Personal Conversation

Personal Conversation

Regional Post’s Executive Director Arshak Tovmasyan and the Team Leader of EU’s Support to SME Development in Armenia project Eva Näher spoke to six young female entrepreneurs to find out what inspired them to found their own company and why everyone should do just the same.

 

Eva Näher: A while ago, we travelled to Berlin where we organised a 7-day Armenian Startup Academy project; nearly everyone during the discussions at the panel were men. And there was a question from a GIZ colleague from headquarters in Germany who asked whether women are active in the Armenian startup scene. There were a few women taking part in that discussion and people even recalled numbers from Silicon Valley which were lower than in Armenia. However, we know that in many fields this is a widespread international problem, and Armenia is not an exception. So, it is interesting for us to hear your perspective as women who work mostly in classical male domains – engineering, IT, film production, etc.

Armine Anda: Inside your small social circle no one treats you differently because you’re a woman. But when you start to be involved in, for example, policy development activities, as we are now involved in film industry development (including the law), there you can feel the difference. When you are a stand-alone writer or a film producer no one cares you being a woman or a man. Yet, once you start doing more, once you want to influence the whole system, there you can see the difference in how men and women are treated. Not the same trust is given to women. But I am sure any policy development process will be more productive if both women and men are engaged.

Mane Varosyan: Actually, I have never felt uncomfortable as a woman in this field because our team is partly male and partly female. Complications happen only during the meetings with partners when they see suspiciously young people. All of us are young and it often creates difficulties.

Eva Näher: Time will solve that! But in general, in entrepreneurship there are less women than men. Do women have less ideas? I doubt that. So why does it happen? And what made you found a company, developing a startup? Also, why do you think other women are not interested in entrepreneurship?

Shaghig Aguilian: When we started the company, I wasn’t involved as a co-founder. It was actually my male partner who realized that I had a lot to offer to the company; he realized that he needed me to kind of complete the set. So, he pushed me to be more involved. Actually, my friends had always pushed me to start something on my own, but I had never given it a serious thought. I’m not saying I doubt myself but in entrepreneurship it is very difficult to start a business when you do not have financial means to go into such burden, because for someone completely independent – it’s, really, risky.

Lilit Misakyan: I work in engineering but I’m not a specialist in the field: currently, I do PhD in religious studies. When me and my brother decided to start this project, it was very hard for me as I wasn’t sure I could cope. It took me six months to understand what the field is about, and once I did, I felt I’m just in the right place. I enjoy doing this business. Of course, I had many problems because we work mainly with older generation and for now I haven’t met a single woman engineer. People usually do not even imagine that a woman, let alone non-specialist, can work in this sphere and really understand it. At first no one even took me seriously; they thought I’m someone’s secretary or a young girl who knows languages and can assist in some way. But gradually they saw I had a lot of good projects to offer and started to respect me. We even found out that while male engineers cannot bring all specialists together, I can do that. Armenian men are known to have very complicated character and they are sure their project is always the best. When we try to handle big industrial projects for manufacturers, it is quite hard for men to come together and work out some mutual solution. In such cases my presence often solves this problem.

Flora Babajanyan: Although I’m not a co-founder, I have been a part of Earlyone’s team from the very beginning and I learned a lot about entrepreneurship. The founder of Earlyone has always told all of us that we work now to establish our own business one day.

Anush Arakelyan: But through the history women were less highlighted as creators or entrepreneurs than man. This is not only an Armenian issue; it is common for very many nations. From ancient times it was clear that women’s main function is to take care of the household and to be a mother (which is true by nature). We also know, that female and male organisms are different from nature. But how you use your own capabilities is a big game changer. There is no law in nature that will prove women are less capable to create. We have an unlimited opportunity to explore and challenge our possibilities. So from one point we can understand men when they do not think about giving a responsible position in business to a women, not because of gender but relying on statistics of female leadership in history. However, I think if you prove you are a person to rely on, you will be given a chance. And you will become an example of a new model of women that will change the image built for centuries. I think it is worth to do it. Eventually our goal is not proving who is stronger – men or women, but to contribute to the progress of the modern world.

Arshak Tovmasyan: So, a woman has to work to prove herself harder than a man, does she?

Anush Arakelyan: Yes, we should act more self-confidently, speak up more. I worked very hard, and my male colleagues invited me to be a co-founder in Koreez. I wasn’t the one who came up with that idea.

Eva Näher: But did you tell them you were interested in the position?

Anush Arakelyan: No, and I wasn’t really. I’m an artist: the most I wanted was being an art director. But I managed to contribute to the company growth and also found a lot of cool people who could be a part of a new beginning. So I became one of the co-founders of the company.

Shaghig Aguilian: I moved here 14 years ago from Syria and I still don’t understand the idea that in Armenia women should always be taking care of the household. As far as I know even in the Soviet times gender equality was an official strategy. It might be not entirely fulfilled in the society, but it still was unique. So, I assume at some time a change happened. I don’t know how, because even after the collapse of the USSR and during the war women worked more than men. I know so many stories of mothers who were the one to earn bread for the family. So, it’s a bit contradictory for me: on one hand, women are not considered breadwinners; on the other hand, in so many cases they were actually the ones taking care of the family financially. I really think this is a message to men to see that their mothers and wives were out there working, not only cleaning dishes all the time. I’m not saying there are no women enjoying being a housewife: it’s perfectly fine, and I appreciate it. But putting that image on everyone is really frustrating for me because that was not always the case. At least it looks different from my perspective.

Anush Arakelyan: It is true, women were always working. For example, there were many female painters who were not less talented or successful than men, but the history just does not recognize them as notable figures.

Shaghig Aguilian: I was raised in a society where women were mostly at home. Even my generation of girls were less likely to go to college, and most of my classmates are already married with kids. It’s ok to be a housewife but when you see that the percentage of housewives in the society is overwhelming, it’s an alarming sign that there is something wrong. This is a problem, and people should seek solution. For me, the solution was leaving Syria.

Flora Babajanyan: I think one of the best ways to overcome that is education. A child should know he or she has a right and ability to have a professional life. Moreover, I think no parent wants the worst for his kids, so it is possible to find a way to explain them, to show how important their support is.

Armine Anda: But for now, Armenian families in general do not encourage future businesswomen; they encourage daughters to become daughters-in-law. I think it is connected to the struggle of men to keep the power. Of course, it exists everywhere but in the Caucasus or in Asia the fear to lose power even partially by sharing it with someone equal is much stronger. And that is why entrepreneurship for women is twice as hard.

Arshak Tovmasyan: People usually have both kinds of aspirations: ambitious professional dreams about a great career and personal dreams about family and children. As entrepreneurs, do you think family and job are compatible? Is it possible to manage or should you sacrifice one for the other?

Flora Babajanyan: I have always wanted to work as I saw my parents’ example. My mother worked in medical care where the schedules are crazy. But she managed to cope perfectly fine. I also want to build a career and not to miss the opportunities that turn up. But if you have a husband who understands and supports you, everything is manageable.

Mane Varosyan: I also don’t have my own family yet so it’s hard to answer this question. But in university, for example, when I asked my supervisor about different materials and approaches in my work: “What do you think, can I do this or that?” He used to tell me: “There is one thing you can for sure: get married.” He was around 70, and that was a great example for me of how people from previous generations think about having family and job combined. I personally think we will have to sacrifice something, because, well, I work from early morning to late evening and, naturally, I will have to change my schedule, but I won’t have to leave my work.

Armine Anda: I decided to become an actress when I was 10 and everybody kept telling me I might not have family if I choose this profession. As a kid, I was saying it was ok. When I grew up, I understood that it really was ok. I understood I needed to sacrifice, and I sacrificed having kids.

Anush Arakelyan: Don’t gradmas ask you whether you have any news?

Armine Anda: I hear all the time that happiness is about having a husband and kids. For me, life is not divided on personal and not personal. Everything that I do is personal: my book is personal, my film is personal, my friend is personal, my cat is personal. Everything is a part of my life, and life is one. And I’m happy.

Eva Näher: But do you think that there are many girls for whom the choice is to abandon their ambitions as entrepreneurs? Because this may be a task that takes too much of their resources and time.

Mane Varosyan: I actually have a friend who is a co-founder of an IT company, she has a full-time job and kids. But she is, of course, an exception rather than an average example.

Shaghig Aguilian: There is no black-and-white answer to this. It depends on your expectations: if you want to be a first player in the field, you will have to sacrifice a lot: family, friends, leisure time. In will be quite hard to manage with kids, as not many in Armenia would agree to be stay-home fathers. But if you want a family and average good career, you can always find time. Sacrifices will be needed, but not necessarily in a negative way. I also think that not only mothers, but fathers as well should encourage girls. My father always believed I could become something greater. This was so valuable for me, and I'd love to see more men being a part of their daughters’ lives rather than saying “she’s a girl, she should be with her mother.” That is a terrible approach from the first man she meets. But I see progress here. A lot of people tell me how they were pleased to see a young father with his kids, without moms. Yes, something started to change. And that gives hope that our nation is becoming more progressive in regard of childcare.

Lilit Misakyan: Woman or man, entrepreneurship needs sacrifices in all cases. For example, my brother has a wife and a child, but he cannot be at home as much as it’s needed. So, I think it’s quite hard for both women and men who want to be entrepreneurs and have family. I would like to have a child if I succeed in my academic career as theologian, as well as if I succeed in doing business: I really want to be an example for my kids. It’s the best way to bring change, in my opinion.

Anush Arakelyan: It's the question of developing yourself, preparing to having kids because you should be a good example for them. And that is a great motivation.

Eva Näher: I think young women lack also role models. There are no strong women, say, in business that girls in school might look up and think: “This is a direction I could go.” I imagine that entrepreneurship is also not the idea that is shared with daughters in many families, and it is almost similar to our German culture. Also, entrepreneurship is a question of choice between taking the risk or staying in the safe position of an employee. It’s not only men fearing loss of power but also women understanding what they really want and can contribute to. Another case is getting together, networking. You know, when we are preparing for a trip to Germany, I’m always kind of confused: men shake hands only with men. I tell participants not to do that in Germany as it may be offensive. It’s a small detail, but it strikes me every time.

Shaghig Aguilian: It is true! It was one of the oddest things when I came to Armenia. They bring traditions from some 16th century and make those a common thing. And it becomes common for everyone: now, I don’t shake hands with my male colleagues.

Flora Babajanyan: I also learned about this when we were getting ready for the Berlin trip. I have never payed attention that I do not shake hands but learning business ethics of another country is very important. After our trip it became kind of a habit: now when we meet male partners and they don’t offer me a handshake, I do.

Arshak Tovmasyan: Actually, men don’t always know how women would react if they offer a handshake.

Armine Anda: It also matters a lot what visions we put in front of little girls. What we do to help them to have courage to dream and have courage to follow those dreams.

Anush Arakelyan: I agree; all these happens not only because of traditions but also due to lack of information. People don’t really know where certain skills can be learnt; they think that being an entrepreneur is a secret ability that is accessible for the special ones. So, some workshops and trainings on doing business may be helpful because if people have the information how to run a company, they will at least try. And that may also automatically teach the men to shake hands.

Eva Näher: What inspired you to become entrepreneurs? What helped you and what, in your opinion, could help others?

Mane Varosyan: I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. My father has had his own business and has always encouraged us to start our own company. That is why me and my brother became co-founders of Triple-e. Father always believed in both me and my brother, he was encouraging us, moreover, we saw support from all our friends and family. And it really helped me to start.

Armine Anda: I haven't dreamed of being an entrepreneur, but I've always wanted to create – characters, stories… And entrepreneurship is a way to create, a form of creativity.

Anush Arakelyan: I just had a big motivation – which later became a skill – of bringing people together, giving them an idea and following the implementation. It’s basically like solving a puzzle: you take the right people with right skills and put them in right positions. And when you look at the overall picture, it’s pretty cool.

Lilit Misakyan: I started my career as a researcher. But I soon understood that wasn't what I wanted. On the other hand, what inspires me about business is continuous self-development, a need to work out a unique solution to a unique problem each time.

Shaghig Aguilian: When you are just a performer, you are restricted by the vision of people on top. And one of the reasons I agreed to become a co-founder of our company is that when a project becomes yours, you get more freedom of action.

Flora Babajanyan: I am sure one will succeed if he tries and works hard. In IT, known for being a male domain, I have still never encountered a gender-based discrimination. If you don’t try thinking “never mind it’s a field for guys” of course you won’t achieve anything. You should rather think you can bring new approaches to a field with lots of guys.

Eva Näher: We want to show others that running your own company may be an option, a good option. And I think our conversation may help to transfer this message to women and to motivate them to become an entrepreneur. At least, to try.