Vahe Keushguerian:
REPATRIATION AND RETHINKING DIASPORA

Vahe Keushguerian:

“We have to focus on positive things”

Vahe Keushguerian visited Armenia in late 1990’s for the first time and very soon got involved in the wine industry. Now he is a head of Semina Consulting’s team, a winery incubator and consulting firm and a co-founder of Impact Hub, a social innovation co-working space. Vahe told Regional Post about his projects and thoughts about repatriation.

Interview : Areg Davtyan /   Photo : Vahe Keushguerian Archive

 


When did you first come to Armenia? Remember your very first impression?

— I was born in Syria, raised in Lebanon, then I spent two years in Italy, after that moved to the US. In 1997, when I was already producing wine in Italy, a friend of mine suggested to travel to Yerevan, to see Armenia. We arrived very late at night and I will never forget the moment when I got up in the morning and saw Ararat from my hotel room’s window. It was so symbolic and so impressive. And it was April, so I also spent Genocide commemoration day there, visited Karabakh.

In 1998 you started your business here. How did it happen, assuming the risky and unpredictable situation at the time?

— The funny thing was that although I was in the wine business, I never knew that Armenia had so much history and traditions in this sphere. Here, I met some people who were producing wines and I soon learned that Armenia not only has an ancient winemaking tradition, but it was also one of the cradles of wine culture. So, in 1998 started a company, and later planted my first vineyards. A few years later, it appeared that I didn’t plan the business well enough. It was the first failure in my professional life. In 2004 I quit the project. It was one of the saddest days in my life, emotionally draining. I’ll admit, I had thoughts of not coming back.

But still, you did.

— Following that period, for a few years, I was just visiting, mainly as a tourist, because I still had many good friends here. In 2009, I came to Armenia with my family for a year to experience the country. Upon my arrival, I experimented with the Karas project and worked with a couple local wine companies.


Now, besides Karas Wines, you are involved in the industry with Semina Consulting. What’s its role?

— Semina Consulting started as a supplier of equipment for wineries. I had contacts in Italy, so it was a natural way of getting involved. In 2013, I started my personal winery which slowly transformed into a winery incubator and consulting firm. We now do experimentations with various Armenian indigenous grape varieties and within this winery, we have incubated many of the popular wine projects in Armenia.


Being involved in the industry, are you satisfied with its development in Armenia?

— In the earlier years, people would ask me how I saw the future of winemaking in Armenia. I used to say that within 5-8 years one would not be able to recognize the industry. And it turned out that I was right, and a lot did change. Now, there are a lot of new great wine companies who are exporting. The country is importing wines from all over the world, and with opening wine bars, we have many opportunities to develop a wine drinking culture. The problem now, is that the industry is growing too fast. Not because we don’t have the knowledge or investment, but that we do not have enough red grapes to keep up with the pace. Unfortunately, the industry and government were not prepared to face this reality.

Three years ago you co-founded EVN Wine Academy. What is its mission?

— It is a joint project between Semina and ICARE. Semina organizes short courses – training sommeliers, waiters, teaching fundamentals of wine, etc, while ICARE organizes the institutional part, an 18 month intensive oenology certificate program. Our students have been sent to many European countries for trainings. Most importantly, most come back and get involved in the local industry. Basically, that’s why we started the academy, to have more young professionals in the wine sector.


So, you see the lack of professionals?

— Mostly when we talk about the technical part. Because education in Armenia in that sphere had not kept up with global industry innovations. For decades, Armenia was more focused on brandy production, so fine wine received less attention.

Years ago you repatriated following your sense of adventure, but that obviously cannot be a general rule for everybody. How do you think Armenia can attract more Armenians from the Diaspora?

— The best time to move to Armenia is when you are young. You can recover very fast from mistakes or decide to move on. But to truly impact the economy, Armenia needs the 30-40 year-old experienced professionals. Potentially, they can contribute a lot. And here is where the country can do a lot and they have not so far. They create a narrative in the country that creates an “it’s not the time yet” mentality. In my opinion, The Ministry of Diaspora is doing very little. We have to focus on positive things happening in Armenia. There are many ventures, like Tumo, the Impact Hub, the tech sector in general with people and projects that are really trying to move the country forward.

What about Diaspora? Do they have to change their approach too?

— Yes. For many people Armenia is something frozen in their minds, the way they left it or the way they saw it twenty or thirty years ago. Many organizations still only focus on Genocide and Karabagh War issues. What about today? What about the future? They have to cooperate with Armenia in a way that looks towards large scale impact. Of course, it’s very important to look at things realistically, without romanticizing and without demonizing.


You mentioned Impact Hub, one of the Armenian projects you’re involved in. How was it formed?

— With a couple other repatriate friends, we came up with the idea after the 2013 Yerevan municipality elections, where we helped to organize the monitoring. We involved over one hundred monitors from diaspora and local repats. It was a great experience and it gave us momentum. When the elections were over we understood that we can’t lose that spirit of activism and friendship we gained from those days. We thought about a co-working space for the civic society, or a coalition mix of NGO’s and businesses. We discovered Impact Hub, a global network of co-working spaces with impact oriented missions, and decided to become part of it. We had a one year feasibility study phase that proved it was time for Yerevan. Lots of great people were looking for the kind of environment where collaboration and change were intuitive. Now, I can consider it one of the success stories in Armenia. The beauty of it is that we are not just different teams working separately, but deeply cooperating with each other with common goals.

Seems like a bright success story...

— Of course one could say that we live in a bubble, while the country is in a deep crisis. I still see huge problems in villages, but still, there is a positive dynamic. I want to believe there is. It is a matter of time and political will.