Rachel Nadjarian

New Director Nadjarian Sees Global Role for AIWA


WATERTOWN — The Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) hired its first fulltime executive director in November 2018. In that post, Rachel Onanian Nadjarian is attempting some major changes in direction for the organization.

Nadjarian has extensive experience in nonprofit management, marketing and advertising as well as decades of involvement in the Armenian community. She related that though her mother was not Armenian, she raised her two daughters to be involved in Armenian affairs. Nadjarian went to Armenian Saturday school at Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Cambridge, Mass., and later taught Sunday school at the same church. She joined the Armenian General Benevolent Union’s Daron Dance Ensemble and, following its director Apo Ashjian when he founded a new ensemble, became one of the original members of the Sayat Nova Dance Company in 1986.

The only dancer of the company who could not speak fluent Armenian, she decided her senior year at Wellesley College, while as an economics and sociology major she was preparing to work on Wall Street, to travel to Armenia. Prof. Philip Kohl was preparing for an archaeological dig in Armenia and on the spur of the moment Nadjarian decided to join it for seven weeks in the summer of 1992. She became comfortable in Eastern Armenian during this trip.

She began a career in advertising in Cambridge, Mass. but after two years switched to working for the Museum of Science in Boston, and was inspired by working in a nonprofit environment. Consequently, she did the nonprofit program from 1995 to 1997 to earn a Master’s in Business Administration from Boston University’s Questrom School of Business and then went to work on a $132-million fundraising campaign for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which was, she said, at the time the largest ever of any institution. She said, “I felt I had learned fundraising in probably the best environment in which I could ever learn — major gifts, gift recording, donor relations and how it is done right.”

After running the career center for MBAs at Boston University’s School of Management, she went to Crimson and Brown, running a sales team on career events. Due to her husband getting jobs in Michigan and then San Francisco she moved several times, focusing on their children, while doing consulting projects, often for Armenian organizations, for several years. She moved again in 2004 to New York, where she lived until 2015, with the exception of one year in Boston. The last two years in New York she worked as the director of advancement of a private school and helped create their development department, but after a move to the Washington D.C. area, she returned to consulting, with her Armenian clients including the Armenian Tree Project, the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative and the IDeA Foundation. She also got involved in the Armenian Relief Society as a volunteer from 2013 to 2017.

Nadjarian presented her varied work as good background for her position with AIWA. She said, “I am used to wearing many hats, dealing with a lot of ambiguity, and creating structure with brand and mission so it makes sense.”

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Nadjarian served as a volunteer on AIWA’s board starting in June 2017. AIWA had hired Jennifer Philips, a part-time executive director, for the first time, from 2016 to 2018. When Philips left, Nadjarian was already pondering the role of AIWA. She said, “In that year or so I saw a lot of opportunity that was being overlooked, a little bit of slowing down or inertia, complacency maybe. I decided on my trip to Armenia that summer [after the Velvet Revolution] to do my own research and investigation on what Armenian women were thinking…I felt we are at a turning point for the Armenian world and I need to go and listen to what women there have to say about anything — where they are, the future, what they are working on.”

Nadjarian said she felt there was an incredible amount of work being done in Armenia about which most people abroad are not aware. She concluded, “I felt very inspired and said I think AIWA is in a very good position to change the conversation, the platform, the playing field on which Armenian women are connected around the world.”

Nadjarian urged that the AIWA director position be expanded to full-time, and offered herself for the post. She said that first of all, “We have to simultaneously….recreate the brand a little, recreate the conversation, the narrative, the message, and engage more women around the world. As we do that, we are going to start to see reach, engagement and membership increase and then the fundraising strategy will come from that.”

Nadjarian’s initial focus will be on the vision and the message and their dissemination. She already has reworded AIWA’s original goals “in a 2019 way as opposed to a 1991 way,” and her goal is to redo the entire platform, not just the website.

To redo the platform, she is assembling a vision team of 8-9 young people from around the world who will be led by a UX (User Experience) designer in Armenia. They are not AIWA members but, Nadjarian said, are engaged and active users of technology who have a lot to say about what they think Armenian women want and what the challenges to them are.

Most immediately, Nadjarian has begun a listening tour to go to all of AIWA affiliates as well as cities with Armenian populations with no official affiliates, and to Russia and Armenia, to hear the needs, aspirations, challenges and opportunities of Armenian women. She said that the information gathered will help decide how to redirect the efforts of AIWA. She also is engaging new people and spreading the word about AIWA.

Topics: AIWA, Women

Armenia will be her final stop. There used to be an affiliate there which never got going but now Nadjarian feels there is a good possibility for collaborating with the My Step Foundation of Anna Hakobyan, wife of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. AIWA always worked with the American University of Armenia (AUA) and the Women’s Support Center, but, Nadjarian said, now she wants to deepen AIWA’s work beyond just providing funding.

Rachel Nadjarian

Among the programmatic areas being considered for the near future is a global mentorship program, an examination of domestic violence on a deeper level, not only in Armenia but in other Armenian communities around the world, and a conference in Armenia next year. Nadjarian is putting together a conference committee now which she wants to “work on a very different form of interaction among people, that will not only architect conversations but move those conversations to the next place, which could be architecting solutions or creating content which could be the basis of change for the future.” The conference, she said, would be an opportunity to bring the new membership to Armenia.

The membership of AIWA at present is under 500. Nadjarian finds this to be far too low for a global network of Armenian women. There are Armenian women’s Facebook sites with much larger memberships. She believes it should reach the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. Membership costs $50 annually or $1,000 for a lifetime. Nadjarian is focusing on bringing in younger people, and says, “So far, everyone wants to be a part of it. They are very excited about what is happening. In Armenia too, there are many young women, including the web graduates of our entrepreneurship program at AUA, which we founded many years ago, who are coming forward, as well as our scholarship recipients of the past.”

Nadjarian is also forming committees and subcommittees at various levels of engagement to bring people in on particular projects in which they have a vested interest.

AIWA, under Nadjarian, has a number of top goals for Armenian women. She said, “I would like an Armenian woman to be able to have access to absolutely anything that she needs and wants that is going to help her personally and professionally, with her own wellness, with her ability to economically advance and to be engaged as a citizen in her own awareness of her rights.”

Aside from access to information and opportunities, Nadjarian wants to break down barriers between Armenian women. “In building solidarity, we need to recognize that we have a long history of seeing each other as aligned by where we were born, where we socialize, where we immigrated from, what our education level is, what our income level is, and where we reside,” she explained.

The Velvet Revolution in Armenia, Nadjarian said, provides “shining examples of what can be accomplished through civic engagement…Everyone is paying attention to this movement in Armenia…The Diaspora has been criticized, rightfully so, for telling Armenia how to do things. We have a lot to learn from them about this revolution.” She pointed out that the Armenian Revolutionary Federation just announced a gender quota and though that might have been forced, the truth will become clear if everyone embraces this approach.

AIWA is in conversation with Girls of Armenia Leadership Soccer (GOALS), a program started in 2015 which began the first women’s soccer league in Armenia in 2016. AIWA would like to work together to bring Armenian girls in soccer in the US into this program. Nadjarian pointed out that “this is an example of something done in Armenia that shows a ripe opportunity to connect outside of Armenia and we should be the connecting tissue for that.” Another possible avenue of cooperation is working with the Girls in Tech chapter in Armenia, whose managing director, Seda Papoyan, is a graduate of a program sponsored by AIWA at AUA.

AIWA will continue to work at the United Nations as a nongovernmental organization with the Commission on the Status of Women, where AIWA holds five seats. This year’s priority themes include “social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.”

Fundraising will be necessary to achieve many of AIWA’s long-term goals. Nadjarian said that the diasporan gala or banquet culture is both a blessing and a curse, noting, “There is a lot to be said for a celebratory event. They can be great but inevitably leave people out.”

She stressed that “from a fundraising point of view, the Armenian world has never really been good at it…We have this understanding that if I shake hands with someone who gives a million dollars, then I am a fundraiser. But really good fundraising is a mindset, how you see relationships. They take time and they take building trust and transparency.”

Nadjarian said that she is treating AIWA like a professional nonprofit, and building it so that in two or three years it will be running how a model nonprofit should be run. She noted that her board is very supportive. Nadjarian said, “Armenians are not good at accountability. Nobody wants to be the fall guy. I would rather have the accountability and be in the hotseat so that I can make real progress, rather than …inertia, hiding behind the board that makes the decisions.”

The 12-person AIWA board itself may undergo change soon, with a number of open seats coming up as older members withdraw. Right now it is all American, with a majority on the East Coast, but, Nadjarian said, in the future it may become international.

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