Dutch Armenian Does Business While Helping the Motherland

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AMSTERDAM, Holland — Entrepreneur and entertainer Aristakes Jessayan who, among others, owns two event agencies and for six years has run two travel agencies, was born in Athens, Greece in an Armenian family. In 2007 he traveled for the first time to Armenia, the land of his ancestors, and fell instantly under the spell of the country. There he saw a wealth of musical talent alongside lots of poverty. He has since set up a charitable foundation, partially funded by the proceeds of a garment factory, which started, in his words, “with a bit of struggle.”

“During my trip to Armenia I came impressed by the country. Setting foot for the first time in my motherland felt as refreshing experience. The people are enormously friendly, but also I found it challenging; there is a sharp contrast between rich and poor and much corruption hindering further development. During my stay I visited a music academy. You see, besides being a businessman I am also a musician and music matters very much to me. Let me make a side note about a highpoint in my singing carrier: It was the 2005 invitation to perform the national anthem of Armenia at the opening ceremony of the Netherlands-Armenia European Soccer Championship game. The school director made sure that a number of kids performed during my visit. I was impressed by the great number of talented piano and violin players, especially one girl who was playing piano for already 12 years. As it became evident that these youngsters were in needy circumstances, I made a contribution toward their teachers’ salaries and the acquisition of music instruments.”

Foundation Formed to Help Armenia

Back in the Netherlands, Jessayan, who has also been a singer for years, began a small charity to assist the deprived in Armenia. “The Aristakes Jessayan Foundation (AJF) aims to generate funds for children, orphans, war victims, the handicapped, elders and other needy people. We make sure to reach the recipients directly and not via middlemen or entities. This is done under the close scrutiny of local AJF staffers.”

The AJF has been running for a couple of years and is making steady progress. Many young musicians unable to afford music lessons are helped to pay their teachers. The run-down heating at a home for elderly and an orphanage has been repaired and running. In March, Jessayan traveled again to Armenia where he came upon Hakob Harutunyan, an expert in the garment trade, who had previously managed a fashion design school in the Netherlands.

“Together with him we visited a diamond factory where we met another mutual friend. The factory was housed within an enormous industrial complex dating back to the Soviet times.” Wondering around they saw a large room full of machinery, as it happens 120 sewing machines, covered with sheets of plastic. “Prompted by my entrepreneurial instinct I told Hakob: You are a fashion designer; these machines are left idle with no purpose. Let’s put them to use.”

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Aristakes says that this was the starting point of his fashion label, Charisma. “I became the investor and Hakob the label designer and factory manager. I like the substantive and hate an idle, excuse the expression, bull. When I established my travel agencies I had never done anything in the travel business. I just started and love doing it with great enthusiasm.”

“Meanwhile Charisma is up and running: the factory is inaugurated and prototype batches of high quality polo shirts, with a stylish fun emblem on the collar or sleeve, are ready. Not long ago Hakob and I traveled to Istanbul to purchase a half ton of fabric. There are huge textile mills in Istanbul where one can find the best quality fabrics. In anticipation of the forthcoming European Soccer Championship we also purchased orange colored fabric. We have currently seven ladies on staff, but it should be many more. I aim for fifty to a hundred workers. In this way I am trying to help provide employment for my people. A polo shirt will cost roughly € 50.00. The underlying premise is that for each sold shirt one euro goes to the foundation, which assists needy people and institutions, in other words self-help. We are of a modest scale, but who knows what will pan out.”

Charisma’s future plans are to manufacture other types of clothing and accessories. But the textile and fashion industry is a hugely competitive one. How is Charisma going to stand out?

“To begin with, we have an advantage that Armenians, especially in the diaspora, form concentrated communities. There are 15,000 Armenians residing in the Netherlands. When I showcase at a community event a shirt, which next to the Charisma logo carries the “Made in Armenia” label, it sells because each purchase helps folks back home. In Belgium there are 25,000 Armenians, which can be reached likewise. People who frequent these gatherings bring with them the “Armenian spirit.” There are large numbers of Armenians in the US; only in LA and environs about one-and-half million. I plan to reach such markets and attempt to expand and popularize the Charisma brand name via the web.”

Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy Armenia is a country of stark contrasts between rich and poor and there are many obstacles due to entrenched corruption. Despite this realization Aristakes Jessayan is hard at work. “I owe it to my father, who has always actively helped our people. I have asked him why he did it. His response was: ‘It is my duty,’ all the while when there will always be people who try to take advantage when you start an undertaking, in Armenia for one. I learned that business and philanthropy are quite compatible. This is one of the reasons that I want to see eventually the workers become coowners of the company. Then they would be even more motivated about its objectives.”

(From the original Dutch language article published in the business periodical Geld & Beleggen: Informatieblad voor de Beleger, Number 3, September 2011, Wijs & van Oostveen Publishers, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Translated by Dr. Bedros Nersessian, Fort Wayne, Ind.)

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