By Aram Arkun
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) held its 25th anniversary celebration from September 29 to October 2 at the Charles Hotel with an impressive group of speakers renowned in a variety of professions. The weekend began early with a welcome reception at the Armenian Cultural Foundation in Arlington on the evening of September 29, while the formal conference program began the next morning at the Charles and continued on Saturday, October 1. A banquet that night was followed by an AIWA leaders workshop on October 2 and a reception and exhibit opening that afternoon at the Armenian Museum of America.
There were 35 speakers in panels at the conference on September 30 and October 1 covering a wide range of topics relevant to women. It began with a session on women’s leadership, which included Dr. Sharyn S. Boornazian as facilitator, and panelists Dr. Ani Ross Grubb of the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, Alexandra Pittman, the founder of AVP Global Consulting, LLC, which specializes in research and evaluation for human rights, women’s rights and social justice organizations and movements, and Monique Svazlian Tallon, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Higher Path Consulting and the author of Leading Gracefully. It was followed by keynote speaker Dr. Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, who has authored several books on management and leadership.
An afternoon panel on leaders in politics and public life was facilitated by AIWA Executive Director Jennifer Phillips, and included panelists Maro Matosian, the executive director of the Women’s Support Center in Armenia and Toufenkian Foundation Country Director, Linda Melconian, the first woman Majority Leader in the history of the Massachusetts Senate, Anna Ohanyan, the Richard B. Finnegan Distinguished Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Stonehill College, and Anna A. Turcotte, lawyer, Westbrook Maine City Council member and author of the memoir Nowhere, A Story of Exile.
The third panel, on leaders in arts and entertainment, was facilitated by filmmaker, director, writer and journalist Carla Garapedian, and included actor and film director Nora Armani, Teni Melidonian, the Managing Director of publicity and corporate communications for the Aacemy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Sona Movsesian, executive assistant for Conan O’Brien of the “Tonight Show,” and Anush Yemenidjian, the Manager of Event Marketing at the Hollywood Reporter.
Selina Özuzun Dogan, member of the Turkish parliament, was the keynote speaker on the morning of October 1. The fourth panel, on leaders in science and creative technologies, was also that morning, and was facilitated by Christine Anne Soussa, president of the AIWA San Francisco Affiliate and a leader in the Symantec sales team. This panel included Suzanna Khatchatrian, Senior Software Engineering Manager at IBM, Marie Lou Papazian, the CEO of the Simonian Educational Foundation and Managing Director of the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies in Armenia, as well as cofounder of the Education for Development Foundation, Katherine Sarafian, producer and vice president of production and strategic talent planning of Pixar Animation Studies, Dr. Nancy Simonian, founding CEO of Syros Pharmaceuticals, and Lilit Yenokyan, a Senior Software Engineer at Netflix.
Ani Kharajian, Senior Director, New Markets, Executive Education at Harvard Business School, and the incoming president of AIWA, moderated the fifth panel, on leaders in business and entrepreneurship. The panelists included Hasmik Asatrian, who runs the Basen Hotel in Sisian, Armenia, Juliana Del Aguila Eurnekian, president of Karas Wine, Anna Gargarian, Curator and Cultural Project Manager of HAYP Pop UP Gallery, and Vera Manoukian, Senior Vice President of Operations at Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc.
The sixth and final panel, with facilitator Nicole Vartanian, Executive Director of the Children of Armenia Fund and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Hunter College, was on women’s leaderhsip and cultural identity. It included panelists Dr. Hasmig Baran, a faculty member at the California State University, Northridge, in the Armenian Studies Program, Dr. Lerna Ekmekçioglu, McMillan-Stewart Associate Professor of History at MIT, Carolyn Mugar, Executive Director of Farm Aid and founder of the Armenia Tree Project, and Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Court of Appeals Gabrielle R. Wolohojian.
In the full program, even mealtimes were opportunities to listen to speakers. Katherine Sarafian spoke on “Fostering Creativity: Safety Innovation and Leadership” at lunch on September 30, while Dr. Ani Kalayjian, the founder of Meaningful World and author of the handbook Disaster and Mass Trauma, spoke at lunch the next day on the “Aftermath of Trauma: The Healing Process from Within.”
In between the panels, presentations were given on AIWA programs, such as scholarships, publications, the Women’s Entrepreneurship Program in Armenia, and the Women’s Support Center in Armenia.
In addition to all the serious discussions, lectures and networking, there was also some live entertainment provided. On the evening of September 30, Sylvie Zakarian performed on the marimba, Jasmin Atabekian on the piano, and Serena Tchorbajian, soprano, sang, while the banquet ended with music and dancing.
As co-chairs of the 25th anniversary celebration, AIWA Vice President of Community Relations Carolyn Atinizian Yardemian and AIWA Los Angeles affiliate President Silva Katchiguian greeted the banquet guests on Saturday night. The majority of the banquet was ably run by the young and capable mistress of ceremonies Rep. Katherine S. Kazarian of the Rhode Island House of Representatives. In her initial remarks, Kazarian related the dramatic stories of her ancestors as they survived the Armenian Genocide and came to the New World. She introduced a video about AIWA’s history, which interviewed three AIWA founders, Eva Medzorian, Barbara Merguerian, and Olga Proudian, and presented the contributions of Alice Kanlian Mirak (1940-2000) and Agnes K. Missirian (1929-1994). AIWA programs were also depicted in Armenia, the United Nations, and the diaspora.
Kazarian recognized some of the celebrities in the audience, such as brother and sister alpine skiers Arman and Ani Serebrakian, who represented Armenia in the 2014 and 2010 Olympics respectively. Fr. Vart Gyozalyan of the Armenian Apostolic Church at Hye Pointe blessed the meal.
AIWA vice president Joy Rengilian-Burgy, associate professor of Spanish and co-director of Latin American studies at Wellesley College, recognized outgoing AIWA president Suzanne Moranian, who led the organization for over a decade. She stressed Moranian’s humanity, and declared that AIWA members treasured her “leading by grace and honesty.” Moranian balanced the demands of work as a historian and scholar, family life (she is now a grandmother), and the responsibilities of leading AIWA, she added.
Moranian in her turn declared that Alice Mirak was a visionary, who in the early days stated that AIWA should not just be an events organization, but should envision projects to create a legacy and a future for women to come for generations. AIWA followed this path, and the Mirak family created a leadership gift for the AIWA fundraising campaign by pledging $100,000 to AIWA in the name of Alice Mirak. Moranian encouraged others to follow this noble example.
The three aforementioned AIWA cofounders were called to the podium to receive beautiful scarves. Medzorian exclaimed, “The most important thing is to have a dream, to have a passion—to really care about something. The most important thing that we can care about today is our homeland. … Make that dream come true!” Proudian related an anecdote from a meeting in Detroit, pointing to the importance of support from the males around her.
After acknowledging support from the community and her appreciation of the AIWA video, Merguerian declared, “the thing that fills me with the most happiness this evening is to see the young generation here who planned this conference, and to know that we have younger people who are going to carry on our journey to make the world a better place for women and for everyone.”
During the banquet, Kazarian presented five AIWA awards. The first, for Leadership in Government and Public Service, was given to Selina Özuzun Dogan, an attorney and member of parliament of the Republic of Turkey. Dogan thanked her family and all the women who contributed to make her who she is today. She said that by receiving this award, she was indeed “very much encouraged,” and added, “I hope that this award is going to encourage other young women in my country and my community.”
Houry Gebeshian, the first female Olympic gymnast to represent the Republic of Armenia, this summer in Rio, received the Leadership in Fortitude Award. Gebeshian not only appeared in the Olympics, but pioneered a move on the uneven bar named after her as “the Gebeshian.” She was the only elite gymnast who both trained and coached herself while working as a physician’s assistant at night.
Gebeshian declared, “Most importantly, I am an Armenian woman. It is because of my Armenian bloodline that I am capable of handling so many things.” Her Armenian spirit, she said, pushed her to make herself better, as she never gave up on realizing her dreams, “just like our martyrs who never gave up on their beliefs.” She ended with the words, “It is never too late to deliver a dream.”
The award for Leadership in Innovative Sustainability was given to Carolyn G. Mugar. ATC executive director Jeanmarie Papelian and Elaine Mosesian accepted the award on her behalf.
Mugar’s message included the exhortation that “we all can do what we need to do to shape a positive and progressive future for Armenia and for everywhere we are as Armenians.”
The award for Leadership in Entrepreneurial Work went to Carolyn Rafaelian, founder, chief executive officer and chief creative officer of the jewelry chain Alex and Ani. While she could not be present in person, she had prepared a video message, and also sent her mother Lucy Rafaelian, who emotionally expressed her appreciation for the honor and proclaimed that “we are true Armenians — getstse Hayasdan!”
Finally, the Leadership in Arts and Sciences award was won by Katherine Sarafian producer and vice president of production, and strategic talent planning of Pixar Animation Studios. The movie “Brave” which she produced broke the mold as it was centered around a female heroine. Sarafian, “It has been a very emotional couple of days here. I think I welled up ten times an hour.” She praised AIWA’s efforts, and said, “The amount of support that the sisterhood of Armenian women offers is staggering.” Sarafian exclaimed that she no longer could resist and just bought a lifetime AIWA membership that afternoon.
At the conclusion of the program, Moranian enumerated many ways in which AIWA works for Armenian women, in Armenia, as a NGO at the United Nations, fighting for reproductive health care and rights, and breast care, supporting women through scholarships in universities to promote their education and empowerment, and organizing panels and conferences in many countries. She said, “We look for ways to unite Armenian women, wherever they were, wherever they are, wherever they will be…we are here to help meet those needs and create strengths.”
She cited family members, and her alma mater Wellesley, as the two main sources of inspiration in her life to help people. She said, “I hope that each of you will try to think of ways in which you can teach somebody—perhaps a child, a grandchild, [or] people around you—how you can inspire them to serve those around them.” She admonished all to remember that “When you empower women, you empower everybody.”
Moranian then introduced her successor, the new AIWA president-elect, Ani Kharajian. Kharajian said that she will work to connect women and lead, after listening to what AIWA members desire for the future. Through leveraging technology and social media, borders will become less meaningful. AIWA has a lot of resources to help Armenia and the diaspora. Ultimately, she stressed, “it is really about promoting and enriching the lives of women.” AIWA needs to set “really, really big stretch goals.”
AIWA Celebration Committee co-chair Atinizian Yardemian later reflected on the extensive set of AIWA events: “AIWA’s 25th Anniversary Celebration was a tremendous success. We set out to deliver a conference aimed at reaching across generations to address the issues and challenges facing Armenian across the globe. We brought together over 300 guests from around the world to connect and engage with each other throughout the various parts of the weekend.” In addition, the conference panels were sold-out. Atinizian Yardemian concluded, “We have enjoyed remarkable positive responses from all who attended #AIWA25 and are determined to deliver even more engaging and energizing programs and networking opportunities in the future.”
(All photographs accompanying this article are by Kelly Cianflone of SCKY Art Photography.)