Adults need a fairy tale more than children
Olga Parakhina is the Co-Owner and development director of Artezianica Armenia, a successful expat and until recently a social entrepreneur in the Smart Gift, a partnership project to help children in need in Armenia and Artsakh. In an exclusive interview with Repat Armenia, Olga spoke about the peculiarities of living and doing business in Armenia, the idea of helping Artsakh children, and her plans for the future.
Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you lived in Armenia?
I come from a military family, so from birth, I lived in an international society and we moved quite often. I changed several schools, but from the 9th grade, our family settled in Moscow, where I got my higher education at Bauman Moscow State Technical University. From the 4th year of my studies, I started working at Troika Dialog. I can say that it was then that Armenia first appeared in my life. I built my career in the financial sphere. However, I always wanted to open my own business. That is why from the first days of my work I saved money to get an MBA degree and when it became possible due to my age, I entered the Higher School of Business at Lomonosov Moscow State University.
After my studies, I opened a transport and logistics company for the transport of industrial cargo. My first steps were more than successful and gave results in a short period of time. In 3 months after registration the company started to work with profit. And the result of my MBA degree was not only the creation of a business but also meeting my future husband. He was getting an EMBA degree at Moscow State University. It turned out that he had also previously worked at Troika, and we could have met much earlier. In March 2012, we received an offer to become a financial investor in a promising and fast-growing caviar business in Armenia. Initially, the offer was surprising, because black caviar is not a product that was associated with Armenia. We entered the project, but the business partners turned out to be not very qualified and clean. The company went bankrupt and we inherited the assets. So I had to improve my qualifications and understand all the intricacies and details of fish production. Now I can, for example, do my own HACCP audits and make black caviar.
Now our company is a major taxpayer in the Republic, and we work under direct contracts with all the federal chains in Russia. We consider the birthday of our company (there was no name ARTEZIANICA at that time) to be 11 July 2014, when we made the first successful shipment to the Globus Gourmet chain. By the way, when we started our business, there was not even such an export item as black caviar in Armenia. Until 2017, we lived in two cities, Moscow and Yerevan, but on 5 March 2017 we arrived for two months and here we are living to this day.
Since you worked at Troika, please tell us what impressions do you have of working with Ruben Vardanyan? How do you remember him and do you see him in the political structure of Armenia?
I joined Troika in 2004, when it was not yet a big company and Ruben knew all the employees personally and by name. Since then, I have not met a better manager. For me, Ruben Vardanyan is an example of a man, a citizen, a professional, and a leader. I sincerely admire him. As for politics, in my opinion, Ruben is above it. He has done and is doing a lot for Armenia. Few people invest in such global and conceptually changing projects for the country and the world. Ruben is a brilliant visionary. I would dream that Armenia would have a "Board of Directors" of the best representatives of the nation and Vardanyan would head it.
Tell us about the Smart Gift initiative. How did it come into your life?
To be honest, the project appeared very spontaneously. Since the end of September, like everyone else in the country, I was in an extremely difficult emotional state. My brain refused to believe in the reality of what was happening. At the end of November, I didn't even remember that New Year's Eve was coming up. At that moment, my Russian friend wrote to me with the idea that it would be great to give New Year presents to children from Armenia and Artsakh to try to give them back at least a little bit of their childhood and faith in magic stolen by adults. I liked the idea very much. I talked to volunteers working with displaced families to see how appropriate such an initiative would be, and after receiving positive feedback I decided to act.
I wanted to make this initiative as transparent and deeply personal as possible. I wanted it to be not just lists, standard gifts, or transfers of money to an account. I wanted people to touch each other's souls. So a kid, biting his pencil, dreamed, wrote, and colored a letter. So that the giver would read it and he would have tears, so that he personally became a good wizard, chose a gift, and wrote a life-affirming handwritten letter to the kid he chose. Sounds beautiful, but meanwhile, it was already the end of November. And it was completely unclear how to realize this technically. I found a few options and asked my friend from the IT field Narek to find contractors-technicians in Armenia. He introduced me to the cool guys from SmartClick, who made the SmartGift platform.
Thus, out of the indifferent labor of many active and responsible people, a beautiful New Year story of magic and understanding that it is possible to change the world for the better was created. A story that would not have been possible without every participant, but especially, I would like to say words of admiration and incredible gratitude to the volunteers who helped us collect letters from the children. Nana Martirosyan, Elena Shuvaeva, Svetlana Laski, Elena Gevorkova, Elena Baghdasaryan. These delicate, beautiful girls have been helping several thousand families for 3 months without a single day off, who without their help would probably starve on the street. Also, I would like to mention the GG company, which helped with the distribution of gifts. And the result of the SmartGift project was almost 343 families, each with 2 to 7 children, and 340 donors, who returned faith in kindness and touched children, their reactions, where there is no falsity and lies, and, as I think, both sides got to hope for the future of the country. And you know, it seems to me that adults needed the fairy tale even more than children did.
What conclusions have you drawn for yourself after this war? And how do you assess Russia's role in mediating the resolution of this conflict?
The conclusions are still being comprehended, but one thing is certain, that the world can change dramatically in an instant. On 27 September there was one life, and on 28 September - a completely different one. Here in Armenia, the war is perceived very close, it is literally felt on the skin. In Russia, because of the scale of the country, you don't feel losses and tragedies so keenly, but here everything is at arm's length. When your employees go to the front, your relatives, friends... You know, only these days, for the first time in my life I really realized what war is and how terrible it is. When military actions were going on, the only wish in my mind was to stop bloodshed, to stop 18-year-old boys dying. And in this, I am very positive about Russia's role. Of course, I wanted the war to stop sooner, but it is clear that Russian troops could not just come and establish their own rules not on their own land.
Now, everything that Russian peacekeepers do and how they do it makes me proud, very respectful, and grateful. I confess that during the war I was unpleasant to hear criticism, often not factual but emotional, of Russia and Russians. Russia is not good at PR, but it is good at helping with deeds and sincere love. You know, when I posted information about the launch of our SmartGift project, I received help from my Russian friends in the first minutes. Many of them had never been to Armenia. They just sincerely wanted to help. By the way, it is not written about anywhere, but even children in Russian schools wrote to their peers in Artsakh and sent letters of support through peacekeepers. I know for sure that our people have very deep and kind feelings for each other.
What are your plans for business development? Is there a strategy for getting out of the post-war crisis situation?
Our company is export-orientated. We sell 99% of our products on the Russian market. Accordingly, the war did not directly affect us, but the pandemic did. Logistical links were interrupted, but on the whole, the war did not change our plans much. In August 2019, we started to prepare for the crisis, as we had the longest period of economic growth in the history of observations and it was clear that a downturn was coming. But of course, we did not expect a pandemic, border closures, or war. We reduced the share of ultra-fresh products supplied to retail chains, made changes to the structure of our customer portfolio, transformed our production chain, revised our staff structure, and launched a line of new deep-frozen products that can be prepared at home in just one step.
How convenient is it for you to do business in Armenia?
Again, in the first stage, doing business in Armenia was not our choice - we were given assets that needed to be managed. But it is like with a child: the more you invest, the more you love it. Of course, we had and still have difficulties. But since we have been running the business for so many years, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
Do you have thoughts of leaving Armenia? If yes, why?
There are no such thoughts. I can't say that I 100% understand what will happen in Armenia tomorrow. It may sound overly emotional, but for me to leave now is tantamount to betrayal. So here we are. We live. We work. We believe in the best. And I am very happy that we are here, that my child is growing up in Armenia. I am convinced that he will not receive such unconditional love, respect, or basic trust in the world anywhere else. In the near future, we will all be competing not with each other, but with artificial intelligence. That is why it is more important than ever to be and grow up as a human being, in a society with traditional values, open communications, natural emotions, and not in an artificial world of falseness and gadgets.
Are you preparing a logical continuation of the Smart Gift project?
Now we need to deliver the final gifts and take a little time out. To exhale, to reflect, to thank. We have done a unique work, which we are proud of. And there are ideas on how to continue and develop it. In my opinion, not the state institutions, but the people of Armenia and the Diaspora together have done a truly admirable job, showing unique unity and organization in providing assistance and solving difficult problems. And now, in order not to lose the achieved results, it is important to bring the mechanism into a unified system, with digitization and analysis of data. It is also important to shift the focus from survival to incentives for a better life, for work and education. I see this as an important task.
Would you like to start your own foundation?
A foundation, no. That's a separate story about vocation. I am first and foremost a business organizer and project manager. As the experience of the SmartGift project has shown, in order to change the world for the better, it is not always necessary to create bulky structures, but it is enough to have a group of people who are not afraid to take responsibility, trust, and act.
How close do you consider your connection with Armenia?
I think my actions answer this question better than words. I sincerely love Armenia and its people and I wish with all my heart that all the trials will be left behind and decades and centuries of peace and prosperity will begin.
Repat Armenia's special correspondent Mariam Kocharyan moved to live in Armenia in 2020 from Moscow, Russia.