The majority of Armenians live in the diaspora. A new startups programme is finally bringing them home

For years, Armenia’s relationship with its far-flung diaspora has focused on traditional culture, longstanding history, and persuading those abroad to invest their money “back home”. One new programme hopes to change all that — with all eyes firmly set on the future

27 February 2019

Growing up in the capital of Lebanon, Arthur Bizdikian would listen to his grandparents telling stories of life in Armenia. When they died, his last tangible links to his ethnic homeland disappeared — and he was in no rush to revive them. Despite Beirut’s large Armenian community, he had no interest in Armenian culture and preferred listening to RnB music.

“A lot of [what I had heard] were stories about the mafia and how bad the economy was,” he admits. “There had never been a reason to visit, apart from emotional ties.”

Now, Bizdikian is on the verge of opening his own businesses in Armenia. This change of heart is thanks to the Neruzh programme, a new attempt to entice the country’s large diaspora back home. Neruzh, which means “potential” in Armenian, aims to win over young creatives by providing incentives to found their own startups in Armenia. Those selected are offered places with local incubators, free accounting services, and mentorships.

For Bizdikian, who applied after an aunt sent him an advertisement, it was his first visit to Armenia, the homeland that defined his grandparents. He was not alone. “For most of the people there, it was their first time in Armenia,” he says.

Image: Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology

After attending Neruzh’s flagship event in December — with representatives from 70 different firms — Bizdikian won the chance to work with the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology, or FAST. Over the next year, he will build up his business, Lemonade Fashion, which uses computer-aided manufacturing to produce affordable made-to-measure clothes.

Bizdikian’s introduction to Yerevan’s tech scene made a lasting impact. “Four months ago, if you’d asked me about business in Armenia, I would have said it was something that could happen, well, maybe 10 years in the future,” he says. “[But] when I visited I saw lots of opportunities. Armenia has an amazing tech scene. My dream is that one day we can collaborate with designers and have a Made in Armenia tag on some of the clothes we offer.”

Image: Lemonade Fashion
Image: Lemonade Fashion

Armenia has always tried to maintain close ties with its vast diaspora. But, as with almost every aspect of political life, the revolution which swept the country in April last year has triggered a re-think about how best to do this. Thousands of Armenians took to streets, unhappy with former President Serzh Sargsyan and his ruling Republican Party, which had controlled the country’s government for the past 15 years. While diaspora relations may not have been on top of the protestors’ agenda, the government’s handling of foreign policy was one of the reasons for their anger.

Sargsyan’s vision for the diaspora had been to use money sent from abroad, encouraging remittances and outside investment from successful Armenians. Many, however, were unimpressed by this — and some even accused former Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobyan of causing ties between Armenia and its overseas community to sour.

“This is one of the first instances of Armenia supporting the diaspora, rather than the diaspora supporting Armenia”

Neruzh has been one of the flagship policies in a new, post-revolution approach. Instead of soliciting financial donations, it wants to “repatriate expertise”, bringing educated and ambitious Armenians back to the country. Officials hope this will pave the way to a more balanced relationship with the diaspora.

“This is one of the first instances of Armenia supporting the diaspora, rather than the diaspora supporting Armenia,” says Babken Dergrigorian, deputy minister at the Ministry of the Armenian Diaspora. “The startup scene Armenia is a hidden jewel. The costs of setting up a business here are comparatively low. We are trying to make the business scene as friendly as possible post-revolution.”

Image: Oknooshoon

It’s an approach that has won supporters among both Armenian startups and the diaspora. Nairi Krafian grew up in Boston’s Armenian community and also attended Neruzh. Her non-profit startup, Oknooshoon, trains rescue dogs to become therapy animals, and she says that sharing knowledge is more important than financial aid. “The diaspora has done a good job driving industry in Armenia,” she says. “We can keep donating money and building companies, but I think our skill-sets are more valuable than anything [else].”

Like Bizdikian, she says attending the conference transformed how she sees modern Armenia. “In my previous experience working in Armenia, I felt a lack of cooperation and support within the non-profit community,” she said. “At Neruzh, I witnessed groups pushing each other to be better, sharing resources, and celebrating each other’s accomplishments. Seeing this immense openness and positivity gave me confidence that the collaborative spirit does exist in Armenia.”

“We think it will be easy to move and integrate — as long as you are curious”

Others are in the process of planning a move to Yerevan. French-Armenian entrepreneur Chahan Vidal-Gorène and his French co-founder, Baptiste Queche, are the minds behind Calfa, a software programme that can read handwritten or printed texts. They have honed their work to focus on Armenian, opening up the possibility of digitising thousands of ancient Armenian manuscripts. “Our company is currently based in France, but indeed we are considering a move to Armenia,” says Queche. “We think it will be easy to move and integrate, as long as you are curious and willing to learn more about the country’s culture and people. We believe that it will be possible to launch there with lower costs.”

Image: Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology

Overall, Neruzh is a success story for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power after the revolution and who has clashed with some major diaspora investors. But the Neruzh model is not just a way to entice entrepreneurs back home. The programme has also proved to be an effective method of updating old visions of Armenia and sweeping away an idealised version of the country that some in the diaspora community have grown up with. That means coming face-to-face with harsh realities.

Vidal-Gorène and Queche admit they are worried about bureaucracy and Armenia’s small market. And they believe there is a still a noticeable “distinction” in outlook between local and diaspora Armenians — although it is growing “tinier and tiner each day.”

Despite its success, Neruzh faces an uncertain future. The country’s Diaspora Ministry — founded in 2008 — was informed after the revolution that it would be shut down. Officials have said that its responsibilities will be reassigned, but the move still sparked objections.

The programme has updated old visions of Armenia and swept away an idealised version of the country that some in the diaspora community have grown up with

Without the ministry and the Neruzh programme, it would have been much more difficult to move to Armenia, according to Queche. “The diaspora is a real strength, and the initiatives that emerged during Neruzh showed this. It is essential that this kind of initiative continues.”

While the programme may well be reshaped, those behind Neruzh hope their new approach will live on. “Traditional heritage is important, but it’s more important [for the diaspora] to see Armenia as a real place: not a land of milk of money, but a land with both challenges and opportunities,” says outgoing deputy minister Dergrigorian. “There’s no need to fall back on false patriotism or cultural tropes. What’s important is that whatever the diaspora is doing [where they’re currently based], they feel like they can do it here too.”

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