“You have a competitive advantage despite using only four senses”
Armenak Khachatryan

“You have a competitive advantage despite using only four senses”

Armenak Khachatryan was only 14 years old when he left the specialized boarding school for visually impaired kids and entered a regular one. He then obtained a degree in law, established a successful company, for the first time won a lawsuit against the monopolist of the market, and then started HelloSIM – one of the most promising startups in telecommunication industry in the region.

 

Interview : Karine Ghazaryan   
Photo : HelloSIM Archive

 

Mr. Khachatryan, why did you decide to leave the specialized school?

— This was a turning point in my life. I opted for Sebastatsi educational complex, which was a regular school, but its curriculum was very unusual. The studies were based on creative practice rather than on academic theory: it had its own authors and textbooks. The school was established by physicist Ashot Bleyan and his colleagues in the 1980s, and the Soviet educational machine had somehow accepted it. Bleyan himself helped me a lot. He once told me, “I think all the kids should leave the specialized school for a regular one. We can’t build a school for curly people, right? Why then we need this one?” I have been in specilized schools in Yerevan and Kiev, but it was in the regular school that I first encountered communication between so many different people: I had to deal with the smart, the lazy, the calm, the unruly, even with those who could burn down the classroom door! This was a fantastic environment where I learnt a lot, not only in its academic sense, but also in the sense of human relations and the freedom of communication.

Was the Kiev specialized school different?

— In many ways it was better. It was bigger and stricter. Also, the school canteen was maintained almost entirely by the kids – the cook was the only special personnel. The children had to clean the rooms themselves. In Yerevan we had employees for everything, but the result was not better: they did not pay much effort, and the kids had no duty to take care of the food or cleaning.

You studied law in Yerevan State University. Was there infrastructure for disabled students?

— No, but it was still manageable. I would just record the lectures and then listen and memorize them. Oftentimes I would copy the notes of the best students in class, then record a friend reading it. I actually think we should stop concentrating on what we lack and do what we can. We have to change the mindset of people: ok, this guy does not see, but there is always an alternative solution. For example, blind people’s brain stays free from a lot of distracting information, leaving more space to attention and memory. So one has competitive advantage despite using only four senses.

Did you use braille during your studies?

— A 200-page book will comprise five folios when printed in braille, so it’s not very practical. Audiobooks are much better, and there was a good tradition of recording them even during Soviet times. Armenian Association of the Blind used to record 20-30 books a year, and the best broadcasters were engaged in production. One copy was always sent to our specialized school where there was a library with about 300 recordings. In 1989, I found and bought a broken reel-to-reel tape recorder, repaired it, and started to listen to books with great pleasure. I still love literature, although now there is no need to find special libraries or equipment: a smartphone is just enough.

You got your degree in law but established a technological start-up. How did you enter the field?

— I understood very quickly that finding a job would be difficult, and I would need to start my own business. So, I soon got engaged in the growing IP telephony industry. We established a successful company, and even won a case against ArmenTel, the monopolist of the market at that time. They were afraid our company would grow into a competitor and used to create obstacles for us cutting off our telephones and the Internet. So, in 2002, we sued them and won 10,5 million drams. To my knowledge, this was the first case ArmenTel lost. It became a precedent and caused a whole chain of lawsuits.

Your current company also seems to have a potential to compete with big businesses.

— HelloSIM offers a unique solution. We provide universal SIM cards which allows to have all the Internet and voice services available in 207 countries – almost everywhere on Earth. And it can be used in any device with SIM card supply. So, imagine you get off the airplane, and need no roaming configurations – you haven’t even been disconnected from the network. If you travel to several countries in a row HelloSIM can be the best option. Our offices operate in Armenia, Georgia, and Belarus, but we deliver cards all over the world: we have clients from 48 different countries.

You provide Georgian telephone numbers. Why not Armenian?

— In Armenia, the Public Services Regulatory Commission and their Chairman Robert Nazaryan refused to register us. The reason was still the same: we might become competitors for big companies. So, we got a Georgian license and have operated successfully for several years now.

You graduated from prestigious university and became a successful entrepreneur in a country which has no established inclusive policy for disabled people. And, you name going to a regular school the turning point in your life. Was it one of the keys to success? Would you recommend regular school to blind kids?

— It’s certainly worth trying. I think kids these days are more open to accepting people with disabilities. In order to be inclusive, you have to be free from inside, and children now are much more independent than in the times of my childhood. In the past, the Soviet Union had a strategy of pressure and segregation: the government gathered disabled people in specialized institutions, isolating them from the general society. This policy of isolation encouraged the society to take no notice of those with disabilities. People thought they had nothing to do because the government took all the care of the disabled. The remnants of this attitude stayed for years after the collapse of the USSR.

Has the society changed now?

— I think it has, but we have also changed. 15-20 years ago, it was much more difficult for me. Not the life in general, but establishing new connections was particularly hard. Now, both me and the society have overcome some complexes, so it has become easier to break stereotypes.

After the Velvet Revolution it is common to make wishes. What do you think the government has to change in its policy regarding disabled people?

— There is so much valuable international experience which can be easily adapted and applied in Armenia if the government provides resources for disabled communities. But the most important is the psychological aspect. Disabled people should feel they are needed. Or, more precisely, they should be useful. Fantastic energy is concentrated in disabled people.

We already have brilliant examples, like Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Zara Batoyan.

— Exactly. These people are strong and enthusiastic, always ready to lend a hand and put effort. So, if the government can create a fair and efficient system to realize this great potential, we as a nation will gain a lot.