VivaCell-MTS General Manager Ralph Yirikian Visits Philadelphia- Armenian Community

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By Lisa Manookian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

VivaCell-MTS General Manager Ralph Yirikian

PHILADELPHIA — On Sunday, April 11, members of the Philadelphia-Armenian community gathered at St. Sahag & St. Mesrob Armenian Church to meet a pioneer and visionary whose company has become a symbol of corporate excellence in Armenia. Ralph Yirikian is the general manager of VivaCell-MTS, a 2005 startup which in the past five years has become Armenia’s leading mobile operator and top taxpayer. Through innovation, VivaCell-MTS has enhanced options and products for its customers, while spearheading initiatives that have made it an exemplary company of Corporate Social Responsibility in Armenia. As a result, VivaCell-MTS has channeled several million dollars into healthcare, cultural, environmental, educational and infrastructure projects throughout Armenia in a sustainable leading manner.

The Sunday afternoon program was sponsored by Birthright Armenia and hosted by the St. Sahag and St. Mesrob parish. While introducing Yirikian, the executive director of Birthright Armenia, Linda Yepoyan, stated that Yirikian has “raised the bar of corporate social responsibility” in Armenia. Yirikian addressed the crowd by initially affirming that his intention to visit Armenian communities throughout the United States was neither predicated on promoting his company’s products and services, nor for the purpose of fundraising. Rather, his mission was to share a story of how one company has made a difference in our Hayrenik (“our fatherland”).

Ralph Yirikian speaks during his tour.

VivaCell-MTS was established on the solid foundations of several ideals: to bring technological innovation and wireless communications to the people of Armenia; to provide vast mobile network coverage throughout the country via the latest technologies; to hire smart and savvy Armenians in order to help grow the company and contribute to Armenia’s economy and to promote corporate social responsibility. The VivaCell-MTS family is currently 1,200 strong and growing, with an average age of 32, and fairly evenly split in terms of the male/female ratio. Granted a license to operate in Armenia in November 2004, VivaCell-MTS became the second telecom operator in Armenia. Prior to VivaCell-MTS’ entry into the Armenian telecom arena, Armenia’s first mobile network operator, ArmenTel, had held a monopoly of the telecommunications sector since independence in 1991. In February 2005, VivaCell-MTS was awarded a supply agreement for a 400,000 subscriber capacity network. Commercially launched in July 2005, VivaCell-MTS expanded its subscriber capacity to 800,000 by December 2005, thus crossing the threshold of 50-percent market share within its first six months of operations. By November 2006, it had reached a capacity of 1.5 million subscribers. With a vastly superior network vis-à-vis its nearest competitor, VivaCell-MTS presently has more than 2.1 million subscribers and a market share of 81 percent. It has customers in Armenia, Artsakh, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, among others, and its experience in both eastern and western markets has helped it surpass its competition in Armenia, which currently includes ArmenTel and the French telecom operator Orange.

The company’s commitment to corporate responsibility extends externally to the environment and to society, in general, through various investments in socio-economic and philanthropic projects. Yirikian and his team were able to convince VivaCell-MTS’ Russian and Lebanese shareholders to believe in the importance of giving back to society. For VivaCell-MTS, corporate social responsibility involves returning a fraction of its earnings to society by investing sweat equity into projects that benefit those less fortunate in society. According to Yirikian, simply hosting banquets and making toasts to congratulate the efforts of a few are not proactive.

Yirikian reminded those in attendance that “as well as we maintain our homes, we must also maintain the greater community in which we live.”

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At the end of each year, the VivaCell-MTS team conducts brainstorming sessions to prepare the budget for the coming year, including projects that fall within the realm of its corporate responsibility goals. In 2008,  VivaCell-MTS focused on strengthening villages throughout Armenia, by funding water distribution, irrigation and gas pipeline projects. It also provided hundreds of new residences for Armenian families living in huts in earthquake-ravaged Shirak Province. It also contributed to kindergarten and school renovation initiatives in rural areas.

In 2009, VivaCell-MTS shifted its focus towards cultural and human-interest projects, with an emphasis on sports, fitness and children’s initiatives, including personal health and hygiene, as well as environmental protection. Moreover, the company equipped Armenia’s hospitals with modern equipment, in an effort to decrease the country’s high infant mortality rate. For 2010, VivaCell-MTS will continue its focus on culture, with corporate responsibility programs aimed at assisting worthy entities ranging from chamber music series to theatrical productions to athletic events. VivaCell-MTS has also created career development programs in Armenian universities. In addition, select college students are invited to participate in internships at VivaCell-MTS.

VivaCell-MTS firmly believes that if Armenians have faith in their fatherland and identity, then they must work together to strengthen the homeland, and not depend on foreign support. Because of its often tragic history, Armenia has had a tendency of depending on foreign support, yet has paid a high price for it. VivaCell-MTS believes that its philosophy of corporate social responsibility translates into prosperity for the company through satisfied customers which, in turn, helps the overall growth of the Armenian economy. Yirikian stressed that it is “only through our collective sweat, our respect in valuing each other as human beings, and our respect for the environment in which we live, that we can build a strong Armenia and preserve our identity.” He further stressed that “Armenia cannot sustain itself without the assistance of the Diaspora, and conversely, the diaspora cannot survive without Armenia. Ultimately, it is through the strength of our Armenian identity that we will be able to flourish as a people.” This philosophy is the driving force behind VivaCell-MTS success in Armenia.

Members of the audience posed numerous questions for Yirikian. With respect to a question about difficulties or obstacles faced in Armenia when starting VivaCell-MTS, Yirikian quipped that there were no real obstacles other than finding ways to keep his wife patient and happy. On a more serious note, Yirikian asserted that VivaCell-MTS did not face difficulties with the laws or regulations of Armenia. Concurrently, the company made a point to be transparent in its operations and not to circumvent customs procedures and taxpayer responsibilities. The only real challenge to the company involved the geographic terrain of Armenia and Artsakh, which are mainly mountainous interspersed with rivers and valleys. There were occasions when a cellular tower needed to be installed in canyons 3,000 meters above sea level, with entire villages behind them where there was scant radio coverage.

In responding to a question about applying for a job at VivaCell-MTS, Yirikian stated that anyone who is of Armenian origin can apply for a position and that vacancies are always posted on their website. He explained that VivaCell-MTS is solely interested in hiring Armenians, and that the company makes no distinction with respect to whether applicants are from Armenia, Artsakh or from throughout the Diaspora.

In response to a question about whether or not VivaCell-MTS is considering introducing a fourth generation (or 4G) mobile communications standard in Armenia, Yirikian affirmed that his company is seriously considering the transformation of its network from the current third generation (or 3G) system to a proto 4G system known as Long Term Evolution (LTE), which, if realized, would rank Armenia in an elite group of countries — including the United States, Sweden, Norway and Japan — that have introduced 4G.

In closing, Yirikian stressed that every Armenian should visit the homeland at least once in their lifetime. He suggested that those travelling to Armenia for the first time do so with an open mind, uninfluenced by the positive or negative experiences of others. He left the audience with the following inspirational message: “we love our identity and we translate this love by serving it.”

The VivaCell-MTS delegation made other appearances on the East Coast, in New York  and Washington, DC, prior to heading out to Los Angeles, where they met with university and school students, and other Armenian cultural, fraternal and religious organizations.
Yirikian is a frequent speaker at academic and business conferences, and at technology seminars and forums. He is the head of the Steering Committee of the Armenia Network at the United Nations’ Global Compact Initiative and is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia. He has received several “Man of the Year” and “Person of the Year” honors from various organizations, such as the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry and the London Board of Trustees of the Tekeyan Cultural Association. He has been awarded the Movses Khorenatsi Medal from the president of the Republic of Armenia, the Anania Shirakatsi medal from the president of Artsakh, the St. Gregory the Illuminator decoration of honor from Catholicos Karekin II, along with other honorary doctoral distinctions and accolades from higher educational and research institutions.
The sponsor of Yirikian’s presentation in Philadelphia, Birthright Armenia, provides opportunities for Diasporan-Armenian youth to work, study or volunteer in Armenia, strengthening their connection to the homeland and raising awareness of their own identity.
(Mihran Toumajan contributed to this article.)

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