At midnight on June 30, Yerevan time, an idea was transformed from potential to reality. The stroke of midnight signaled the end of the voting period of OneArmenia’s SHIFT initiative, an international crowdsourcing effort that yielded 75 proposals. The world at large then chose among them by voting for the best idea to receive a $10,000 grant to be implemented in Armenia.
The SHIFT initiative is the latest project of OneArmenia, an organization founded in 2012 by Patrick Sarkissian. Sarkissian was born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit; Sarkissian’s father is an Armenian from Greece, and his mother is a Greek from Chicago. Sarkissian recalls, “They always said that I was a very disruptive character, and that’s sort of become part of my mantra, from a technology perspective, and business, and from a philanthropic perspective.”
Sarkissian graduated from the University of Michigan in 1996, where he studied English literature with a minor in business, paying his way through school with the revenue from a company he co-founded as a student. After graduating, he went on to work at the international marketing firm Ogilvy & Mather. At the age of 24, he was running the Ford Motor Company account. After a year or so Sarkissian went on to found his own advertising company, Sarkissian Mason, whose clients have included Mazda, Boeing, and Target. After selling off portions of the company, he refocused the agency to work exclusively in the fashion, beauty, and retail industries, which it has for the past two years.
In spite of his demanding career, Sarkissian has a long history of working for the benefit of Armenia. In 2001, he launched a website called www.theforgotten.org in response to the lack of educational resources for teaching about the Armenian Genocide. A board member of the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), in 2006 he co-founded GTech, a vocational IT school and company in Gyumri, Armenia.
It was after a three-month sabbatical in Asia that Sarkissian had the idea for OneArmenia. Frustrated by the lack of transparency of many funding organizations in Armenia and the resulting disenchantment of would-be donors, Sarkissian sought to create a new kind of non-profit. After he partnered with co-founders James Tufenkian, Adam A. Kablanian, and Al Esaian, the group was quickly up and running.
From its inception, OneArmenia seemed fated. When Sarkissian and his team decided on the name “OneArmenia,” Sarkissian looked into the url of that name and found it registered to a young Armenian man, Narek Khachatryan, in Glendale, Calif., who had purchased the domain name in the hope of working to foster a greater sense of unity among Armenians. With a background in technology, Khachatryan was a natural addition to the OneArmenia team as its director of communication. Filmmaker and crowdfunding expert Oksana Mirzoyan joined the team as its ambassador, along with filmmaker Anahid Yahjian, who works as OneArmenia’s media and content manager. Edlin Yousefi works out of Los Angeles as the group’s communication coordinator. Soma “Superdog” Yahjian lends her canine talents as OneArmenia’s official mascot.
OneArmenia was founded on three pillars: unity, transparency, and freshness. “Why don’t we create a modern brand, and one that is based around principles that I believe in, that are lacking inside of the Armenian identity. One is unity, for sure. We have absolutely no reason to be divided… When I did my research around what the [other] gaps are, transparency is a huge gap. And young people don’t necessarily want to engage in charities because of that. So I said, ‘Let’s just be extremely transparent. So we show you the budget for a project…we show you the beginning, the middle, and the end, and we show you exactly the effect of your donations and report back to you in a really efficient way… And our third pillar is really around freshness and the idea that we can bring a fresh energy and spirit to projects in Armenia,” Sarkissian told the Armenian Weekly.
With the goal of tapping untapped potential, OneArmenia focused on Armenia’s tech-savvy youth, especially young women. Sarkissian had a vision of bridging the gap between Armenia and the diaspora via the internet. As an advertising professional, Sarkissian recognized the need for modern branding and business practices to be applied in the non-profit sector. Sarkissian is a proponent of the “double-bottom line” business model, wherein an organization manages to both contribute to the public good and be self-sustaining and economically viable. OneArmenia is a prime example of this model. OneArmenia is run like a business, rather than a charity, and Sarkissian conceptualizes it as a “creative community of people aligned in purpose.” So far, OneArmenia has renovated a school in Moshatagh, Nagorno-Karabagh, it has co-funded a domestic violence shelter in Yerevan, is funding the creation of a drinking and irrigation water supply of a well to provide fresh water to Karotan, has circulated a petition to re-instate domestic violence laws in Armenia, and launched a video series on local activism.
The group’s latest project has been the SHIFT initiative, which was designed with the goal of re-invigorating Armenian culture using the internet to crowdsource ideas from around the world. The ideas were limited only by a few guiding parameters: Proposals had to limit their budgets to $10,000; they had to take an element of Armenian culture (old or new), and transform it into a vibrant 21st-century creation; all projects and labor had to be implemented in Armenia; and all applicants had to be at least 16 years old.
Seventy-five proposals were received, and 6 finalists were selected from them by a panel of 6 judges. The judge’s panel included photojournalist Scout Tufankjian, arts educator Melik Karapetyan, businessman Raffi Kassarjian, Naregatsi Arts Institute founder Nareg Harutunian, architect Narbeh Bedrossian, and Babken DerGrigorian, a Civil Society programs coordinator at the Open Society Institute.
The six proposals that made it to the final round were as diverse as they were creative. The grant was awarded to a rock opera interpretation of Nar Dos’ 1889 short story, “She And I,” envisioned by Armen Sargsyan and Epsidon, a theater company that specializes in the synthesis of speech, movement, and song. Another finalist was an experimental short film exploring LGBTQ issues in the context of a re-interpreted Armenian fairy tale, “Aregnazan.” One proposal, called “Dear Armen,” was an audience immersive dark comedy production combining traditional Armenian dance, burlesque, and spoken word, based on the life of Armenian poet and performer Armen Ohanian. “The Ripple Effect” was another, a workshop for 30 students designed to explore how traumas are passed down through generations and how one can empower oneself to deal with the burden of an oppressive history and express one’s transformation through art. “Pomegranate Skate Spot” proposed a sculpture in the shape of an open pomegranate to be placed in Yerevan, Gyumri, or Vanadzor, that would double as a site for skateboarders. “A Room with a View” was an architectural vision for a traveling public art installation of a red chamber made from recycled materials that would “frame” views of a city’s most famous landmark.
Now that the grant has been awarded, the Nar Dos rock opera production will immediately be put into the development phase and publicized by OneArmenia’s creative team. The project’s progress will be continuously reported to the world.
OneArmenia’s next project will begin at the end of September. The organization plans to crowdsource ideas for an app to be developed in Armenia, utilizing Armenia’s highly skilled technology workforce. These two projects mark OneArmenia’s expansion from “just” a charity to becoming a conduit for productive partnerships for real change between the diaspora and Armenian locals. The model going forward is that OneArmenia will incubate new local businesses, the proceeds from which will then fund the group’s community projects.
Sarkissian acknowledges that effecting these changes will not be easy. “Power will be held closely by people in Armenia who are of the older generation and the older mindset, but I think that what we’ve always been doing is building around them. And at a certain point there will be so much velocity and positive momentum…that eventually it will just create its own world around the system that exists. There are a lot of deficits in the leadership there…there is a lack of commitment to evolve things in a serious way… Look at Georgia[‘s commitment to transparency]. That’s from the top down…but you can also look at this as coming from the bottom-up. I’m trying to create a groundswell and a revolution of the people, both in the diaspora and on the ground, to create change. The government eventually will have to follow.”