Living to Serve And Serving as An Example


By Florence Avakian

NEW YORK — It is not rare to find talented, professional females in Armenia, but Margarit Piliposyan stands out as a special dedicated leader, fomenting progress and innovation for one of the most important diasporan organizations bringing life-saving aid and development promises to Armenia — the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR).

Joining this crucial group in 2007, Piliposyan serves as its vice chair and programs director in Armenia.

Graduate of the 1985 class of Yerevan State Institute of Russian and Foreign Languages, Department of the English language, with a major in English and French as a second language, Piliposyan’s desire was to become a professional translator/interpreter, calling it a “people-oriented field, a very good vehicle to connect with people.”

Following graduation, with almost no jobs in her specialty, she worked for one year as an English teacher in a vocational technical college which provided a labor force for factories. She then became a guide and interpreter for Intourist (the main Soviet Travel Agency) for six years, in the management unit, arranging everything for the incoming and outgoing tourists. “Being the youngest to join Intourist, I was the last hired, and when it was breaking up, I was the first fired,” she said.

During the disastrous 1988 earthquake and the Artsakh war, many horizons opened for “anyone who could help in the international rescue operations.” She did volunteer work on weekends, helping the Red Cross in Gyumri, until 1990. But a very dark period for Armenia started in 1992, when a five-year blackout took place with no electricity, no railroads, no tourists. “The system totally fell apart.”

It was during this time that Piliposyan applied for an American program of entrepreneurship, and was one of the four selected out of 57 to intern in a small travel agency in Old Lyme, Conn., “with my American mother.” This wonderful opportunity was a mild shift for her to move from an enterprise within a planned economy to the free market, as her dream back in 1992 was to set up a small privately owned travel business in Armenia.

The return from the US in 1993 paralleled with total darkness, cold, no opportunities, overall national apathy and depression. Luckily, a bright spot, a job offer to work as a freelance interpreter/translator for USAID contractor firms to assess the energy sector, brought back the belief that everything is not as bad as it seemed to be. Following this short term assignment, a full time position of assistant to the senior extension advisor/interpreter translator at the US Department of Agriculture followed. Two years of work at the USDA helped her demonstrate her leadership skills and she became one of the five Cochran Fellows to be in the short-term non-degree course in agriculture/agribusiness management at the Universities of Kansas/Manhattan and University of Davis in California.

The end of 1994 was unfortunate, as the job with USDA came to an end. A new search brought Margarit to a wonderful project back then implemented by a Washington-based diasporan organization: Armenian Assembly of America. This organization was implementing a USAID funded NGO Training and Resource Center program with the aim to empower civil society organizations and promote civic participation in democratic processes in the newly independent Republic of Armenia.

With almost zero knowledge and experience in non-profit management, Piliposyan started as an assistant to technical advisors with one of the milestone objectives to become an advisor/trainer and take on one of the key positions at the center. In 1998, she was the director of the NGO Center with a staff of 25, satellite offices in three major cities in Armenia: Yerevan, Gyumri and Vanadzor and working with and for 1000+ small non-governmental organizations in Armenia.

“Doing nonprofit work became close to my heart. I have always admired seeing small civic groups trying to promote change, providing light to dark. During the Soviet period, there was no civil society. This is the real democratic role that the NGO Center helped to nurture and protect.

Ten years of uninterrupted USAID funding resulted in a rooted culture of civic activism and a sustainable NGO Center that continues nowadays as a local non-profit with Piliposyan as a president and, today, as a trustee.

Joining FAR in 2007 was groundbreaking: familiar yet new at the same time. The work with FAR was a dramatic change for Piliposyan, whose family members for generations have been engineers.

“The work I do with FAR is investing in the future of Armenia and the young generation. It is very heartwarming,” she says proudly, during a recent interview in New York City.

Helping children, multi-child families, elderly, youth, orphans, and people with special needs, is a noble mission that a dedicated team with Piliposyan as program director carry on proudly and professionally. “We are a low-cost, high-impact organization, hitting our arrows where the need is greater,” continued Piliposyan. “I love working with a dedicated team, and have to mention that young women leaders constitute a core group of my FAR family. It is thanks to them and our love, empathy and passion that we are able to achieve more than is planned. I am proud to be a small particle of this wonderful organization.”

“One of the beauties of my jobs is the work with younger generation,” she said. “I love working with talented youth, guiding and mentoring them, admiring their professional growth.”

Piliposyan is a result-driven leader, not only at her job, but in a number of volunteering initiatives with which she is involved. Even after quitting the job with the NGO Center, she continued guiding the team as a chair of the organization, served at the Eurasia Foundation’s Armenia branch as an advisor on civil society development issues, permanently sits on proposal review committees of different organizations such as UNDP’s Global Environmental Facility, Eurasia Partnership Foundation and World Learning Armenia. Currently, she is in an advisory council of the World Vision Armenia, and a recent president of the Rotary Club of Yerevan.

Fourth-Generation Yerevantsi

Born in Yerevan, Piliposyan is a fourth-generation native of Yerevan coming from an engineering family. “I lived a happy childhood in the 1970s of the last century, and was raised in a traditional family, with three generations living in one apartment for 18 years,” she recalls.

She especially admires her grandfather on her father’s side, Ruben Piliposyan with whom she mostly lived, since her parents were frequently traveling. Her grandfather, a Genocide survivor, was born in Igdir/Surmalu in 1904. His family fled in 1915, returning to Igdir, and again fleeing in 1918, finally settling in Yerevan. He was a civil engineer, and became an apprentice at Alexander Tamanian’s studio (the architect who created the master plan of Yerevan), she explains.

“He was an extremely gentle, kind man who radiated peace and comfort, growing up in a family of eight children. Losing his two brothers in World War II, he took an important role in caring for his brother’s family until they were adults and on their own. “He was a silent, comfortable, wise and reliable grandfather. A true role model for me!”

“Though all was well with my family and the environment I grew up in, I was always concerned with insecurity, injustice and inequality surrounding me. It might sound strange, but as a teenage girl I was concerned with the neighborhood kids not having good quality winter shoes that got wet after playing in the snow, or a family not having a gas stove to cook. Maybe this is the reason that the life made me choose this path.”

She criticizes the Soviet system for corruption that caused one to have “good connections” at grocery stores to buy such basics as butter, sugar and meat, as well as bribery to enter certain universities. “I failed the first year since my family did not pay. This is probably the main milestone in my life — injustice and inequality that I, as a 16-year old experienced in 1979 while entering university,” she said.

Responsibility for Piliposyan involves a “strong sense of not causing any harm to others.” Using driving as an example, she comments that “it has been extremely difficult to soothe down that terrible sense, and realize that everyone else around is equally responsible for the safe traffic on the roads. Unfortunately, or fortunately, this is a permanent feeling, a companion of my life.” Her charitable work also includes being a Rotarian, which has four chapters in Armenia.

What motivates her? “Life! Love!” she replied with no hesitation. Her bucket list includes traveling to new destinations, and contributing to her people. “Everyone has so much inner wealth to be shared. It is much easier to donate money, though I admire true philanthropists, I met at FAR abundantly. But, still, the most important and most difficult things are to give yourself and your time being there with single mothers, orphaned children, kids with special needs, and insecure elderly. I will continue doing whatever is within my capacities for the betterment of my Hayastan and its people.”