Pegor Papazian

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by John Hughes

By nearly any standard, the lives and careers of Pegor and Marie Lou Papazian are exceptional, measured from Lebanon, to New York, to Spain, to California, and almost to Thailand, before adding Armenia to the twisting journey followed on their professional paths.

At age 46, the couple, who have known each other since their childhood in Beirut, are leading projects in Armenia that would be crowning achievements for most, but for the Papazians come as mid-career challenges and successes that likely are just a beginning.

On October 16, when the "Wings of Tatev" aerial tramway opened to take passengers to Armenia's beloved Tatev Monastery, international news followed the story because the cable car—at 3.5 miles (5.7 kilometers)—became "the world's longest reversible aerial tramway." More importantly, it introduced a convenient means by which visitors might reach the revered site and cultural showcase. (Till now, access has been over a torturous mountain road hardly suitable for any vehicle and practically impossible for tour buses.)

The $50 million Tatev Revival Project, which includes the tramway, renovation of Tatev Monastery, community development and tourism infrastructure, is only one area of development being overseen by Pegor Papazian in his duties as Chief Executive Officer of the National Competitiveness Foun­da­tion of Armenia (NCFA). While the tram has already made the Guinness Book of World Records, setting records is less of a concern for Papazian than improving the quality of life in Armenia—a goal the Competitiveness Foundation attacks in four major sectors: tourism, healthcare, education and communications networks.

And, perhaps next spring, when the Tumo Center for Creative Technology opens in Yerevan, it too will bear the Papazian family imprint from Marie Lou, Project Manager for the approaching $30 million (so far) learning and development center that could make Armenia a regional leader in information technology.

With a campus, public park, and six-story office/ educational building overlooking the Hrazdan Gorge, the IT center is the brainchild of Dallas entrepreneur (and AGBU Central Board member) Sam Simonian, who tapped the creative and technical talents of Marie Lou Papazian and put her in charge of what is likely Armenia's most significant development in the field of computer science and digital media.

As a team, it is hard to imagine any couple with greater potential for shaping Armenia's near future than the Papazians.

Fantasy meets reality

Pegor Papazian says he used to fantasize about "spending a year or two in Armenia." The reality is that he is now approaching his sixth year (in February) after "one thing led to another."

He came to Armenia to work as Head of Project Development for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and then, last year, landed his current position.

NCFA, founded by the Government of Armenia in partnership with businesspeople in the United States, Europe, Russia and the Middle East, works to create public-private cooperation on projects that contribute to business and social development. Its Board of Trustees is made up of government ministers and also prominent businessmen, including Ruben Vardanian of Troika Dialog in Moscow, and Ralph Yirikian, General Manager of VivaCell-MTS.

The foundation is a facilitator of sorts, connecting existing sectors in need of development with private enterprises whose resources can fund programs or offer direction in strengthening them.

In education, NCFA's primary project is creating a "Convergence Center" intended to strengthen links between science and industry in Armenia with leading counterparts abroad. Such a center would form a coalition of academic experts and will function on the model of research parks in other countries.

NCFA is also working to exploit Armenia's potential as a regional center for treatment of cancer and heart disease. Among its plans is the creation of a nuclear medicine facility in Yerevan to produce isotopes used in oncology and cardiovascular diagnostics.

A "Broadband Armenia" project supported by NCFA aims to increase the penetration and affordability of Internet service in Armenia.

As CEO of the foundation, Papazian's role is to put the right pieces together to make the projects happen.

He says he likes the diversity of the projects and can see how strengthening a variety of major sectors in the country will eventually benefit all society.

"Now," he says, "is a good time to catch the wave (of development) in Armenia. The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed."

Previously, Papazian was vice president of strategy and product development for Prosum Technology Services (based in California), which became one of the fastest-growing private companies in the United States. Before that, he was a founding partner of Design Technologies Consulting, based in Barcelona, Spain. His academic resume includes an MBA from Chicago Graduate School of Business, a Master of Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Bachelor of Architecture from American University of Beirut.

The rest of his resume requires a globe to follow but, abbreviated, is this:

From Beirut to Palo Alto, California (briefly as a teenager); back to Beirut (to study architecture and to marry high-school sweetheart Marie Lou); to New York where Marie Lou attended graduate school (Columbia University) and met classmates with whom they founded the IT consulting company in Bar­ce­­lona and where they had the first three of five children, and then...

"When Vahakn (the eldest son) was six, we were concerned whether he would have a chance to attend an Armenian school. At that point, we assumed we would move to Armenia," Pegor recalls, then laughs, adding, "of course we moved to Glendale."

He says the young family "wasn't ready then for Armenia," and in fact had never even visited at that point. But neither did they feel at home in Glendale, though they were there for seven years while helping expand Prosum. During that period, the rapidly growing company created an office in Bangkok and asked Pegor to lead it.

"Thinking about the Bangkok job got us used to the idea of relocating (again)," Pegor says. Meanwhile, the USAID job became available and he announced to his company: "I'm leaving, but I'm not going to Bangkok. I am going to Armenia."

Managing a dream

Marie Lou Papazian has degrees that include a Master's in construction management and in education and technology. She has founded the Narod Network Project and its successor, the Three Pomegranates Network, not-for-profit Internet-based education programs that connect Armenian schoolchildren worldwide. Now, in her capacity as Project Manager, she oversees every design and construction detail of Armenia's future revolutionary IT center and, in doing so, is boss to about 50 laborers and specialists, of whom 45 or more are men (in a culture where "female" and "boss" rarely exist in the same sentence).

She is too also a mother of five, including seven-year-old twins.

It would be redundant to say that she has a lot of energy.

As Project Manager for Tumo (the nickname of honored poet and author of children's stories Hovhannes Tumanian), her days are filled with the administrative duties of wrestling with subcontractors, or with detailed design demands, such as choosing the best granite for floor cover. Or, in a twist that challenged her engineering-architectural skills, relocating a two-floor staircase, after Simonian's daughter suggested to her father that it would be better placed in another part of the building's main entrance.

Marie Lou is slight, and her physical stature is at first noticeable on the grand construction site, but is soon an afterthought in the consuming presence of her energy and enthusiasm.

When she was recruited to work on the site nearly five years ago (selected based on a project proposal she presented at Sam Simonian's request), her role was as a consultant. (Her previous experience included project managing construction of the Marriott Hotel near New York City's World Trade Center—a building that became known among builders as "Marie Lou's baby.") At the Yerevan site, her talents emerged and she morphed into the role of Tumo project manager.

At first, she had to prove herself to the male-dominated workforce.

"In the beginning they looked at me and didn't give me any importance," she says, adding that attention would always focus on the male closest to her in conversations, as if she were merely on hand. "But when they saw how I organized things, they realized that I could make things happen."

And she made things happen, without taking shortcuts with bureaucracy, such as paying bribes for licenses, contracts, permits, etc.

Her willfulness in such matters helped bridge the gender divide and, even in Armenia, her staff and colleagues "soon forgot that I'm a woman."

Marie Lou calls her work "the dream project I could ever want to be involved in," made so, she says, because "Sam (Simonian) and I have the exact same way of thinking—of planning the future, of going back to basics, and of seeing what is most important. (Others) were always telling me, ‘You're on another planet.' But Sam had the same vision."

The vision—to see Armenian youth have access to the best in information technology resources—is what drives the methodical and sometimes elliptical raising of the center.

The sprawling center covers about 45 acres, anchored by the six-story complex in which two floors will be used for IT development and training; the upper four floors will be rented out to businesses and corporations, and it is Simonian's hope that income from the upper floors will pay for the maintenance of the IT center.

A park featuring "pop up" fountains, a reflective pool and plenty of green space will welcome guests, just down Halabian Street from the Kievian Bridge, and near the Physics Institute. The intention, says Marie Lou, is to create a transition between nature and cyberspace, as students enter the IT center.

Once inside, members will find a universe hardly imagined in Armenia. It will seem, says Marie Lou, "as if you are in the most advanced part of the world."

The center will accommodate up to 1,000 young people at any one time, who will be coached by specialists in digital media, website development, animation, game development and, perhaps, robotics during after-school hours. Membership to the center will be available to ages 12-18, at a cost comparable to fees paid, for example, for music lessons.

Young people who show particular proficiency after a year or so will be "promoted" to the second floor, where they will have their own private studios and incubator labs.

A 100-seat theater with capacity for showing 3-Dimensional material will be a showcase for media created by the members, and an amphitheater with glass walls and no ceiling will hold performances and presentations.

Marie Lou hedges predicting a precise opening date, but is hopeful that the first floor will be ready for use next spring. The center had an original target-opening of 2008. Delays have been more like discoveries, however, as Simonian and Papazian have continually adjusted initial plans as new ideas emerged.

"It's like building your house," Marie Lou says. "Sam wants everything to be perfect."

Perfection will be met in an environment where "transparency" is the other keyword.

Throughout the first two floors, there is hardly a hidden corner or even a wall without some transparent portal into an adjoining part of the building. Even the drop ceiling is made of a metal mesh through which can be seen the miles of cables that will connect 1,000 eager cybernauts to the world of information.

Monitors hanging from the ceiling will, among other uses, broadcast what members are working on. "If we see something interesting on someone's screen, we will broadcast it so that the others can see what their neighbors are working on," Marie Lou says.

There are no dividing walls on the first floor, and special mobile computer desks have been designed, putting a battery pack on the back of the seat and with rollers, so that at any time one student can move his/her work station next to another, linked by an umbilical cable to the hard drive, or else operating wirelessly. (Two unrelated details: Each light in the center can be manipulated individually by computer—from anywhere in the world, by a technician who has system access. A special type of acoustic paint has been applied throughout the first floor, so that there will be no echo in the open-space work area.)

Uprooted and settled

Pegor Papazian misses seafood; Marie Lou misses cranberry bagels. Other than that, neither regrets dislodging their family to find professional fulfillment in Armenia. After all, they had considered living here, though it is doubtful they might have envisioned the significant roles they are playing in Armenia's development.

Both say they find satisfaction in knowing that their talents are being applied "in the homeland." But both, too, emphasize Armenia's opportunities.

"I wouldn't diminish (the patriotic aspects)," says Pegor. "But there's also the career-oriented part. (In Armenia) I've been able to put all my aptitude to use. My work here is multifaceted. That's something I might not have been able to achieve somewhere else."

Both are engaged in projects that, while long-term, have foreseeable conclusions. Then what?

"We don't have any specific plans to leave," Pegor says. "We didn't come here (only) for the jobs."

Marie Lou says that her main concern in moving to Armenia was whether they might have deprived their children (now ages 7-18) of educational opportunities they would have had in the States.

Her concerns were lightened this year, when their son, Vahakn, was admitted into America's most prestigious academic institution, Harvard.

In August, they took Vahakn to Boston to start his freshman year and to begin grown-up life outside their home.

An orientation program was held on the campus for entering international students. From some 30,000 applicants, about 1,600 were accepted, representing 28 countries. The matriculating students' names appeared alphabetically on a program with Armenia at the top.

During the presentation Marie Lou sent her son a text message: "I am so proud of you. You are here representing Armenia."

Vahakn sent a text back: "You should be proud of me after I finish here, and have done something like you and dad are doing.