Vartan Djihanian honors US Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ) with the US Chamber's Spirit of Enterprise Award at a press conference in Chandler, Arizona

Djihanian Promotes Business Interests during COVID19 Crisis for US Chamber of Commerce in Western USA

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GLENDALE, Calif. – Vartan Djihanian has been working for the US Chamber of Commerce  to advance the cause of member businesses, and now is focusing on COVID-19 related problems. He is manager of the chamber’s western region of Congressional and public affairs, one of seven regions of the US, and his jurisdiction encompasses California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Hawaii. Djihanian is based in Glendale together with a colleague but, until the COVID-19 pandemic, traveled frequently for his job to meet with local chambers of commerce and business people.

Each state and local area or municipality can have its own chamber of commerce. Thus, for example, there is a Glendale Chamber of Commerce, a California chamber, and of course the US Chamber. All organizations, Djihanian said, are independent from one another. The Glendale chamber has the option of joining the higher-level chambers and pay them dues.

The exterior of the US Chamber of Commerce headquarters in Washington D.C. (May 30, 2001, photo Ian Wagreich/USCC)

Djihanian serves as the liaison between the California chamber and the US chamber as well as advocating for the business community in his region. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, every six weeks or so he would go to Washington, D.C. to meet with lawmakers and promote the views of his constituency, which he said included lower taxes, smaller government and fewer regulations. Djihanian said, “My main goal is to advocate for the priorities of the US Chamber of Commerce to the members of Congress in my area.”

The US Chamber, with its headquarters in Washington, D.C., has 3 million members throughout the country, and is the largest business federation in America. While 95 percent of its members are firms with fewer than 10 employees, Djihanian said that some of the largest businesses in America also are included. It spends the most money on political lobbying of all groups in the United States, greatly exceeding the second-place National Association of Realtors.

With the advent of the new coronavirus, Djihanian said, “We are working extremely hard to help small businesses weather the storm as we get through the next few months.” There are around 28 million small businesses in the US which create 2/3 of all jobs, he said. To help these firms, the US Chamber was working on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES), the 2.2 trillion-dollar stimulus bill which passed in Congress a few weeks ago to help businesses of every size and most industries. There are two programs connected to this act which Djihanian and the US Chamber have been advocating for in particular.

The first one is called the Paycheck Protection Program. Djihanian said that he participates in Zoom calls with chambers of commerce around the country many times a day, including with those in Southern California, and the participants all repeat that their businesses are in dire straits right now. The program ran out of money a week ago, before some businesses even had time to submit their applications, so Djihanian and his colleagues in the US Chamber are trying to get Congressional members to replenish those funds. It is a 350-billion-dollar loan program but if used properly for payroll and certain other business expenses, it will be forgiven for the borrowers and thus turn into a grant.

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The second program is the preexisting Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program (EIDL), which CARES expanded. It is supposed to offer loans up to 2 million dollars at favorable rates as well as ten-thousand-dollar emergency grants. This loan program also has run into a lot of hiccups, Djihanian said, and ran out of money like the Paycheck Protection Program, so the US Chamber is advocating additional funding for it also. For more information, see https://www.uschamber.com/sites/default/files/uscc_covid19_sb-economic-injury-disaster-loans.pdf.

The House and Senate passed a new $484 billion dollar coronavirus relief package which was signed by President Donald Trump on April 24. It included $310 billion of new funding for the Paycheck Protection Program and $10 billion for EIDL.

The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation itself has a program to help small-scale employers in economically vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 crisis with $5,000 grants through the help of its corporate and philanthropic partners. Unfortunately, this program too has run out of funding due to the great demand.

Armenian Businesses

Djihanian said that while he did not have specific statistics on the Armenian business community in Southern California, he knew that Armenians are clearly affected by the coronavirus shutdown. He said that in general, immigrants play an oversize role in commerce, with nearly two-thirds of all “main street” businesses in the Los Angeles metropolitan area owned by immigrant entrepreneurs, according to a January 2015 survey.

More specifically, he said, “Armenians traditionally are risktakers and entrepreneurship seems like a natural place for many of us to go. Sometimes immigrants when they first arrive do not have transferrable skills or degrees. They don’t have a network to be able to find a job, so they create their own businesses and end up employing a lot more people… In our area, from Sarkis Pastry to Service Titan, Glendale’s Armenian-owned businesses supercharge job creation and economic growth.”

Djihanian called for Armenian businessmen and women to become more politically active. He said, “I would love to encourage Armenian-American small business owners to join their local chamber of commerce, join the chamber’s government affairs committee, advocate to Congress, attend town hall meetings, volunteer and donate to political campaigns, and most importantly, develop relationships with their elected officials because that is the greatest form of advocacy that they can have. They can talk directly to them about the issues that matter most to their community.”

The US Chamber of Commerce is trying to publicize the various ways the US government is helping businesses through the media and webinars with local chambers of commerce. Djihanian said, “I myself have done additional outreach to the Armenian community, working with the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), social media, and local chambers of commerce in the Glendale area.”

Djihanian’s Background

Djihanian is well prepared through his prior career in politics for both his broader tasks for the US Chamber of Commerce as well as for working with the local Armenian business community. He has worked closely with the Armenian Assembly of America and ANCA on issues like Armenian Genocide recognition in the past.

When he was in Glendale working for local congressman Jim Rogan, back in August 2000, Djihanian said he helped organize the meeting at the former’s behest of Speaker Dennis Hastert and Glendale Armenian community leaders. Hastert had pledged at that meeting to bring the Armenian Genocide resolution to the House floor for a vote, and Rogan had strongly supported that.

Unfortunately, at the last minute, Speaker Hastert withdrew the resolution. Djihanian said, “Even though we were extremely disappointed that the resolution did not end up coming to the House floor for a vote, the effort by Congressman Rogan helped raise further awareness about the Armenian Genocide and brought us one step closer to gaining Congressional approval of the Armenian Genocide resolution.”

Djihanian was born in Lebanon but came to the US when he was around two years old. He grew up in Glendale, he said, and became involved in a mock trial afterschool program when he was in Toll Middle School. The culmination was to present a case in front of a real-life judge. He lost the case, but the judge was running for state legislature and Djihanian, 13-years-old, volunteered for his campaign.

This early start in politics continued when the former judge, Jim Rogan, ran for Congress and won. In high school, Djihanian was appointed by Newt Gingrich as a Congressional page, and after graduation from UCLA worked for a number of members of Congress in Washington. During election years, he managed political campaigns in different parts of the country, most recently as the communications director for Tommy Thompson’s Senate campaign.

Djihanian said that he noticed that many members of Congress did not know how to even look at a balance sheet, and that led him to want to go to business school to learn more about economics and finance. He went back to UCLA, and after graduating from the Anderson School of Management there, found a position at the US Chamber of Commerce. Djihanian said with his current position, “I get to work at the intersection of politics and business.”

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