Featured Perspectives: Karen Papazian on Women’s Economic Empowerment, Gender Equality

Featured Perspectives: Karen Papazian on Women’s Economic Empowerment, Gender Equality
We’ll be donating 100% of our global sales on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2023, to a program that’s near and dear to our Re-Founder & Brand Architect, Vicken: the Women Entrepreneurs program at the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU).

To prepare, we talked with Karen Papazian, the AGBU’s director of development and outreach.

Ahead, Karen gives insight on AGBU programs, female entrepreneurship, and the move toward global gender equality.

Can you tell me a bit about the AGBU?
The AGBU is the world’s largest and oldest Armenian non-profit organization. AGBU programs include cultural initiatives, gender equality and socio-economic development programs, educational projects, as well as humanitarian assistance and relief efforts. 

For International Women’s Day, we’re teaming up with Commodity to raise funds for the AGBU Women Entrepreneurs (WE) program, which helps women take their rightful place in shaping their family, community and their country. The initiative combines both educational and psycho-social components that work to change perceptions and teach skills essential to gaining financial and social independence. 

As you know, International Women's Day is a key focal point and propellant of the women's rights movement. Can you tell me about WE’s impact on women’s rights?
As the global march towards gender equality and human rights advances, AGBU is working to ensure that the women of Armenia and Artsakh aren’t left behind. Women in both urban and rural areas of the region continue to struggle to break free of out-of-date social norms that run deep in their local community traditions. 

Given the number of applications we receive every year for a few hundred spots, it’s clear that many of these women are determined to overcome their struggles and break down barriers, if not for them, for their daughters (and sons), and future generations.

Can you tell me about WE and the services it provides?
Launched in 2017, WE offers a free leadership and entrepreneurship course, including hands-on workshops and lectures, mini-grants for start-up and scale-up projects, access to industry professionals, and ongoing mentorship and networking opportunities.

The program curriculum includes classes on marketing, budgeting, branding, etc. The participants take all these various learnings and trainings throughout the course and use them to eventually develop their own business plan in culmination for the end-of-class pitch process,  where participants present their business pitch in front of a panel of judges. The top 4-5 in each cohort are awarded with a mini-grant.

Why do the grants get allocated in the form of a pitch process?
Unfortunately, we can’t award everyone a grant; however, we can set them up for success in securing future grants. The pitch process format not only does this, but also it also gives our entrepreneurs formal experience with fundraising.

Can you share some success stories of female entrepreneurs you’ve supported via WE in the past? How many are part of your program today?
While there are countless success stories that I would love to share, a few names that come to mind quickly… 

Karine: Karine from Artsakh took over her late father's brickmaking company and has made impressive inroads in the male-dominated construction industry. With the help of the WE course and a mini-grant, she has expanded the business—hiring more employees, purchasing machinery, and widening her footprint in the area. In the aftermath of the Artsakh War, she is setting her sights on helping rebuild the devastated capital city of Artsakh.

Gohar: Gohar’s inspiring success in skincare, a highly competitive product category, is owed to passion, confidence, hard work and risk taking, as she pivoted her business during the pandemic to stay afloat. Today, MG Skincare is available at many of the top local hotels and B&Bs and is one of the most popular items around the AGBU NY office!

Arpine: Arpine (pictured below) transformed from a victim of domestic abuse to head of her household and proud owner of a home business. AGBU WE encouraged Arpine to step out of traditional gender boxes. Like Karine, she took over her father’s custom shoemaking business with the goal to expand her footprint in the bespoke accessories marketplace. 

AGBU WE alone has over 450 alumnae with 209 start-up businesses and 255 scale-ups (and counting!) in various industries such as agriculture, fashion, tourism and hospitality, beauty and skincare, and so many more.

As you know, 100% of our sales on International Women’s Day will be donated to 5 female entrepreneurs that are participants of WE. What can financial donations unlock for these female entrepreneurs?
AGBU programs like WE are completely donor-driven. These donations directly translate to female empowerment, financial independence, a stronger economy, and a program that serves as a catalyst for sweeping changes in Armenia and Artsakh.

What does gender equality currently look like in Armenia? Are there other ways we can support this?
During the last few years, promotion of gender equality and human rights of women in Armenia has witnessed both progress and challenge. Significant investments in programs like WE will help spark meaningful activity, and in turn real change, as we help to secure a woman’s place in all aspects and levels of Armenian society as a changemaker and leader.

How can we empower women globally, and ultimately reach global gender equality?
Well that’s a tough question and while the answer seems simple, getting there is the hardest part.

I do believe that women’s economic empowerment is central to realizing women’s rights and gender equality, when more women work, economies grow. When women are given a voice and allowed to participate, we see drastic improvements from the household to the highest institutions. When women and girls are given equal opportunities, we see life-changing results. 

Guaranteeing the rights of women and giving them opportunities to reach their full potential is critical not only for attaining gender equality, but also for addressing so many other important global issues.

Last, but not least, how can we shop these AGBU-supported, female-owned businesses? 
AGBU’s online bookstore features a number of our WE products including handmade jewelry pieces, handbags, children’s games, housewares, beauty care and so much more. View our collection here.

(images courtesy AGBU)

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