Engaging Young Entrepreneurs Sustainably with Athgo International’s Armen Orujyan, Ph.D.
January 26, 2011
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored today to have my friend and great person, Armen Orujyan on. He’s really Dr. Armen Orujyan, who’s the founder and Chairman of the Board of Athgo Corporation, a U.S. nonprofit since 1999. I’m going to have Armen tell you what Athgo is. Welcome to Green is Good, Armen Orujyan. DR. ARMEN ORUJYAN: Thank you, John. It’s great to be on your show. It’s a wonderful opportunity. Thanks for giving me this opportunity. Athgo is a U.S. nonprofit that’s been around for over 10 years now. We work with young people. We get them engaged in constructive entrepreneurship, which a large part of constructive is being sustainable and environmentally friendly and eco-friendly. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Armen, talk about your journey. You’re a fascinating guy. Like I said early on, you’re a Ph.D., so you’re Dr. Armen Orujyan. Talk about the genesis of Athgo, how you came up with the concept, and what the mission was back in ’99 when you came up with it. DR. ARMEN ORUJYAN: Well, I’ve got to go way back, John. I was born and raised in the Soviet Armenia at the time, so I was born into a society where opportunities were very limited, and everything was centralized and directed. I was fortunate for my parents to bring us to the United States in the late eighties and early nineties, it was a transformation that’s very difficult to describe in words. Coming from a system that is completely closed and everything is centralized and you’re not given opportunities, to a system that is so wide open and you can do whatever and you can prosper in any way you want to, it was kind of a culture shock. One element that I also found difficult and challenging because I spoke no English and I did not have a networking pool or anything, it was very difficult for me to find my way within my range of structural challenges that is brought into the system for anyone to be successful, whether as an entrepreneur or in academia. So, fortunately, I’ve been able to conquer all of these. I went all the way to get my Ph.D., and I successfully launched Athgo. But the point of Athgo, why Athgo came into existence, is for it to give opportunities for people like myself, when I needed some kind of a support group or an entity that could kind of take what I have and help me expand on my knowledge and on my know-how. I could not find an organization of that nature, and so I wanted to establish something that other people that are in my shoes will have an easier time for them to grow. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Because you’ve had me come and speak at some of my events — and, Mike, I have to tell you, Armen had me come. I grew up in New York City, and for the first time ever he had me come to the United Nations and speak at the United Nations, where he was hosting an Athgo event, which was literally standing room only. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. The children that he had were from all around the world. Armen, explain how you touch and bring students from around the world together and help foster their opportunities for them. DR. ARMEN ORUJYAN: Our programs are all about young people. We work with young people aged 18-32 from around the world. Actually in the last 10 years, we’ve worked with entrepreneurs and young professionals coming from over 107 countries, so that’s naturally almost half of the globe. It’s a large part of the globe that we attract to our programs. Our programs are all about them. It’s very interactive, very engaging, it gives opportunities if they have innovative, creative ideas, for them to be able to utilize them in an environment where they can pool on tools and resources and enhance their chances for them to be successful. At the event that you were with us, and it was an honor to have you there at the UN headquarters, we had close to 400 young entrepreneurs from all around the world. We put them into groups or teams, as we call them. The program has evolved over the years, but now there are teams of entrepreneurs, and we’re giving them the knowledge behind how to start an entrepreneurial enterprise, and then lead them through a three or four day program for them to come up with a business concept that adds value to the marketplace, that could become a sustainable business, but again, it has to be constructive business. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You brought that up earlier, that word constructive, and you used it in terms of constructive entrepreneurship. You’re the first person I’ve ever heard use those terms together. Can you define for our listeners and Mike and myself what constructive entrepreneurship is in your world? DR. ARMEN ORUJYAN: Sure. The central value proposition suggested by constructive entrepreneurship is based on an important characteristic that is present in essentially all existing entrepreneurial paradigms, and it’s the positive return. The distinction is in the nature of returns. Instead of seeking either only financial returns, let’s say, in classical entrepreneurship, or alternatively social and environmental returns, as it would be in a nonprofit or an NGO, or even blended returns at the times of the pay ups, we are proposing and integrating business models at the outset. Businesses that we’re suggesting to be developed, they need to include products or services that provide communal benefit. For example, low-income housing, affordable education, even LED light bulbs, or so kind of community innovation. On the other side of it is they can have a community in reaching organizational makeup, meaning something of predetermined percentage of workforce and/or ownership will be comprised of underprivileged members of community. There could be people that are hired that are underemployed, or there could be former people that have been within correctional facilities and now they’re having difficulties finding a job, finding an opportunity, so they’re drawn into this. The last element is businesses have to be equally effective to be considered constructive. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. Talk about that a little bit, the interrelationship between green and entrepreneurship. How does that get fostered with Athgo International? DR. ARMEN ORUJYAN: What we try to do first is when it comes to the concept of constructive entrepreneurship, we look at it as a win-win situation for everyone. Traditionally, when we see how it’s defined in the marketplace, some people or some entities believe if one is sustainable or environmentally friendly, then it hurts your bottom line. We’re suggesting that it’s not the case, and we actually prove that it’s not the case. Our objective is to channel the energy and creativity of young people for innovations that maximize financial as well as socioeconomic and environmental returns. Why young people? Because young entrepreneurs are a critical mass. It’s a generation with a particular technological knowledge that could really drive global constructive entrepreneurship, so we really emphasize on young people and giving them opportunities to be able to develop these types of enterprises. With time, it is our objective to mushroom this and to expand this, to give opportunities to people all around the world. Even if they can’t join us in a physical environment, they could join us in a virtual environment, so we can expand this paradigm all around the world in such a way that it benefits all those that participate but also those that are not going to be directly involved, but they will benefit just because new constructive enterprises are coming into the marketplace. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s talk about that. How many students have you affected and have been through your great Athgo programs since your inception in 1999? How many thousands of students? DR. ARMEN ORUJYAN: 4,000 students have gone through our system from a pool of 100,000 qualified applicants, and this actually was an interesting phenomenon. We host our forums and we have a maximum number of, let’s say, 300 students that we want to bring. Sometimes we go above, if we are hosting it at the UN headquarters, but generally we like to cap them at 250-300. We select them from a pool of 4,000-5,000 qualified applicants. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. What does the selection process look like? For those who just joined us, we’re really honored today to have Dr. Armen Orujyan on with us. You can look at his great organization, Athgo International, at www.athgo.org. Armen, how do you choose 400 or 300 or 250 students out of a pool of 4,000-5,000? What’s the criteria? DR. ARMEN ORUJYAN: It’s tough. It’s tough because we have to turn down so many incredible people, and it’s really painful. It’s one of the worst losses in what we’re trying to do, but we have our entire application process, as well as the statement and then in some cases we do online telephone interviews and what not, to really determine those that really want to be there, because our programs are such when you’ve been there, you can’t really nap. You go to many conferences, and it’s a nice place for you to snooze a little bit. At our programs, the energy is super high. It’s so interactive. You meet so many incredible people like yourself, John, but also so many people, whether they’re high-level officials in the UN system, government officials, CEO types, Fortune 500 companies, and what have you. So, it’s a thriving, very energetic environment, and we have a hard time sometimes to turn people down, but we have to because what we don’t want to do is we don’t want to create an environment where interpersonal connection between participants is lost. Having said this, I am developing a new product or a new technology that is going to help us overcome all of these issues that we have when it comes to engaging more people into our programs. Initially, we were thinking just to increase the number of these programs. Right now, we have five of them at the UN headquarters, at the World Bank headquarters, at UCLA here, at the UN headquarters in Geneva, and we had a program in Armenia. So we were thinking to expand it to other countries around the globe, but it just becomes capital-intensive, and it will take us 40-50 years to accomplish it. So, instead, I had a new idea, in my opinion, a very creative one. We’re developing a platform where we will be able to bring all of these entrepreneurs and for them to have essentially the same kind of environment or same type of an experience in a virtual environment, and we’re building it as we speak. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, basically, you’re going to expand your paradigm through online participation. DR. ARMEN ORUJYAN: Yeah. It’s online. Again, it’s going to be a very interactive and real-time collaboration, communication, between all of these people in an environment where they can really build a product themselves. We are partners with several entities that deal with emerging worlds, in particular, and they look at this as an essential tool for poverty alleviation, or as we call it, for wealth creation in those societies. When we look at the emerging world, when we look at the developing world, there are so many obstacles, whether it’s geographic obstacles, whether it’s political obstacles, whether it’s financial obstacles for people not to be able to be successful or even join us, even if we want them to join us. So, creating a virtual environment that goes directly to the consumer, that goes directly to the entrepreneur, that goes directly to the professional that could utilize his or her expertise or innovative ideas, and then reach oneself. Entrepreneurship is never a solo process, John. You know this. You’ve started so many businesses. It’s never a solo process, so you drive a lot of other people into this new enterprise that you’re developing, thus creating opportunities for so many families. It gets to the heart of poverty issues when it comes to poverty alleviation. MIKE BRADY: Dr. Orujyan, I’m following what you’re creating, a new paradigm here with the use of technology and the Internet. Is it safe to assume, though, that there will also be a screening and selection process? You’ll be able to reach more people, but again, while you’re casting a broader net, you still won’t be able to get everybody inside the tent. Am I correct in assuming that? DR. ARMEN ORUJYAN: Mike, yes, there is a yes to your question and there is a no to your question. The no is not a negative no; it’s a positive no, too, if it’s at all possible. First, I want to say the following. Engaging young people as producers and consumers in their own economies adds a new and significant element to the economy in general. So, our goal is not to be selective in the virtual environment because once you give opportunities to the masses, they’ll figure these things out. If you look at what has happened to the social networking industry and the ins and outs that have driven masses into one place, they will select and they will pick and choose what they want to do and how they want to do this. There’s over 1.6 billion people around the world that are either unemployed or underemployed, and most of these people have an incredible talent or some kind of skillset. Now, if you create an environment where, let’s say, a person here in Santa Monica, California, has a great idea, and they want to expand on this idea or they want to build on this idea, in that type of an environment, they’ll be able to draw those people that bring specific skillsets, whether it’s financial analysis, whether it’s research methodologies, whatever it may be, but they may draw those people that have those types of skillsets all around the world into a project, and collectively develop something. For this, the selection is not going to be done by us. The selection will be done by the entrepreneurs, by the team members, by the organizers of those entrepreneurial initiatives. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Armen, you’ve touched so many young people who want to be entrepreneurs who’ve gone through your program, and you’ve become an expert in this area over the last 11 years, besides yourself coming to this company and entrepreneurially getting yourself educated and learning the language and assimilating and enjoying the benefits of such a wide open society. What are the measures that people can take to improve the chances of our young people being successful entrepreneurs and starting new businesses? Do you have a formula that you’ve synthesized? DR. ARMEN ORUJYAN: There is this methodology that I use, I call Four Pillars to Success. What it includes is whether it’s an individual or a business, it’s generally structured around four different types of capabilities or capitals. One is intellectual capital. Intellectual capital is essentially the key element that any individual or any business requires. In an individual, it’s essentially what you understand, what you know, whether it’s academics or from experience or what have you. Also, for a business, it’s your value proposition. What is it that makes your business unique? So intellectual capital is one of the pillars. Financial capital is the second. Networking capital is third, and fourth is inner capital. Inner capital for an individual would be whether you’re healthy or you’re physically fit, your mental acuteness, your mental agility. All of these elements make that pillar either strong or weak. When it comes to a business, inner capital is your organizational infrastructure, who your CEO would be, who your other employees and management team would be to create a strong or a weak team. Now, I want to also pay attention to networking capital, which is generally, unfortunately, ignored, even in academic sectors. It’s assumed that we should know people, or it’s assumed that you will get to know people, or it’s just assumed that you don’t need that. Networking capital is one of the most important elements for success because you might have a great idea. If you don’t know the right people, and John, you were around Silicon Valley, so you know what I’m talking about here. Even if you have a great idea but you don’t have the right pool of people, you’re not going to be able first to take this off ground because you may not know specific elements that you would require and you don’t have the networking pool to bring in the expertise that you need for you to develop it further, or you may not have the pool for you to bring finances, to bring all of the other elements. Networking capital is one of the essential elements, yet also completely ignored within the academic sectors. So, we pay very close attention to all of these pillars, but also networking as well, because we believe a coordination or balance of these four pillars will make anyone successful. You don’t need to rely, really, on anything else, if you really understand the core of these four pillars. If you understand how much you need to grow within the intellectual pillar for you to reach a level of satisfaction for the goal that you’re going to accomplish, it doesn’t mean you need to be a Ph.D. or you need to be a rocket scientist, none of that. It depends, really, what you want to do in life. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Armen, the networking capital is a great point. It’s not talked about enough. You’re absolutely right. Has the networking capital been democratized, though, for our youth of the world and of the United States, through the use of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn? Is it easier for our youth to create more network capital than it was 20 years ago? DR. ARMEN ORUJYAN: It absolutely is. What social networking has done for the world, when it comes to really bringing people together and bringing commonalities in one environment, is just amazing. Yet, with all of that said, purposeful networking is something of a different value. I’m on Facebook myself, and it’s a great tool. If you have 100 friends on Facebook, and you have feeds, you have a number of things that you’re doing and they haven’t really contributed to anything that you’ve done, your networking capital, though you have it, is not relevant. So, you need to really understand and grow your networking capital in such a way that it really benefits you while it benefits them too, otherwise then it’s not a real capital. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Armen, we’re down to the last three minutes, and I want to ask a couple last important questions here before we have to sign off. First of all, how are you able — I mean, this is part of your brilliance — how are you able to take what was then a small and growing nonprofit, Athgo International, great organization, and integrate and get huge legacy organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations to support you and leverage their venues for your great meetings? How did that all happen? I know we’re down to a small amount of time, but I just want our listeners to know. You’ve associated yourself, you have networked yourself and your organization with some of the greatest institutions in the world. DR. ARMEN ORUJYAN: Thank you. I think the key here was the value that the UN and the World Bank sees in the product that we bring to the marketplace. It is two things. I think they agree with us that young entrepreneurs are the greatest catalyst for change and renewal. The fact that we are looking at methods that seamlessly transition young people from academia and joblessness to entrepreneurship is of great value. These large organizations really view this as an element that could really help, whether it’s the millennial development goals, whether it’s under larger UN umbrella, or if it’s specific elements, just decreasing unemployment and increasing relevant employment for people, so there would be not just employment but there would not be underemployment. Those are, I think, some of the elements that really attracted the UN and the World Bank, and to have in line with us with a number of our projects and programs. We are privileged to have them as partners and as friends in our work with our mission. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Armen, you’re such a brilliant guy and a wonderful guest. We’re down to the last minute-and-a-half, and we’re going to have you back again to share more about Athgo at a later date. Can you share right now, in 2011, what the future plans for Athgo are in the last minute-and-a-half or so? DR. ARMEN ORUJYAN: Yes. We are currently maturing a new program with the UN, actually, that’s going to be called Entrepreneur in Practice. This is a very neat program that we’re developing. We’re going to go to an emerging country, and I think the pilot project is slated for June in Macedonia. We’re going to go there and bring together about 100 entrepreneurs, put them into groups of 5-7 people, and have 10-15 groups of young entrepreneurs, have a three-day program for them to start building enterprises that will help the local communities, but also create these entrepreneurial programs in our digital virtual environment, so when we leave, these things won’t fall. We’ll be able to continue working for at least a year because we’re going to give them tools and resources that are going to enable them to take this from a concept phase to an actual launch, for them to see a business that they have developed from nothing to a prosperous entity. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s wonderful. Armen, Mike and I are so thankful for you coming on the show today, and we’re going to have you back again, like I said. For our listeners out there that want to learn more about Athgo International, please go to www.athgo.org. It’s an amazing organization. Armen’s had me come speak at it a couple of times, doing just tremendous things for the world’s youth and for the students of the world. Please go and learn more about it. Help support Athgo and also get the students you know that are interested in becoming entrepreneurs over to that start. Dr. Armen Orujyan, you are an entrepreneurial visionary and a great friend, and truly living proof that green is good.