Karine Sarkissian (MBA ’93) Believes in the Power of Education and Science5 min read
Karine Sarkissian (MBA ’93) is one of the first graduates of the American University of Armenia (AUA). She has more than twenty years of experience in the free market economic system. Sarkissian has held several top managerial positions in local and international companies that include Johnson & Johnson and The Coca-Cola Company. Currently the executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Armenia (AmCham), she also owns a greenhouse farm specialized in vegetable production. Despite a number of opportunities to emigrate from Armenia, Sarkissian remains firm in her decision to stay in her homeland and contribute to its development through her work. In the below interview our successful alumna shares highlights of her career journey, initiatives in which she is now engaged, hard decisions she had to make in her life and offers advice to current students.
Tell us about your academic background and student years at AUA.
I graduated from the Yerevan Polytechnic Institute, which is now known as the National Polytechnic University of Armenia. Back in 1991, after the historic changes that took place, the newly independent Armenia was slowly recovering and there were not many educational opportunities. Our generation seemed to be at a loss trying to understand how to pursue a career in that economic crisis because most manufacturing factories were shut down and businesses were closed. Learning about the Master of Business Administration program offered at AUA I decided to apply, with a strong belief that our country will sooner or later recover from the economic crisis, and well-qualified specialists in business administration will be in high demand. Specifically, I took an MBA degree focusing on marketing which was like a “fairy tale” for me after the not so consumer-oriented approaches we used to have in the Soviet Union.
I was not sure if I was going to get a job after graduation. So, I decided to take a step forward and pursue my education in the U.S. at the Kellogg Business School, Northwestern University, under the Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program. I was really delighted to get admitted to Northwestern University and to continue my education in the Masters in Management program. These were the years during which I gained qualifications in management and added the experience of working in the West to bring these assets with me to Armenia.
I was one of the first graduates of the American University of Armenia. I remember my student years at AUA very vividly as they were some of the brightest years in my life. AUA brought a new Western-style educational system to Armenia. All the students were thinking about the future of Armenia, and they came to acquire new knowledge and to gain a Western-style educational experience. I want to thank the founders of the University — Dr. Agbabian, Dr. Der Kiureghian, Dr. Karamardian, as well as the AGBU [Armenian General Benevolent Union] — that together with strong stamina initiated this institution.
You are the Executive Director of AmCham. What is the most challenging part of your job?
I have over twenty years of experience working in the free market economic system. I think the most challenging part is the management of people and interpersonal dynamics that are part of our turbulent society. It is hard to understand people’s emotions and their expectations. But still, it is a very rewarding experience to get people to do their best in their positions and to make the most of every possible opportunity with a collective talent.
Other than this, learning is one of the most challenging parts of my job. Every organization has its own culture, so either you have to fit into that culture or make it even better to have a fun place to work. Given my multinational experience, I am trying to bring that culture into the local business environment.
What was the hardest decision you have ever had to make?
In 2016, I was laid off from my position at The Coca-Cola Company. I had the opportunity to leave Armenia and work abroad in other regional offices of Coca-Cola. Actually, I have had several opportunities to emigrate from Armenia to Canada, Switzerland, and other countries, but I made the decision to stay in my country to prove that here you can create your own opportunities, you can get a job, and be happy.
Tell us about the Happy Farm. Why did you decide to found a greenhouse farm?
After I was laid off I decided to start a small family business. I thought agriculture was a very rewarding field and, besides, we were able to create several jobs. At first, it was a hobby that we enjoyed doing with our family in our backyard. Then we decided to start a business which would also become profitable. So, I made our hobby into a business. But after a while, my sister decided to take over and lead the family business and I went back to office work.
Tell us about Gituzh. What’s your involvement in this initiative?
Gituzh is initiated by entrepreneurs and people who really care about Armenia and its future. AmCham is part of this initiative because education and science are the foundation of any successful business in the world. I truly believe that education is a key component for any society to become successful and compatible in the world. What Gituzh is pursuing is to get Government support for promoting science and scientists with sustained budget allocations that will build a strong scientific community. Only with strong scientists and the advancement of science, the state would become more compatible in the world. That is the reason why we are a part of this initiative.
What role does social responsibility play in your life?
Given our current disastrous situation in the country, after the 2020 Artsakh War and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, our society needs systematic charity initiatives to help people who are in need — children, the elderly, and especially our soldiers and their families. I think all the businesses in Armenia should adopt their own corporate social responsibility programs and engage in activities that help those segments of society that are the most affected by the unprecedented challenges of this difficult situation.
What would you advise AUA students who want to pursue a career in marketing?
When I was a student, we were in a totally different marketing era. Now we are in the technological era of digital marketing. I would recommend grasping as much knowledge as possible while they are at university and being more specialized in specific marketing fields, such as brand management, advertising, research marketing, or social media marketing. Overall, marketing is a promising career path to choose but students need to have a specialized approach and pursue a career in a specific marketing field.
Also, I would like to thank the AUA faculty and leadership for continuing to develop curricula to better meet the challenges Armenia is facing in these difficult times. I know that several new programs are going to be launched at AUA: the Graduate Certificate Program in Hotel and Hospitality Management, the Bachelor of Arts in Politics and Governance, and the Master of Arts in Human Rights and Social Justice. Moreover, AUA Open Education is offering training programs to the displaced people from Artsakh both in Yerevan and in the regions. I would like to call on society to rise to these opportunities and actively participate in all the changes that are occurring in our country. Without our support, our country won’t be able to overcome this difficult situation. And I also call for the Diaspora to be more proactive and readily engage in the development of our country.