A Deep Dive Into EPIC’s STRIVE Pre-Incubation With Program Lead Alisa Chalakhyan

5 min read

Alisa Chalakhyan is the program lead of EPIC’s Pre-Incubation program STRIVE. She is a graduate of the American University of Armenia and a former EPIC startup resident. Alisa was one of the students who was selected to participate in EPIC’s first Silicon Valley industry tour in 2019. With a BA in Business from AUA and an MS in Enterprise Risk Management from Columbia University in New York, Alisa has specialized in strategic and operational risk management and is highly competent at developing risk mitigation strategies into early-stage startups.

Over the course of her career, Alisa has worked for and with a variety of startups of all stages and different sizes (seed to Series D), industries (FinTech, Enterprise, SaaS, EV, etc.), and geographies (APAC, EU & UK, US & Canada). From founding to funding, Alisa is now involved with VC investing, mainly focused on emerging markets.

Alisa started her involvement with EPIC first as an Incubator resident in the Fall of 2017. Later, her engagement expanded to advising and mentorship, working with incoming startup cohorts. Currently, Alisa is leading STRIVE, guiding and collaborating with aspiring individuals as they take the first steps in their entrepreneurial journey. In our conversation with her, we delved into the details of the program, exploring the substantial impact it has made over the four groups of participants. Together, we explored the essence of this initiative and identified the specific benefits it offers, shedding light on the program’s focus and target audience.

What is STRIVE Pre-Incubation?

STRIVE is the first-of-its-kind pre-incubation program in Armenia, specifically designed for individuals interested in getting an initial introduction to the world of entrepreneurship, notwithstanding prior work experience or the existence of a startup idea. With its 9-week curriculum participants learn the fundamental aspects of entrepreneurship through interactive lectures, meetups, and workshops. The overarching aim of the program is to influence aspiring founders’ mindsets with characteristics that stimulate curiosity and foster creativity.

Could you outline the characteristics of an ideal STRIVE participant? What qualities and attributes are you looking for in individuals who would be an optimal match for this program?

The ideal participant is an early- or mid-career professional. This person is driven and self-motivated, doesn’t have to have startup experience and can come with any educational background or industry experience. We are looking for those who have the grit to become self-sufficient and critical-thinking problem solvers. 

How has the program evolved across its four rounds, and what adjustments or enhancements have been implemented based on feedback and experiences from previous participants?

The first round of STRIVE was launched in May 2022 as a beta program and after its success we doubled down on improving the program, from program length to content and speakers. The program became more and more interactive with the addition of a number of in-class activities and simulations. We also expanded the guest speaker sessions. 

After the 4th round, we decided to upgrade the program once again. Regardless of the program’s current success and popularity, we remain steadfast in our commitment to continuous improvement—a foundational EPIC principle—aiming to always enhance and upgrade our initiatives.

The upcoming Spring 2024 program will be on another level, with expanded content, additional topics (e.g., AI in entrepreneurship) and a larger pool of guest speakers. We will also have industry visits allowing the participants to get a first hand look at startup businesses from within and hear insights from people working in startups. 

Don’t miss out on the opportunity — applications for the upcoming STRIVE are now open! Act swiftly to secure your spot.

Could you provide an overview of the overarching trends and tendencies observed in the entrepreneurial journeys of participants across the four completed rounds of the STRIVE program?

STRIVE is the first step in an entrepreneurship journey and, therefore, when we were launching it we expected to see the first fruits of the program much later. But to our greatest surprise we started seeing the very early results after the end of the first round when 2 newly formed startups launched by all STRIVE graduates got accepted into the EPIC Incubator. 

While we are currently doing a graduate survey to see where our graduates went or what they’re doing, I can share one of my very favorite experiences. During Digitec Expo 2023 I met more than 20 STRIVE graduates representing either their own startups or the startups they had joined after they completed the program. This is the ultimate proof of the program’s effectiveness and success. 

Regarding mindset development, what recurring themes or shifts have you observed among participants as they advance through the program?

The one steady trend is the unapologetic curiosity among the participants that I love very much. They come with a thirst to learn and never shy away from asking questions and challenging me with their perspectives. 

And a change that I have witnessed is that people are gradually shifting the way they perceive failure and they are becoming more risk tolerant. This allows them to make bolder entrepreneurial decisions and be more open to feedback. I love having participants and graduates proactively reach out to me for feedback. 

Which session is your personal favorite, and what makes it stand out to you?

I love the final Entrepreneur’s Hunt we have at the end of the program.

In Entrepreneurial Hunt, individuals are placed in teams and given a pre-investment sum of AMD 2,000. As part of the challenge, they must increase this “initial capital” within two hours using creative approaches around the center of Yerevan. The activity aims to teach participants to overcome inhibitions, understand the challenges of selling, be creative, and think innovatively to generate revenue. Some teams even return with double or triple the initial investment, with one team achieving an impressive tenfold return through its persistence and growth mindset. The interactive tasks, workshops, and teamwork involved in the Hunt provide a hands-on experience for learning and applying essential entrepreneurial skills.

This is when the participants go out into the real world and apply the knowledge and skills gathered during the program. The reason this is my favorite session is because when they come back, I can see it in their eyes that all the theory they learned has started to make so much more sense to them following this opportunity to experience it first hand. I love hearing them share their stories and analyze it all through an entrepreneur’s perspective. They don’t even notice how they turn into entrepreneurs. 

As you look toward future batches of the STRIVE program, what expectations or aspirations do you have, and how do you plan to build upon the successes of previous iterations?

My secret wish is to grow STRIVE beyond Yerevan. I love how big of a tech hub our capital has become. I strongly believe that the other regions of the country have equal potential. And I have proof of that — around 45% of STRIVE participants are from the regions of Armenia. And these are those people who could either relocate to Yerevan or travel back and forth a few times a week. I can imagine that we could attain great results if we were to bring STRIVE to them instead of asking them to join us in Yerevan. And this is the next plan for us to work on for 2024. 

What compelling reasons would you give to encourage individuals to apply for the STRIVE program?

To challenge themselves to get comfortable with discomfort before starting a journey as challenging as entrepreneurship. Meet like-minded and not-so-much people. And grow both as entrepreneurs and as individuals. 

Applications for the upcoming STRIVE cohort are open! Act promptly to reserve your spot by clicking [here](insert application link) and take the first step towards a transformative entrepreneurial journey!

The Entrepreneurship and Product Innovation Center (EPIC) is a platform of the American University of Armenia (AUA) for promoting entrepreneurial education, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and startup venture incubation. EPIC provides an ecosystem for emerging entrepreneurs consisting of first-class facilities and collaborative workspace, programs and events, and a network of mentors, advisors, and investors. EPIC fosters the understanding and application of entrepreneurship in students and faculty at AUA to craft high-impact multidisciplinary ventures.