The morning session opened with introductory remarks by AGBU President Berge Setrakian, who laid out the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for Armenians and outlined AGBU’s unique role and responsibilities in managing a rapidly changing world. This was followed by presentations from Central Board members and executive staff. They spoke to issues of governance, outreach and development, and best-practice communications strategies, as well as new developments in AGBU programs, including AGBU Armenian Virtual College (AVC) ebooks, AGBU language and heritage apps, and the new AGBU Atlas, which connects users to a wealth of online resources on Armenian subjects. 

Afternoon breakout sessions challenged teams to develop the next big idea in AGBU programs, with a lively pitch battle that revealed the out-of-the-box creative thinking within the ranks of the AGBU global network. 

The all-day gathering sparked constructive dialogues and a spirit of collaboration through face-to-face interaction among peers, many meeting each other in person for the first time.  

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A breakout group brainstorms ideas for future AGBU programs as part of a pitch battle.

A breakout group brainstorms ideas for future AGBU programs as part of a pitch battle.
A breakout group brainstorms ideas for future AGBU programs as part of a pitch battle.

Welcome Reception at the Eiffel Tower

International delegates, members and friends kicked off the General Assembly weekend with an elegant evening at Salon Gustave Eiffel atop the iconic Eiffel Tower, which boasts spectacular nighttime views of the City of Lights. The lively interaction among friends and acquaintances, old and new, helped set the upbeat and congenial tone of the entire weekend. 

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AGBU Members at welcome reception of the General Assembly

AGBU Members at welcome reception of the General Assembly
Left to right: Alexis Piranian; Hagop Didizian; Nadine Ariyan; Haig Ariyan; Carl Bachian; Donna Didizian; Chris Didizian; Raffi Bachian.

Global Leadership Conference at Station F

Entrepreneurship, new technology innovation, leadership, and women’s empowerment were the themes of this all-day conference at Station F—the world’s largest space for incubator startups. AGBU representatives and attendees were exposed to the penetrating views and insightful perspectives of internationally renowned experts and distinguished panelists who explored the new paradigm shifts in science and technology that will have broad sweeping impact on the world. They also surveyed the current business environment in Armenia, and examined the unique virtues of women that are essential to national progress. 

Introduced by Stéphane Petrossian of AGBU France, the main thesis of the morning session was the dawning of the Quantum Age. Keynote speaker Robert Vassoyan, Senior Executive Vice President of Atos S.E., asserted that governments, corporations, communities and organizations like AGBU must prepare for the coming wave of far-reaching change, both to seize opportunities presented by science and technology and to manage the challenges posed by counter forces in cyberspace. Vassoyan concluded his insightful presentation focusing on Armenia’s future and the tremendous opportunity for start-ups, young talent and women, characterizing Armenia as an “eState” and stressing the value of putting citizens at the center of this new way of looking at nationhood.  

As moderator of the first panel discussion on entrepreneurism in the context of Armenia, Central Board member and President of AGBU Armenia Vasken Yacoubian posited that the entrepreneurial spirit is central to Armenia’s capacity to grow economically. Panelists included Tatul Ajamyan, Founder of Wakie and IT startups, Aline Kamakian, Entrepreneur and Founder of Mayrig restaurants, and Vahe Keushguerian, Entrepreneur and Co-Founder of Impact Hub Armenia. Each provided deep insight on the issues surrounding starting a business in Armenia and the importance of promoting cultural tolerance between Diaspora and Armenia, as well as integrating female entrepreneurs into the Startup economy. 

The afternoon session expanded on the topic of women as AGBU Central Board member Arda Haratunian moderated a candid discussion among high profile female leaders in various fields: Astrid Panosyan, Entrepreneur and Politician (LREM); Emma Arakelyan, Author and NYU Professor; Valérie Toranian, Director of Revue des deux Mondes and former Editor-in-Chief of Elle Magazine in France; and Isabelle Capron, Vice President of Icicle Shanghai Fashion Group. 

While the panelists had starkly different backgrounds and experiences early in their careers, their success stories shared common themes, including having a vision for their career, the will to pursue it, and the values to be a true leader. Two panelists pointed out that they didn’t highlight their “Armenian-ness” until much later in their careers, choosing rather to “blend in” from the time they were young. Now as established leaders, they recognized that the desire for justice as it relates to the Armenian story compelled them to advocate for what was right in their careers, as well as their communities. There were also contrasting views about whether the female predisposition to nurturing and caring creates stronger leaders because of or in spite of these qualities. Several panelists highlighted the value of having and being mentors, noting that women don’t ask for favors as readily as do their male counterparts.

The following panel, moderated by Stéphane Petrossian, focused on how AGBU is supporting female entrepreneurs in Armenia, many of them from the rural areas. Entrepreneur and Founder of Hyetech Europe Armen Verdian spoke about his experiences in developing the tech industry in the country, while Digital Transformation Lead at Brenntag Haik Khanamiryan highlighted AGBU Europe’s Goriz Leadership program, designed to help young leaders collectively represent the Armenian identity as global citizens. 

AGBU-Armenia Executive Director Talar Kazanjian outlined the AGBU Women’s Empowerment initiative, which includes the Women’s Enterpreneurship (W.E.) program in support of enterprising women in Armenia looking to scale up or start a small business.

Picking up on the many threads of ideas and concepts that emerged throughout the conference, special guest President of Armenia Armen Sarkissian took to the podium to describe his vision of Armenia in light of the rapid succession of what he considers smaller “evolutions” that are cumulatively transforming the socio-economic landscape of Armenia in ways previously unimagined. He cautioned that, at the end of the day, these quantum leaps of technological wonders must be mastered to remain consistent with national morals and values.

Charles Aznavour Tribute Concert 

The life and legacy of global entertainer, Armenian statesman at large, and longtime friend of AGBU Charles Aznavour was artfully captured on the intimate stage of La Salle Wagram, conjuring the bygone era of cabaret society in post-war Paris—where the lyrical genius became the toast of the torch song genre. The tribute opened with a powerful medley of Aznavour’s best-loved ballads, performed by his esteemed accompanying pianist Erik Berchot and collaborating jazz singer Joana Mendil. 

In line with AGBU’s long tradition of fostering rising Armenian talents, contemporary vocalists Narine Dovlatyan, Iveta Mukuchyan, Hayk Petrosyan, Sona Rubenyan, Srbuhi Sargsyan and Gor Sujyan, dazzled the audience with their stylistic tributes. Documentary footage chronicling Aznavour’s illustrious career and worldwide impact on society was interspersed throughout the program, recalling cherished memories and moments of one of the few cultural figures who instinctively knew how to connect with the masses. 

Among the distinguished audience members was Aznavour’s son Nicolas Aznavour, co-founder of the Aznavour Foundation.“It was a great pleasure for us to honor my father’s memory with the AGBU family in Paris,” Aznavour remarked. “This concert marks the beginning of many collaborations between AGBU and the Aznavour Foundation. Charles Aznavour has brought so much joy and pride to our lives. It is our collective duty to keep alive his artistic and humanitarian legacy.”

AGBU 90th General Assembly

A public forum to address the vital interests of the AGBU, assess accomplishments of the previous two-year cycle, reaffirm commitments to programs and initiatives, announce changes in governance, present the AGBU financial report for the years 2016 and 2017, and recognize champions of the AGBU mission, the 90th General Assembly official session convened at Les Jardins de St. Dominique, with ample meeting spaces to accommodate the over 300 attendees from over 20 countries. 

With AGBU President Berge Setrakian and Central Board members presiding, a number of significant announcements and resolutions were incorporated into the official record, including an amendment to the AGBU by-laws that redefines the qualifications of membership as anyone who considers themselves a friend of AGBU, without regard to nationality or religion. This change demonstrated AGBU’s expanded scope as a global non-profit organization with a responsibility to address global issues of relevance to Armenians by forging strategic partnerships with institutions and organizations with universal missions. 

 “Our reputation and open-minded approach have allowed us to develop strategically aligned partnerships with world class institutions and incomparable organizations like the United Nations, the EU, USAID, the Smithsonian and most recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,” President Setrakian noted in his official speech. “Our chapters and offices have also taken important steps to collaborate with regional NGOs and cultural institutions, once again building bridges between cultures and elevating the Armenian voice into the mainstream conversations.”

AGBU Young Professionals were recognized as permanent entities of AGBU, with language reflecting their new status in the by-laws. The measure is intended to continue to facilitate the expansive growth of the YP network worldwide. The effort began that same weekend with two YP events featured in the weekend program: a forum on Leadership with Professor Emma Arakelyan, after the General Assembly; and a workshop held at the Alex Manoogian Cultural Center, the following day. 

Elections were also held for four new board members, all unanimously voted into office. 

Haig Ariyan (New York), the president and CEO of Alex Brown and head of Raymond James Global Wealth Solutions. He is a member of the board of trustees of the Diocese of the Armenian Church and St. Nersess Seminary. He also sits on the board of the Dadourian Foundation. 

Ari Libarikian (New York), a senior partner with McKinsey & Company and the leader of the Digital McKinsey Northeast location.  He previously held positions at Nortel Networks and Bell Labs. He currently serves on the board of the Children’s Aid Society in New York. 

Nadia Gortzounian (France), who enjoyed a long career in the pharmaceutical industry at Merck & Co., in France. Appointed President of AGBU France in 2015 and AGBU Europe in 2016, she spearheaded the development of strategic objectives for the region. Gortzounian is also the treasurer and general secretary of the Coordination Council of Armenian Organizations in France (CCAF) and a member of the board of the Bullukian Foundation in Lyon. 

Vartkess Knadjian (United Kingdom), current CEO of Backes & Strauss and President of AGBU Belgium from 2002 to 2005. Closely involved with Armenia since 1993, he is a partner in the Lori Diamond Factory in Nor Keghi, Armenia. He is also the co-founder of the Armenian Jewelers’ Association and the Armenian Jewelers Foundation. 

For the final segment of the session, President Setrakian presented awards to a select group of individuals, starting with the presentation of the Boghos Nubar Award, AGBU’s highest honor bestowed on community members who elevate others and work tirelessly in service of society. This year’s honoree was French politician Patrick Devedjian. Celebrated as a universal role model and global Armenian citizen for his advocacy, Devedjian was also honored for his unrelenting pursuit of justice in relation to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, which led to the passage of a 2016 extension of the current French holocaust law, making the denial or trivialization of all events classed as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or slavery punishable crimes..

The next group of honorees were caught off guard when they were invited to the podium to accept their awards. Tamar Khabaian from Syria, Monica Nalbandian from Brazil, Maral Tchorbadjian from Australia, and Herminé Duzian from France were each celebrated for their valiant efforts in serving and maintaining the spirit of AGBU. 

The AGBU Buenos Aires Chapter was also recognized for its community outreach, with particular reference to its Armenian Restaurant initiative. Open every weekend to the Armenian and general population, the money raised by AGBU youth restaurant staff goes directly to fund their annual youth trip to Armenia. To date, over 900 youth from Buenos Aires have visited the homeland thanks to this unique initiative. AGBU Buenos Aires Chair Ruben Kedikian accepted the award on behalf of the chapter for its impeccable dedication to excellence and community outreach. 

Both YP Greater New York and YP Northern California were also celebrated for over two decades of galvanizing the newest generation of leadership in the Armenian world with their dynamic spirit of service and activism. The awards were accepted by YPGNY Chair William Nazarian and YPNC Chair David Ojakian. 

While the Assembly celebrated past achievements, members were also encouraged to look to the future. “We’ve been called upon to navigate uncharted waters that require flexibility, ingenuity, vision and above all, unity. Finding a solution is no simple task. But one part of the answer is clear,” President Setrakian noted. “We, here in this room are in a position to provide. We must provide opportunity. We must provide a forum for growth. And we must provide a means to engage all Armenians across the globe and speak to the interests of the new generation.” 

As the 90th General Assembly came to an end, participants left Les Jardins de Saint Dominique with evidence that AGBU is evolving with its community, embracing progressive definitions of Armenian identity, while honoring its centuries-old tradition of empowering Armenians worldwide.

AGBU Gala Finale

Saturday evening brought participants to the spectacular AGBU Gala at Le Pavillon Ledoyen, one of the oldest restaurants in Paris.  Central Board member Ani Manoukian and London Trust Member Camilio Azzouz served as emcees. During the dinner portion of the evening, two distinguished couples were surprised to learn that they were being honored for their decades of active support of AGBU and the global Armenian community: Sarkis and Seta Demirdjian; and Vatche and Tamar Manoukian. Both couples were presented with tribute videos and a special award bestowed on them by AGBU President Berge Setrakian. 

Building on the storied legacies of their parents, prominent figures in the AGBU communities of Lebanon and Syria, Sarkis and Seta Demirdjian have continued to expand their philanthropic mission, encouraging new generations to follow their lead. It was the Demirdjians, including Sarkis’ brothers Avedis and Hagop, who, after the Lebanese Civil War, committed to creating a community center that would welcome the broader Lebanese community, making AGBU the first Armenian organization to create such a powerful medium of solidarity in the country and a model of social enterprise. Beyond investing in education through the AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School in Canoga Park, CA, the couple also supports the arts through their work with the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra and numerous national music festivals. Committed to excellence, the Demirdjians were honored for their relentless efforts in bettering not just the Armenian world, but society at large.  

In the same vein, Vatche and Tamar Manoukian continue to be pillars of the AGBU community, ceaselessly supporting initiatives that empower Armenians throughout the world. Investing in the Diaspora by founding such educational facilities as the Vatche and Tamar Manoukian High School and arts programs like the Performing Arts Center in their name, they also support programs that uplift the Holy See of Etchmiadzin and the people of Armenia. They have attracted investors like Bristol-Myers Squibb, Coca-Cola, and HSBC to contribute to the economic development of the republic. Through their work with other global non-profit organizations like UNICEF and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Manoukian’s generosity toward the most marginalized communities has helped elevate the Armenian image on a global scale. His Royal Highness Charles, Prince of Wales characterized their impact on his Dumfries House project, expressing his congratulations by saying: “I hope that you know how much you are appreciated for all that you have done in the United Kingdom. I would’ve called you a national treasure, but with your scope and breadth of work, it would be more accurate to describe you as an international treasure.” 

As the General Assembly weekend concluded, participants prepared to leave Paris with a broader understanding of just how much the Armenian world is empowered by, and in turn, inspires the rest of the world. “After four full days of thoughtful reflection, stimulating conversations, celebrations, and recognition of so many exemplary individuals,” President Setrakian said, “there is no doubt that AGBU is ready to take the next big leap into the future as a united force for good—across our communities, in Armenia, and throughout the world.” 

Originally published in the 2019-04-01​ issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

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AGBU Magazine is of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.