“I’ve never been here before. It’s very emotional,” says Ruben Vardanyan as he walks into a long, grayish-brown brick school building just outside Yerevan. “It’s as if I am stepping back in time.”
The low-slung structure stands at the entrance to Etchmiadzin, the headquarters of the Armenian Church. The corridors are lined with the black and purple robes of the clergy and every hour the air is filled with the sounds of singing and chanting.
One hundred years later, the spiritual hymns have replaced the songs that were once sung inside the building: the soft hums of children, orphans of the Armenian Genocide. Vardanyan’s grandfather, Hamayak, was one of them.
|Hamayak Vardanyan, Ruben’s grandfather
“His father and two brothers were killed during the Genocide. He fled by foot from Archesh, located in the Van province of the Ottoman Empire, where he and his family grew up. He walked north with his mother and other family members, but within days of reaching Eastern Armenia his mother and sister died,” Vardanyan explains.
Eight years old and with no family or home to call his own, Hamayak was taken in by the orphanage, which was run by the Near East Relief Foundation, an American charity that had raised millions of dollars to help care for the victims of the Genocide.
Today, Ruben Vardanyan is among the Armenian pioneers who were born in Armenia and spend much of their time working to rebuild their homeland. Like Ireland and Israel, Armenia is one of those countries that has more citizens living outside the homeland than in it. Vardanyan is well-placed to raise Armenia’s gaze. He is a survivor who has thrived and wants Armenia to do the same.
Vardanyan moved to Moscow in his late teens after graduating at the top of his high school class and being awarded a place to study economics at the prestigious Moscow State University. He embarked on a career in finance in newly independent Russia and became one of the founding members of one of Russia’s most successful investment banks.
As he worked till the wee hours of the morning on M&A deals and IPOs, he watched his homeland suffer the effects of a devastating earthquake, the economic blockade from Turkey, the effects of the former Soviet republics seceding from Moscow, and the impact from the war with neighboring Azerbaijan. “We went from the 20th century to the 17th century almost overnight. We had to burn wood and even burn books to survive the winter. We had to get up at five in the morning and queue for hours just to get bread, to eat to stay alive,” he remembers. As the country started slowly rebuilding itself, Vardanyan thought it wasn’t enough to be a bystander. It was time to take action.
With an international career and upbringing and experience advising some of the biggest companies around the world, it is hardly surprising that Vardanyan feels like he’s “already lived four lives.” He is about to start a fifth, which, to him, is perhaps the most important of all.
It began more than a decade ago when Vardanyan met Noubar Afeyan, a Boston-based entrepreneur of Armenian heritage, while studying at Harvard. The two likeminded businessmen began thinking about how they could join forces to use their business skills and experience to benefit Armenia. 100 LIVES is the result of many years of brainstorming between the two, in which they decided to use the centennial of the Genocide to draw attention to Armenia and spur change.
“Armenia is a 25-year-old independent country, but, as a people and a broader nation, the Armenian civilization is 5,000 years old. We need to build on that. We need to cast off our sense of victimhood and look to the future,” says Vardanyan. “That’s difficult. It requires complete reframing of our mindset. What Noubar and I hope to do with this project is encourage Armenia and Armenians to look beyond survival and into prosperity. It might be revolutionary, but it is a revolution from an entirely different angle.”
“We’re trying to change mindsets and outlooks,” he adds.
Vardanyan acknowledges that changing how people think will require huge investment - of time and of faith. He is devoting most of his time to 100 LIVES and he is also investing in Armenia. With his wife Veronika he has founded and funded a new $135 million United World Colleges school at Dilijan, a one hour drive away from Yerevan. And, thanks to 100 LIVES, there’s more to come.
|Ruben Vardanyan with his wife Veronika Zonabend
As Ruben leaves the building where his grandfather grew up, Ruben’s sister Marine turns to her brother and says: “It just goes to show that when every man or woman does what he or she can, the small actions add up to make a big difference.” Vardanyan hopes Armenians everywhere will feel the same and do what they can.
|Ruben Vardanyan with his sister, composer Marine Ales
The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team.