Aristakes Jessayan

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A Dutch Armenian Does Business in the Motherland

Thu, Nov 24 2011

The following article was published in September in the Dutch-language business periodical “Geld & Beleggen: Informatieblad voor de Beleger.” It’s been translated into English by Dr. Bedros Nersessian.

Entrepreneur Aristakes Jessayan was born in Athens, Greece to an Armenian family and has, for the past six years, run two travel offices in addition to owning two event agencies in the Netherlands. In 2007, he traveled for the first time to Armenia, the land of his ancestors, and fell instantly under the spell of the country. There he saw a wealth of musical talent alongside great poverty. He has since set up a charitable foundation, partially funded by the proceeds of a garment factory that, in his words, started “with a bit of struggle”.

“During my trip to Armenia I became impressed by the country,” Jessayan says. “Setting foot for the first time in my motherland felt like a refreshing experience. The people are enormously friendly, but also I found it challenging; there is a sharp contrast between rich and poor, and corruption hinders further development. During my stay I visited a music academy. You see, besides being a businessman, I am also a musician and music matters very much to me. Let me make a side note about a highpoint in my singing carrier: It was the 2005 invitation to perform the national anthem of Armenia at the opening ceremony of the Netherlands-Armenia European Soccer Championship Game. While I was in Armenia, the school director made sure that a number of kids performed during my visit. I was impressed by the great number of talented piano and violin players, especially one girl who had already been playing piano for 12 years. As it became evident that these youngsters were in needy circumstances, I made a contribution toward their teachers’ salaries and the acquisition of music instruments.”

The foundation

Back in the Netherlands, Jessayan began a small charity to assist the deprived in Armenia. “The Aristakes Jessayan Foundation (AJF) aims to generate funds for children, orphans, war victims, the handicapped, elders, and other needy people,” the mission statement reads. “We make sure to reach the recipients directly and not via middlemen or entities. This is done under the close scrutiny of local AJF staffers.”

Old Soviet factory

The AJF has been up and running for a couple of years now, and progressing steadily. Many young musicians unable to afford music lessons are being helped by the organization to pay their teachers. The rundown heating system at a home for the elderly and at an orphanage have been repaired and are running. In March 2011, Jessayan traveled to Armenia again and met Hakob Harutiunyan, an expert in the garment trade who previously managed a fashion design school in the Netherlands. “Together with him, we visited a diamond factory where we met another mutual friend. The factory was housed within an enormous industrial complex dating back to Soviet times.”

Wandering around they saw a large room full with some machinery—as it happens 120 sewing machines—covered with sheets of plastic. “Prompted by my entrepreneurial instinct, I told Hakob: You are a fashion designer. These machines are left idle with no purpose. Let’s put them to use.”

Jessayan says that this was the starting point of his Charisma fashion label. “I became the investor and Hakob the label designer and factory manager. I like the substantive and hate an idle—excuse the expression—bull. When I established my travel agencies I had never done anything in the travel business. I just started and love doing it with great enthusiasm.”

Polo shirts

Charisma is up and running. The factory’s been inaugurated and prototype batches of high-quality polo shirts, with a stylish, fun emblem on the collar or sleeve, are ready. “Not long ago, Hakob and I travelled to Istanbul to purchase a half ton of fabric,” Jessayan says. “There are huge textile mills in Istanbul where one can find the best quality fabrics. In anticipation of the forthcoming European Soccer Championship we also purchased orange colored fabric. We have currently seven ladies on staff, but it should be many more. I aim for 50-100 workers. In this way I am trying to help provide employment for my people. A polo shirt will cost roughly €50. The underlying premise is that for each sold shirt, one euro goes to the foundation, which assists needy people and institutions—in other words self-help. We are of a modest scale, but who knows what will pan out.”

One and half million Armenians live in LA

Charisma’s future plans are to manufacture other types of clothing and accessories. But the textile and fashion industry is hugely competitive. How is the Charisma label going to stand out? “To begin with, we have an advantage that Armenians, especially in the diaspora, form concentrated communities. There are 15,000 Armenians residing in the Netherlands. When I showcase a shirt at a community event, which next to the Charisma logo carries the “Made in Armenia” label, it sells because each purchase helps folks back home. In Belgium there are 25,000 Armenians that can be similarly reached. People who frequent these gatherings bring with them the ‘Armenian spirit’. There are also large numbers of Armenians in the U.S. In the LA area alone there’s around one and half million. I plan to reach such markets and attempt to expand and popularize the Charisma brand name via the web.”

Entrepreneurship and philanthropy

Armenia is a country of stark contrasts between rich and poor, and there are many obstacles due to entrenched corruption. Despite this realization, Aristakes Jessayan is hard at work. “I owe it to my father, who has always actively helped our people. I asked him once why he did it. His response was: It is my duty, even though there will always be people who try to take advantage when you start a project, even in Armenia. I learned that business and philanthropy are quite compatible. This is one of the reasons why I want to eventually see the workers become co-owners of the company. Then they would be even more motivated about its objectives.”