Garo Armen with students at a renovated village school

Garo Armen Trains Steely Focus On Rural Armenia

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By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — For Dr. Garo Armen, time is running out for rural Armenia and therefore he is focusing on reviving it as quickly and efficiently as possible.

SMART Safe Rooms in Aygehovit-KotiEvery year, the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF), which Armen founded 14 years ago, hosts swanky galas in New York featuring many entertainment standouts, including Andrea Martin, Leonardo DiCaprio, Vanessa Williams, among others, who raise money to help people whose lives and poverty they cannot even imagine.

The organization has raised $35 million to help rural Armenians.

When asked how is he able to get so many high-profile celebrities for the annual winter fundraising ball, he cited the importance of the cause.

“If what you’re doing is real, and you convey the urgency of what needs to be done in a realistic way, it will attract genuine people in pursuance of the cause,” he said. “These people come not because we are paying them  but they genuinely believe in the cause. We are blessed that [it has] almost [become] a phenomenon that feeds on itself.”

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Armen said he created COAF for one reason: “One simple word: the need.”

Compounding the need is that there is so much potential among that population.

“The government wasn’t doing it and the church wasn’t doing enough for the people of Armenia,” he said.

“At the time, I was so busy that I needed COAF like I needed a hole in the head,” he joked. “I wasn’t looking for a purpose in life but when I witnessed the Armen villages,” he said he felt he had no choice but to help.

Armen, 64,  is chairman and chief executive officer of Agenus Inc., formerly known as Antigenics Inc., a biotechnology company that discovered Oncophage, a personalized cancer vaccine recently approved in Russia for patients with earlier-stage kidney cancer.

In addition, he made news in the early 2000s for resuscitating Elan Corporation, which worked on drug development based in Ireland, through a $1 billion restructuring program. (Armen left Elan in 2004, and eventually, after it was acquired, in 2013, the company went under.)

People: Garo Armen

For Armen, the need was immediate. The condition of the people, because of their lack of resources, was dire, but it was compounded by that population being advanced “intellectually and culturally.”

The combination of the two factors created “such a disconnect that it would lead to losing people as resources.”

And that was not acceptable to him.

COAF, he said, wanted to “create conditions that allow them to advance.”

“We peeled through layers and as a result implemented the program,” Armen said, creating ones “appropriate for each [village] setting.”

The help, he said, goes to Armenia in real time. “It’s a crisis, so we don’t have the luxury to establish a foundation. We address the crisis. We come in with a plan to resource people,” he noted.

First order of business, therefore, was establishing schools as well as improving medical care for the villagers as well as establishing a civil society.

In many cases, he said, renovating schools is not enough; teachers and principals need to be trained and retrained on how to educate. “We want to take education beyond the traditional setting and take health care beyond heath care setting.”

“We started with one village in Armavir,” he said. “Then the neighboring villages came to us and said ‘Mer Mekhgeh Incheh (What is our fault?)’ that you are not doing it for us,” he recalled.

Thus, the program first expanded into five villages in the region and later into other provinces, for a total of five provinces (marzes) and 44 villages.

“We are doing it with the same methodology,” he said.

One major concept to which he referred to as “beautiful” was the COAF Smart Program. The COAF Smart Center, located in Lori, will officially open in May. “It’s a phenomenal architectural masterpiece,” he said with pride.

The center basically provides high-speed internet, as well as classes in a variety of subjects including technology (programming, engineering and robotics), music and arts, linguistics and communication, as well as classes on recycling, health and lifestyle and business and civic education.

Many other smaller hubs will be connected to the main center.

He further explained that his ambition is very simple: “to afford them the freedom to do what they want to do. Some think rural life is best suited for them.” He said he wanted to create conditions where “you can be in a rural setting and be productive.”

“We are thinking about the future that doesn’t resemble the arc of the past,” Armen said. “The purpose is to basically convey a message to the people that it’s OK to think big. We have become a nation that thinks small. We have to change our thinking because our people are worth it.”

That way, he said, they can support families while staying in their local villages.

In addition, he explained, “I cannot envision a country where only the capital city is the driver. Where will people in the capital city get their food from? In Armenian villages, the level of sophistication is so high that it would be a waste of people resources not to provide them the means to advance.”

Again, and again, Armen went back to the theme of dreams and visions for success. “We have to have a dream to fulfil. Without the dream, there is no chance you can realize that dream,” he noted.

“Having an objective that is worthy helps,” he added.

With the technology which COAF is focusing on, village residents can “press a button” and be connected to the world through high-speed internet. The center for the Internet is the village of Debed.

There is no time to lose, he said.

“Armenia and Armenians are in danger of becoming an extinct species,” he said. The real dangers facing the country force it to plan efficiently and do some hard work.

For Armen, being Armenian means something, as he grew up with his grandmother’s stories about the Armenian Genocide.

He first visited Armenia in 2001 and later again in 2003, where he honed his vision for COAF and what his organization could provide to Armenia.

Now, he visits the country four to six times a year and COAF has a staff of 150 on the ground. The group also cooperates as needed with other organizations.

 

Teen Immigrant in New York

Armen arrived in New York in 1970 from Turkey at age 17 literally with no money, but the drive to make it. He worked through college and did various jobs day and night, including for a time a messenger for the Armenian General Benevolent Union office, and paid his way through college and graduate school. He received his doctorate in physical chemistry from the City University of New York.

“Opportunities presented themselves through luck, hard work or good judgment,” leading eventually to his current status as the head of a pioneering biotech company.

He became more interested in biomedicine when he was taking care of his mother, who died of cancer. He founded and is the CEO of Agenus, which employs 250 people in three different locations, Lexington, Mass., Berkeley, Calif. and Cambridge, UK.

“I want to make Agenus a huge success,” he cited one of his goals for the future.

The field of immunology, he said, “is very embryonic but still the company has done a phenomenal job.”

“We are driving that to a much higher level of success,” Armen said. “I want to piggy-back that success with COAF to address issues in rural Armenia. We can create a country that will not only prosper but help neighbors prosper.”

He has two sons and lives with his partner, Dr. Alice Saraydarian, and divides his time between homes in Boston, New York, Yerevan as well as a farm in Maine. He chuckled that he was a “gypsy” and lived on planes most of the time.

To learn more about COAF visit www.coafkids.org

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