By Taleen Babayan

The visionary platform of Nerouj, a leading organization that uplifts and inspires the Armenian youth in Los Angeles in a tangible and practical manner, presented its Entrepreneurial Series on Wednesday, August 21, 2019, at the Western Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church of North America, under the auspices of its Primate, His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan Derderian. 

In an ever-evolving world where individuals, particularly the youth, are increasingly charting new territories and embracing unconventional paths, panels such as these are both relevant and necessary to provide guidance and support. The Executive Committee of Nerouj (literally translated as “inner strength”) seeks to create a community for Armenian youth to connect and network with one another while gaining insight and securing their foothold in the professional world through mentorship and events. The Entrepreneurial Series – where self-made businessmen and women share their journeys of striking out on their own in various fields, including in technology, beauty, design and apparel – comes on the heels of past successful programs including Nerouj Connect and a Chef’s Series that opened new horizons for Armenian youth. 

The members of the entrepreneur panel included Tatevik Gevorgyan, Co-Founder of Beauty on Wheels; Ani Torosyan, CEO & Co-Founder of DishDivvy; Arpi Krikorian, designer and founder of Arpi Krikorian Products and Paul Garibian, founder of The Classic T-Shirt Company. Lusine Daglian, Nerouj Team Member, served as the evening’s moderator, asking pragmatic questions in a conversational style so the audience could gain a clear understanding of the inner workings of launching a business.

The overarching theme among the panelists as to why they founded their own businesses was that they sought to fulfill a need and provide a larger purpose for the community – whether it was creating fair trade t-shirts, offering cooks the chance to earn an income in their kitchens, designing artwork that reflected culture and heritage or making beauty more mobile and accessible. 

After 15 years in the technology industry, Paul decided to branch out by manufacturing a product that would address environmental issues. His line of t-shirts at The Classic T-Shirt Company uses organic materials, recycled packaging and gives back to environmental causes with every purchase. 

“My goal is to be ethical while creating a high-quality and profitable product,” said Paul, a Product and Business Development Leader and a graduate of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

A homemade dinner of dolma at her mother-in-law’s flickered a lightbulb in Ani’s head when she noticed the large quantity of food that could feed the entire block. Eighteen months later Ani launched the online platform DishDivvy that connects approved home cooks with nearby neighbors who want to consume sustainable and healthy meals. She fused her background in engineering, utilizing her 18 years of experience in product management and digital technologies, with her passion for cooking in order to propel her business venture.

“Despite the modernity and fast pace of today’s world, people still have difficulty finding home-cooked meals and healthy options,” said Ani, who received her Bachelor’s of Science degree in Biomedical and Electrical Engineering from the University of Southern California. “We’re building technology to decentralize homemade food operations.”

An illustrator specializing in the Armenian cultural arts, Arpi’s foray into her own business occured thanks to social media – a Facebook post of an Armenian dancer generated positive feedback and she began to manufacture her designs on a variety of products from home decor to stationery, many of which were recently sold at the Armenia! exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“My whole goal has been to bring happy Armenian art to everyone’s homes because I am a very passionate and proud Armenian,” said Arpi, who has a BA in Illustration from the Art Center College of Design and has worked at Nickelodeon Animation Studios.

The inconvenience of lugging around her equipment to homes, photo shoots and video shoots spurred the idea of creating a mobile salon for hair and makeup artist Tatevik. 

“We didn’t want to invade people’s privacy so we decided to have a van where people could come for their beauty services,” said Tatevik, who launched Beauty on Wheels eight years ago. “We now have five franchies and an app launching at the end of the year where clients can request services that will come straight in front of their doors.”

It’s natural for tradeoffs to occur when single handedly starting a business from scratch, and all the panelists agreed that the biggest sacrifices were reduced family time and financial restraints. 

“We used up our savings account for our first mass production,” said Arpi, while an essential challenge for Paul was sacrificing his ego and accepting the fact that not every business move will be successful. Instead, he now embraces every challenge as a “learning opportunity.” 

Added Ani, “Entrepreneurship is 99.9% grit, hard work and sacrifice and .1% glory, so make sure you’re ready for that.”

What motivated the panelists to push forward in the face of adversity was the positive feedback they received for their products. Arpi, who has sold her pieces to Armenians around the Diaspora, asserts that “focus is everything” and hearing how her designs have touched her clients’ lives reminds her why she started her own business. 

How an entrepreneur responds to challenges can spark change throughout an industry, which is what happened to Ani, who was a force behind the AB 626 Homemade Food Act in the State of California, legislation that allows home cooks to sell foods prepared at home that will ultimately help small businesses grow.

“My ability to impact legislation helped provide economic opportunity to every Californian who can now earn up to $50,000 in their own kitchens, benefiting those who have the culinary skills, but not the resources, to open up their own restaurants.” 

Establishing a strong foundation of clients can be one of the most difficult aspects of building a business and the panelists shared how they cultivated their clientele.

“Friends and family initially supported us and spread the word before we even launched our mobile salon and our van,” said Tatevik. “Our first clients were influencers on Instagram and from there word continued to spread through referrals and social media.” 

For Ani, it was about education and necessitating a “behavioral shift by educating people that restaurants aren’t the only option and home cooked meals can be accessible.”

She informed panelists that testing is important when launching a business and encouraged them to be “scrappy” and use “growth hacking methods” by organically gaining traffic and customers without spending a dime. 

“In the beginning I knew we had a commodity product but that we didn’t know the language,” said Paul. “Something we did well was launch our t-shirts on Amazon and our own website so we were digitally native.” 

Personal contact with clients is also important, according to Arpi, who takes the time to answer all of her Instagram and Facebook posts in order to maintain communication with her customers. 

Panelists also shared tips on how to navigate setbacks and negative responses while growing their businesses.

“You need tough skin,” said Ani. “Some people will love your product and other won’t get it.” Instead, Ani suggested having a target audience and making sure they remain pleased because it is through customer interaction that important issues may come to light that were previously overlooked. 

Paul noted that the process “gets easier over time as you build your confidence.”

As experienced businessmen and women in their respective fields, the panelists offered words of wisdom and advice rooted in resilience and dedication.

“Follow your passion and never give up,” said Tatevik. “There are a lot of challenges when opening a business, but if you work hard it will all be worth it in the end.” 

Ani highlighted the importance of commitment and stimulation when pursuing a new venture and encouraged the audience to “pick something that is challenging and brings out a passion” otherwise it’s likely to be abandoned. 

“Always stay open to learning and be purposeful when starting a business,” said Arpi. “Do it because you love it and because it will impact people.”

“Have patience,” advised Paul. “Have a financial runway and get a buy-in from spouse or partner who will go on that journey with you.” 

Concluding the panel, Lusine asked the panelists to comment on the keys to success. 

“Dig deep to see what drives you beyond the monetary component,” said Ani. “For me success is defined as a sense of achievement and impacting community in a scalable way.”

Following an interactive question and answer section, Archbishop Derderian shared his remarks and reflections on the evening. 

“It’s challenging for our youth today to become successful, but I feel it is in your blood to fight and succeed,” said Archbishop Derderian. “Wherever you may be around the world, what is important is that you know how to create.”

Archbishop Derderian elaborated on the meaning of the word create ստեղծել and what it has meant for him in his ministry as God created man to become co-creators with Him. 

“Every single day we need to make sure we are creative and that we are living a purposeful life because that is what makes you successful,” he said, acknowledging that the panelists inspired their peers and the young leaders in attendance. 

“Even though we are few in number, our dreams never died,” concluded Archbishop Derderian. “We never gave up and we will never give up.”

Audience member Zaruhi Varpetyan found each panelist’s story to be “informative and moving.”

“It is very challenging to motivate a large group of people, but the panel was able to accomplish that very quickly,” she said.

As a future entrepreneur, the event inspired Zaruhi to chase her passion and find a viable way to fulfill her entrepreneurial desires.

“I want to thank Nerouj for bringing together Armenian entrepreneurs who helped all of us further pursue our dreams,” she said.

The positive feedback from the audience aligns with the objective of the Nerouj Committee when they decided to form this series.

“Tonight’s panel included professionals from completely different industries, yet the discussion proved that no matter what field you’re in, as a business owner you face similar successes and challenges,” said Lusine. “I hope the audience was inspired by these individuals and learned new aspects about owning a business.”

Fellow Nerouj Committee member Stepan Khzrtian, Esq., underscored the significance of “opening the minds of and the doors for our youth, who are the holders of awesome potential and the creators of tomorrow’s opportunities.”

“Entrepreneurship is the secret sauce that turns potential into opportunities, and so this panel made a whole lot of sense,” said Stepan. “We gathered the youth of the community and involved them in a conversation with four young entrepreneurs just like them, who have turned their potential into opportunities for themselves and for others.”

Nerouj provides a platform through the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church for Armenian Young Professionals to network with one another while also paying it forward by mentoring the next generation. Through Nerouj, under the guidance of Chair Silvana Vartanian, the future generations of Armenians will know that the Armenian Church is their home for both spiritual and personal growth and achievement. For more information visit www.nerouj.com.

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