Igniting Entrepreneurship in Unexpected Places: An Interview With Sara Anjargolian of Impact Hub Yerevan

10/07/2014 05:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

About a year ago, I found myself sitting in the least desirable seat on the plane - the middle of the middle on a massive airliner directly in front of the restroom. On my left was a man in a grey undershirt, understated in appearance. Meanwhile his posture was one of dignity and pride. As I took in the scene, other travelers on the airplane walked down the aisle, pausing to stare at the man next to me, continuing on their walk, and then turning around to stare again. After two or three passengers stopped to stare, I couldn't help but ask, "Who are you?"

It turns out my neighbor was Raffi Hovannisian, the first Foreign Minister of Armenia and founding leader of the national liberal Heritage party, founder of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, Armenia's first independent research center. So what did Raffi and I have in common besides both ordering the lasagna dinner?

Raffi and I had a highly enriching conversation about a topic we both care about: social entrepreneurship. Our dialogue ultimately led to my visit in Armenia a year later to soak in the social entrepreneurship scene and develop strategic partnerships for The Global Good Fund, the social enterprise I work for.

During my visit, I explored a variety of mediums and key societal leverage points that reinforce social entrepreneurship - from Junior Achievement to the Green Bean, the UN to USAID and the State Department, I discovered that Armenia - and Yerevan in particular - is ripe with opportunity for social entrepreneurs. It's an emerging ecosystem, one that would benefit from global visibility of the social enterprise foundation that is forming. Particularly compelling are the individual stories of people, often from the Armenian diaspora, who are returning home to invest in societal impact through entrepreneurship.

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting one such individual, Sara Anjargolian, an attorney and multimedia journalist, whose story is inspiring and beautifully illustrates the power and potential of social entrepreneurship.

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Sara grew up in Los Angeles, California, where there is a large Armenian community, and learned to speak the language and invest in the culture. Sara was determined to eventually move to Armenia and contribute to the country's redevelopment.

Fast forward to today. Sara and four co-founders - Vahe Keushguerian, Raffi Kassarjian, Audrey Selian and Narineh Mirzaeian - are launching Impact Hub Yerevan, Armenia's first physical space for entrepreneurs to foster innovation and collaboration. I had the pleasure of getting to know Sara, learning about her motivations to accelerate social change in Armenia and listening to her plans for Impact Hub Yerevan.

Here is our interview. I hope you enjoy what Sara shares.

Please tell me about your background:

Sure. I was born in London and spent the first six years of my life in Tehran. My father is Iranian-Armenian and my mother is Iraqi-Armenian (Armenians have lived as Christian minorities in countries like Iran and Iraq and around the globe for centuries). My parents met in the UK where they were both completing PhDs - my dad in electrical engineering and my mom in microbiology and cancer research. After my birth, we moved to Tehran where my father's family was residing. In 1980-81, as the Iranian revolution was reaching its peak, we moved to Los Angeles.

I grew up in suburban L.A., went to UCLA for my undergraduate degree in political science/public policy, and then went on to Berkeley's Boalt Hall for law school. My first job out of law school was with the Department of Justice (DoJ) in DC. After a few years with DoJ, I was itching for a grand adventure, so I applied for and was granted a Fulbright scholarship to Armenia. I moved here in 2002.

My Fulbright research focused on analysis of due process and rule of law in Armenia. During my Fulbright, I also began to discover the power of visual imagery and multimedia journalism to raise awareness and inspire action. I stayed in Armenia after completing my Fulbright for two and a half years, straddling two exciting worlds - I worked with Bars Media (a documentary film studio in Yerevan) and served as Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of the American University of Armenia law department.

Around the end of 2004, I felt it was time to move back to Los Angeles and resume my legal career. I began working as a policy advisor to the Los Angeles City Attorney and had the opportunity to work on safety issues in neighborhoods around Los Angeles and formulate the City Attorney's policy objectives. I stayed with the City for about seven years and grew tremendously during that time, both as an attorney and as a professional, but something was missing. I had kept my ties with Armenia strong and spent all my vacation time returning to Armenia on short term projects.

Something about working in Armenia had stayed with me since my Fulbright days and in 2012 I decided to move back, this time with the intention of being part of the nation's growing civil society and the wave of social change taking root in the country.

Many of us living in Armenia today and our compatriots within the Armenian Diaspora have ideas for making the country and the world a better place, but where does one go to make them happen? This is where Impact Hub Yerevan comes in.

What inspired you to build Impact Hub Yerevan?

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The time is right in Yerevan. It is a city of 1 million in a country of 3 million in a world of 10 million Armenians. The narrative of the country is itching to shift from "it cannot be done" to "yes, it can be done."

Now, 24-years after independence, a new generation who never knew the Soviet Union is dusting off the cobwebs of its parents' generations and is taking responsibility for its own fate. The 20- to 30-something generation in Armenia is bold, globally connected and locally invested, they refuse to accept the "that's just the way it is here" excuse. Moreover, although seven of the ten million ethnic Armenians worldwide live outside the Republic of Armenia, hundreds of thousands of members of the large and influential Armenian Diaspora engage with the country on a multitude of levels - investing financially, philanthropically, intellectually and emotionally.

Hub Yerevan is, therefore, in a unique position to draw on professionals from all over the world - from Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Paris, Moscow, Beirut - just to name a few of the cities where sizable Armenian communities reside. Impact Hub Yerevan will serve not only the best and brightest innovators and creators inside the country, but will act as a bridge and a conduit between changemakers in the Diaspora and their counterparts inside Armenia.

We have an impressive founding team which includes Vahe Keushguerian, Raffi Kassarjian, Narineh Mirzaeian, and Audrey Selian, who is involved with the Advisory Committees of the Global Impact Hub. We are a team of individuals with a shared vision consisting of equal parts dream, skill and professionalism. Together we hold an unwavering desire to see the country prosper and possess a strong track record of personal and professional achievements. Take a minute to Google these folks, you'll be blown away by their backgrounds and accomplishments.

What are your goals for Impact Hub Yerevan? What benefits will emerge from building Impact Hub Yerevan, both in Armenia and locally in Yerevan?

Like a greenhouse for great ideas, Impact Hub Yerevan is where entrepreneurs and innovators grow their social impact projects and businesses from concept to implementation to impact. Within our shared workspace, the goal is to offer thought-provoking programming and educational events, to house and inspire a community of entrepreneurs, thinkers, creatives, community builders, investors, policymakers, developers, artists and many others - all collaborating toward a more successful Armenia and a better world.

The benefits?

1) Establish entrepreneurship as an essential social impact driver in Armenia and the Caucasus.

2) Educate and empower the next generation of social entrepreneurs with the knowledge and skills required in today's markets.

3) Put into action the top ideas, systems and technologies developed, thereby creating new companies, organizations and jobs, while firmly connecting Armenia with global networks of innovators and changemakers.

4) Connect and foster impact projects between social entrepreneurs/innovators in Armenia and their counterparts within the Armenian Diaspora.

5) Challenge over-dependence on the State and over-reliance on international aid and grants and encourage models with long-term financial sustainability.


You mention that Impact Hub Yerevan is based on the Impact Hub global structure, yet it will be simultaneously rooted in Armenia's local realities. Could you please explain this further?

A Nexis search for "social entrepreneur" yielded 389 english news stories in 2001 and more than 3,000 in 2011. Armenia is solidly riding this wave as well, not because it is the newest business school trend but because our very existence depends on it. In a place where economic options are limited and where an oligarchy has monopolized the major industries leaving little room for entry into key markets the choices left are either recreating oneself through entrepreneurship and innovation, or leaving the country.

In addition, another shift is occurring - Armenia's aid days are coming to an end. Throughout the 1990s crisis period and in the early 2000s, massive amounts of aid were poured into the country. Although humanitarian assistance was crucial during the early days of independence, it is imperative that Armenia now shift away from a focus on charitable initiatives and instead move towards sustainable development. The Armenian Diaspora's appetite for charity has been waning in recent years. Fatigued from pouring money into the country, Diasporans are shifting from blind giving and armchair philanthropy toward investable projects with an expectation of blended (social and financial) return. These individuals seek to support initiatives that sustain themselves (and Armenia) in the long run. Toward this end, Hub Yerevan co-founder Audrey Selian has begun to establish a community of practice among investors who understand risk and the cost of change through Impact Circle Armenia - an informal online network of impact investors interested in exploring possibilities in Armenia and the region.

On the heels of these transitions, Impact Hub Yerevan comes into existence to provide an inspirational home and a plethora of resources for both our budding entrepreneurs taking ownership of the country, and for those who would like to invest in and support them.

Impact Hub is a innovation lab (in cities across the globe) for social entrepreneurs to collaborate. Why Armenia?

I would say that the main social objective in Armenia is industry creation coupled with a shift toward an empowering narrative of the country.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, during the early years of independence in the early 1990s, the disintegration of all the major industries, the effects of a devastating earthquake, energy blockades by Turkey and Azerbaijan, and the Nagorno-Karabakh war paralyzed the country economically. Armenia hemorrhaged about one fourth of its population within the first decade.

Despite these challenges, we see great potential within Armenia. What it lacks in natural resources, it makes up in human brainpower. Armenia has the highest level of entrepreneurial activity among the three South Caucasus countries (per a 2013 World Bank report), a 99% literacy rate, and one of the highest number of per capita chess grandmasters in the world. Armenia's highly educated and innovative population is the country's greatest asset. Moreover, although Armenia is ethnically homogeneous, its national identity is made up of a rainbow of hybrid cultures resulting from its worldwide diaspora - French-Armenians, American-Armenians, Latin-American Armenians, Middle Eastern-Armenians, Australian-Armenians and Russian-Armenians. Each group identifies Armenia as its ancestral homeland, and brings to it a kaleidoscope of skills, perspectives and resources. Against this backdrop, the opportunities are significant - for job creation, for innovation and for entrepreneurship as a response to the shortcomings of public service delivery, and for scalable interventions that can be capitalized if the available funding finds the appropriate pipeline. This is where Impact Hub Yerevan comes in.

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Yes we are a country with two closed borders and a frozen conflict - the Impact Hub Yerevan community will not be defined by those borders, or by any borders for that matter.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge when you launch Impact Hub Yerevan?

Social entrepreneurship is a new concept in Armenia. Our nation is transitioning from a heavy concentration of NGOs and charities dependent on grants toward an emerging ecosystem comprised of more sustainable social ventures. While there is positive movement toward social entrepreneurship, there is still a great deal of effort that needs to go into educating the general public on the importance of social entrepreneurship and innovation. To address this challenge, Impact Hub Yerevan aims to host a wide variety of educational and networking events for entrepreneurs and innovators as we build our community. Moreover, our Yerevan Hub community will be connected to over 50 Hubs worldwide. The knowledge sharing between Hubs is phenomenal, as intellectual property from one Hub is shared willingly across all Hubs.

For instance, throughout our onboarding process, Impact Hub Yerevan received a great deal of information and support from the Founders of the Hubs in Milan, King's Cross, and Prague, who have served as direct mentors and been extremely generous with their time and wisdom. Our Yerevan team has also visited numerous Hubs around the globe (Athens, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Singapore, Zurich, Geneva, Vienna, London and NYC to name a few), so we have a lot of great organizations to model after.

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Please tell me about a few organizations that are making a positive impact in Yerevan:

There are so many fantastic organizations doing important work in Armenia, it's difficult to pick just a few. Specifically in the realm of social innovation and entrepreneurship I'll pick five: UNDP's Kolba Lab, Teach for Armenia, the Homeland Development Initiative Foundation, Saryan Tumanyan and Hive Start.

The first of its kind within the UNDP global network, Kolba is a social venture incubator aimed at identifying social challenges, testing ideas and nurturing ventures. Defining themselves as a community of troublemakers, thinkers and fixers, Kolba facilitates collaboration to address big social challenges by engaging talented people who get stuff done rather than hierarchies of people telling one another what to do.

Based on the Teach for All model which focuses on expanding opportunity around the world by accelerating the impact of social enterprises that are cultivating the leadership necessary for change, Teach for Armenia recruits young professionals with a record of achievement to expand educational opportunities for all children by teaching for two years in schools.

The Homeland Development Initiative Foundation's (HDIF) website banner reads "Jobs in Armenia. Jobs for Women. Jobs in the regions. Jobs using traditional skills. That's all." This tagline sums it up. HDIF's broad-scope goal is the initiation, facilitation, and nurturing of sustainable economic development initiatives in Armenia. Their benchmark is the creation of 1,000 employment opportunities within 5 years. While traditional handicrafts creation and sale is the main vein of the organization, opportunities in tourism and events such as festivals also provide a rich opportunity for sustainable economic ventures.

Founded in 2013, Saryan Tumanyan is a startup incubation initiative and currently home to five of Armenia's most exciting startups. Created to provide mentorship, education and networking opportunities, Saryan Tumanyan seeks to bridge the gap between local startups and international mentors, founders and investors.

Hive Start is the first Armenian virtual network and accelerator for startups and mentors from around the world. Designed to empower Armenian entrepreneurship and promote job creation, Hive focuses on seed investment, acceleration programs, online and offline events and sustaining a mentorship network for members.

I have had the good fortune of working with these organizations which I consider to be forces for positive change in Armenia and beyond.