After four years of great anticipation, nearly 500 young professionals from 25 countries gathered in Spain’s capital of Madrid for AGBU FOCUS — a four-day conference dedicated to uniting and expanding the diverse Young Professionals (YP) network in a multi-faceted, dynamic city with profound, long-lasting takeaways, connections, and insight.
AGBU FOCUS 2023 set out to encourage young Armenians to reconnect with their shared Armenian roots in all its forms. The event is a unique opportunity for young talent, who have spread their foundations in various corners of the world, to meet new faces, expand their personal networks, engage in important dialogue, learn more about AGBU’s global work, and celebrate their unique Armenian perspectives.
The robust agenda, organized by the AGBU Young Professionals of Madrid (YP Madrid) in collaboration with AGBU Central Office, offered a rich program of workshops, conferences, cultural and culinary excursions, as well as ample opportunities for participants to pay tribute to Spanish and Armenian culture, and gather in landmark venues across a vibrant city, rich with historical and contemporary appeal.
For an event created over two decades ago with the intention of deepening global connections for young Armenian professionals through the support of a unique institution, FOCUS continues to provide an open forum for new ideas and future building. The topics explored are driven by the interests and priorities of the demographic. Paramount themes this year included exploring Armenia as an opportunity for professional development, inclusion and diversity, and of course, appreciation for a shared culture.
As AGBU FOCUS Madrid Chair Diran Guiliguian stated in his welcoming remarks, our purpose is to help forge deeper connections and be inspired to take action locally and globally. “Here in Madrid, let’s build bonds, make resolutions, and start acting collectively,” he urged, also alluding to the new reality that the 2020 Artsakh War and its pernicious aftermath have added a new dimension to discussions about collective action, leadership, and expressions of Armenian identity.
This year’s official kick-off meeting called “Perspectives” took place at the modern amphitheater Fundación Francisco Giner to explore Armenia’s future potentials and how young, ambitious Armenians worldwide can harness them for their careers. The panel, led by Guiliguian and entitled “Armenia: From Obligation to Opportunity,” outlined tangible ways young Armenians could tap into expertise and opportunities in Armenia and Artsakh to develop professionally.
Levón Grigorián Keheaián, representative of Enterprise Armenia in Spain and a steering committee member of YP Madrid, described how to make Armenia a promising prospect for investors. He positioned Armenia as a vital bridge from Asia to Europe, highlighting the gifted talent pool as a side benefit of repatriation, in addition to Armenia's rising GDP growth rate, even during the 2020 war, and lower tax rates.
The panelists were Aimee Keushguerian, founder and owner of Zulal Wines and managing director of Keush and WineWorks, Davit Baghdasaryan, CEO and co-founder of Krisp, and Yeva Hyusyan, CEO and co-founder of Sololearn. They touched upon producing some of the most unique wines with grapes from border villages, which in turn contributes to strengthening Armenia’s borders, using Armenia’s booming tech industry to build thriving businesses while having a meaningful impact on the community, and creating unique work cultures combining the best of Armenian passion and Silicon Valley values. During the Q&A session, the topic of how to develop professional ties with Armenia was top of mind.
Leaning in as Leaders
With multiple opportunities for meaningful exchange among the participants, a smaller gathering of global AGBU Young Professionals leadership kicked off the constructive day sessions. An executive meeting of nearly 50 AGBU YP chairs as well as committee members sparked new strategies for YP network development and goal setting. After several years of Zoom calls and social media exchanges instead of in-person interactions, this was an invaluable opportunity for them to reunite in person to share motivations behind their volunteer work and provide local highlights of accomplishments. From YP Zurich and YP Lebanon to YP Yerevan, YP Boston, and beyond, they all zeroed in on the “Four Cs”: Collaboration; Communication; Coordination; and Contribution. This set the stage for the conversations to come over the weekend and year to come.
The following day, the 50 YP leaders were joined by hundreds of other guests making the FOCUS Madrid all-day conference the largest to date with 250 participants. With attendees from Australia to Armenia, Uruguay to the United Arab Emirates, the day was designed by the AGBU Central Board to underscore the importance of inclusion, feedback, and follow through.
After a presentation on AGBU’s mission and philosophy, several examples were shared on how AGBU leadership takes in feedback from its forums and conferences and puts them into action, assisting with the creation and enhancement of programming and engagement opportunities for young professionals. This led into an invigorating workshop led by Central Board Member and Founding Chair of AGBU FOCUS Ani Manoukian.
“We are here from all different walks of life. How each of us defines ourselves is unique, and as such, the Armenian identity is open-ended, and we must respect and include any person who feels Armenian. It doesn’t matter if you are 1/8 Armenian, Armenian-by-choice, married into an Armenian family — you are Armenian. And we are far too few in this world to think otherwise. We must be inclusive in our perspective and welcome all. Be an ambassador for inclusiveness in all that you do,” she urged the audience. She then directed everyone’s attention to the latest AGBU Magazine, dedicated to “The New Diasporan” and reinforcing the AGBU ethos with fascinating stories and profiles.
The workshop proceeded with moments for self-introspection in tandem with collaborative sharing, offering feedback on what this generation of young professionals hopes to achieve and what it needs to thrive individually and collectively. Haig Yegenian from Jordan affirmed his experience: “I came here not knowing many Armenians in Jordan or elsewhere, and I am leaving this discussion inspired to get home and start an AGBU YP group and build a supporting community.”
Building and Motivating
The FOCUS Conference was also host to the 2nd AGBU Noubar Nazarian YP Innovators Fund (NNIF) grant competition. Established in 2017 in honor of the late philanthropist and businessman Noubar Nazarian, the competition encourages business and community innovators to pitch ideas in hopes of winning seed money and support from AGBU for their concept. The first winner in 2019 was Ruben Koulaksezian, who was awarded a grant for his project Little Armenias, a guidebook exploring Armenian communities around the world. It has since expanded online with a tremendous social media following.
This year, finalists were as diverse as their projects ranging from the Hispano-Armenian University portal, a research resource from Spain pitched by Anahit Margaryan from Spain, to Masis Films, a media distribution company pitched by Edisson and Lena Chatchatrian from Belgium, and an interactive culinary platform aimed at preserving Armenian tradition and history. The winners, “Cooking with Nene” creators Lena Tashjian (Canada), Arpine Kozmanyan (Italy), and Gohar Khachatryan (Armenia), were announced at the Gala the following evening. They will receive up to $20,000 over two years to design and launch online recipe tutorials featuring Armenian matriarchs, including their stories and the histories and origins of the dishes that shape and define generations of Armenian identity.
One of the memorable highlights of the weekend was the inspirational talk delivered by AGBU alumnus and global motivational speaker Joze Piranian. Born with a stutter, Piranian passionately shared how he turned his fear on its head. He now spends his time giving talks to impressive audiences, including the FBI and Google and in classrooms and workplaces, turning his talks into a movement on how to conquer fears, build resilience, and fulfill potential. Piranian encouraged the audience to find and conquer their own ‘stutters’, saying, “Every time we succumb to our stutter, we shrink our destiny by stripping away countless possibilities.”
Cultural Pride and Fusion
To celebrate the joining of Spanish and Armenian cultures, participants were given a host of cultural experiences to help acquaint them with Madrid and its rich Armenian footprint. The YPs of Madrid carefully crafted this agenda to highlight the diversity and beauty of both cultures. Guests had the opportunity to explore hidden gems of Madrid and learn Spanish flamenco dancing with instructor Lori La Armenia, a French-Armenian professional who taught the class in multiple languages. Moreover, during the weekend’s Focus on Art event, guests enjoyed a multi-faceted immersion experience at the Espacio Rastro Madrid, dedicated to Armenian art, music, dance, photography, film, and gastronomy.
As Guiliguian shared, “In the cosmopolitan and diverse city of Madrid, you can express your Armenian identity while expanding your worldview from the distinctively Spanish perspective, thanks to the amazing program crafted by our ingenious committee, and hosted by AGBU Young Professionals (YP) Madrid.” They included Anna Baghdasaryan, Nanor Demirjian, Levón Grigorián Keheaián, Luiza Grigoryan Ghimoyan, Arpine Hakobyan, Yeranuhi Hovhannisian, Jan Hanna Der Khorenian, Arman Kazanjian Fraile, Anahit Margaryan, Sofía Mazkedian, Elen Poghosyan, Arman Yeghiazaryan, and Paloma Yessayan Villalobos.
The fusion and pride were on full display, of course, at the FOCUS Gala which lived up to its spectacular and glamourous expectations at the Palacio de Aldovea, a stunning 17th-century palace in Finca Aldovea de San Fernando de Henares. With the delicate familiar sounds of the duduk balancing the beats of Spanish song and dance, guests were able to appreciate the multifaceted nature and beauty of the Spanish Armenian community and hospitality.
At the height of the gala program was a moment dedicated to Artsakh, along with an announcement that the fundraising efforts through AGBU FOCUS MADRID 2023 generated more than $110,000 in donations for AGBU EmpowerHer. This will make it possible for more enterprising women across Armenia and Artsakh to pursue their dreams of gaining financial independence as the key to an empowered life. Now in its fifth year, this multi-dimensional program offers Armenia’s women the chance to start up or scale up their own microenterprise or small business or gain the necessary training to build a career in Armenia’s booming high-tech industry. To see how you can contribute to this unique signature program as a donor, mentor, or coach, go to agbu.org/women-entrepreneurs.
While the weekend has passed, its energy continues with guests connecting and building bridges. “I appreciate all the global connections I made at FOCUS, because now I know that wherever I travel, I’ll always have an Armenian community.” Another attendee couldn’t have agreed more: “I’m going to take what I saw and felt here—the openness and motivation—and go home inspired and re-energized to give back to my community. I can’t wait to work together with the people I met at FOCUS.”
To view the photo gallery, please visit: https://agbufocusgallery.org/en/gallery/madrid