Irina Davtyan (LL.M. ‘07): The Lawyer in Tech7 min read
Irina Davtyan is a graduate of the America University of Armenia (AUA) Master of Laws (LL.M.) program. A professional lawyer, a licensed attorney, and more of an entrepreneur as she discovered herself in the world of technologies, Irina is successfully working in her profession and also exploring new frontiers following her dual passions. She is co-founder of the Gyumri Animation School NGO and Popok Animation, which offers computer graphic services for different types of projects. Irina talked to us about her career path, her keen interest in tech entrepreneurship, her successful ventures, plans for the future, and more.
How did you start your career path and what brought you to AUA?
In order to answer your question I need to go back to 2001 when I had just finished school and was thinking about how to continue my education. I have always wanted to become a lawyer. I have always considered it a very noble profession. And if AUA had an undergraduate program back then, I would have definitely applied, but since there were only master’s programs at AUA then, I ended up at Yerevan State University’s department of law. After I graduated in 2005, I started thinking of pursuing a master’s degree at AUA. Having heard of many positive things about American-style education, I decided to take the chance and apply.
What role did AUA’s LL.M. program play in your career?
In the first three or six months at AUA’s LL.M. program, I think I learned more than I did during my four-year undergraduate studies. AUA did open doors for me. Education at AUA was like a breath of fresh air, it gave me new ideas. I suddenly realized that the world is bigger, so much bigger with endless opportunities.
After finishing my bachelor’s, I couldn’t find a job in law. Although I had been working since I was 16, and I love working, no one would hire me as a lawyer because I did not have experience in the field. And finally, during my first year at AUA, I was successful in finding a job as a lawyer at the Public Television Company of Armenia, which was a fantastic experience. I was hired without prior professional experience, which I believe is attributed to my association with AUA. That is when I decided that I will never look for experience if I start hiring people myself. And I have stayed faithful to my decision: I hire people without experience. And, you know, it’s even more interesting for me, hiring people without experience, mentoring them, and seeing them grow.
What sparked your interest and involvement in tech startups?
I received my advocate’s license in 2008. I was very young then. I think I was probably the youngest advocate in the country. I was so full of life and had a strong desire to discover new things. After receiving my license, I started practicing law, but I can’t say that it was what I wanted to do. I was working with startups, taking care of their legal matters, though back in those days the word “startup” was not commonly used. Then I got interested in the technology field. Being a lawyer really helped me to get into the startup world. When you start a company, the first thing you have to do is tend to the legal matters; that’s what initially connected me to the field.
More than 10 years ago, I started the first Armenian online retail store for clothing. Perhaps it was one of the very first retail stores in the country, a very small project on a small budget. Then I switched to something else, a shopping platform similar to the ones we have today in Armenia. But those were different times, you could not find investors as easily as you do now. Nowadays, it’s easier. You come up with an idea, you find investors, you introduce your idea to them, and they finance it. In 2008, people did not believe in startups as they do now.
Tell us about the Gyumri Animation School NGO. How did it start? What challenges did you face? Where are you now?
I started it in 2018, together with 3D artist Aghvan Khachatryan and 3D animator Hayk Stepanyan. We thought, why not start something that all three of us could do together? I was the one to take care of the legal matters, finances, management, etc. Initially, we wanted to start a studio, but the problem was that we lacked animators in Armenia, and you can’t launch a studio with just a couple of animators. So we decided to start with a tuition-free animation school in Gyumri. Why Gyumri? Firstly, because my two co-founders come from there, and secondly, we wished to make a contribution to the Shirak region, one of the poorest in Armenia.
So we rented a space, we got computers, and started operating. During the first roll, we had 250 applicants, which was quite unexpected. So we had to conduct interviews to be able to pick a smaller number. In the end, 45 students were admitted because of the limited space and computers, and 20 of them graduated, becoming full junior to mid-level animators. Most of them currently work at our studio Popok.
We soon realized that this was a successful venture and we kept developing it. We have very strict exams and home assignments, and we do our best to produce skillful animators.
Perhaps the most challenging thing about the school has been the funding. When we first started, we did most things out of our own pockets. But when we had the first success story, we were able to get financial support. A lot of great people financed our efforts and we’re very grateful to them. Now we are constantly applying for funding. Sometimes we get it, sometimes we don’t, but even if we don’t, we can now rely on revenues from Popok Animation. We’re also planning to start a branch of the school in Yerevan. So, let’s see what the future holds.
Speaking of Popok, how did it come into being? Why “Popok”?
The name comes from an Armenian slang idiom, meaning very cool, very solid. As soon as our first graduates of the Gyumri animation school were ready, we established the studio, which was our initial goal at the time when we launched the school. We started from scratch, and sometimes we would wonder where it was going to take us. And now, I am proud to say that we are one of the biggest service studios in the region and we are working with giants, such as Soyuzmultfilm, Melnitsa Animation Studio, and Petersburg Animation Studio. Currently, we are providing them services, working on their cartoons which are very popular among children in the region, including Armenia.
What are some of your most interesting/significant projects within Popok Animation? What are you currently working on? What are your future plans?
In spite of being a service studio, we are growing rapidly. Until now, we have mostly been working on cartoon series. Recently, we made a short animated Christmas movie which will be released on Christmas. For next year, we are doing a full-length animated movie and also planning to work on a completely new project. We are going to make a cartoon from A to Z, including story and character development, modeling, and animation. At the moment, our team is looking for an Armenian fairy tale to take to the screen. This is harder than it may seem; we are looking for a story that will reflect Armenian culture and also be interesting for the new generation. So, if anyone who reads this interview says “I know a great story that can be turned into an animation,” let me know!
What inspires you to keep pursuing your dual passions and explore areas that spark your interest?
I think life itself. I am so in love with this world! I try to see the positive side of things. When I look at all the technological advancements, I just think to myself, “Oh my god, I am living in the future!” Just think about it: 30 years ago, we would have never imagined that we would be able to contact one another via video calls. So, imagine what’s going to be possible tomorrow. Technologies are a great driving force, and we should use them for good — to make our world a better place.
Another thing that inspires me is knowledge and how easily accessible it is today. We didn’t have this many opportunities in the past. We should take advantage of all the opportunities to create a bright future. I don’t want to sound too pathetic, but yes, I want the future to be bright, and I want it to be bright for everyone. This is also why I relocated to Gyumri: to be able to make a positive change and invest in the future.
You also write. How did you develop a passion for writing?
I’m an avid reader, I read a lot. And when you read that much, one day you start writing. I started writing when I was 14. I mostly write young adult fantasies and horror stories. There was a period in my life when I said, “I want to take a little bit of rest from the legal stuff and see what else I can do.” And writing came naturally. Then one day, I learned that Amazon has this project where you can self-publish your books. And I said, “Why not try it?” So I started self-publishing and I gained readers which was a surprise to me, and then I started publishing more and more. I think I have gifted a couple of my books to the AUA library.
Then it turned out that publishing on Amazon was easier than publishing in Armenia. So, I decided to start my own publishing company, which will be launched next year. It’s going to be a small publishing company, where I will publish my books and also those of other authors like me who can’t find a publisher.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of your graduation. Looking back at your AUA journey, what do you think is your biggest takeaway? And what would be your advice to current AUA students?
AUA opened my eyes. I’m extremely grateful for my AUA experience. Back then, maybe we had less computers and slower internet connection, but still, it was a remarkable experience that I will always cherish. I remember my time at AUA very fondly and I keep in touch with most of my classmates.
We had great professors, who readily shared with us their expertise and knowledge. I gained a lot at AUA, though now, as I look back, I think I could have taken even more. So I would advise current AUA students to learn as much as they can. Don’t be lazy and remember that you only have limited time. Use every second at AUA because this is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. Also, don’t chase grades. I graduated with a high GPA but never in my life have I ever needed it. So, chase knowledge, not grades.