Connecting Diaspora to Armenia: repatriation, self-education and women in tech

Tania Sahakian is leading DISQO’s operations in Armenia. From finding office space to hiring developers, she set the foundation for the newly funded startup’s first overseas operations office.

DISQO provides accurate first-party consumer insight data to the world’s largest market research agencies, analytics companies, and brands. It’s more than a year they are expanding their activities in Armenia after raising a $13,5M round led by Alpha Edison and Bonfire Ventures.

I met with Tania at the DISQO Armenia office which brings a new understanding of the working environment with open spaces, game zone, and weekly massages Friday evenings. 

Elmira Gabrielyan: Tania, first of all I would like to thank you for giving me an interview and showing your office. 

Your biography states that You have educational background in Psychology and Education, how was the road to tech?

Tania Sahakian: My previous job before DISQO was at TUMO, where I was hired precisely because I had a background and a master’s degree in education and psychology. While working in TUMO for almost 7 years, I was able to not only understand the Armenian tech community very well but I was also able to get more into the tech side and specifically into  tech education as it was the part of curriculum we were building at TUMO.

Entering the IT industry, I quickly realised that after TUMO I want to continue my career in tech. I always said I kind of feel I manifested this job at DISQO because I wanted something that at the same time will be some form of leadership position, would be connecting Armenia and the US and would be in the tech industry. When the opportunity came up, it was a perfect fit at a perfect time.

Elmira Gabrielyan: After many years of studying and learning in the USA, How did you feel about repatriation? Weren’t you afraid of that decision?

Tania Sahakian: Until my first time in Armenia in 2004, I felt like I had an identity crisis. I was Armenian by background, but I had no connection to Armenia and was not connected to the traditional Armenian diaspora, as I grew up all over the world, between Europe and the US.

My first visit was a changing point in my life. Even though I had never been here and I had no family here, I felt this identity crisis would be solved finally. So I became addicted to this feeling of being home, this foundation of the home, and kept coming back.

The next year I did the Birthright Armenia program, and after that, I would come back every summer. I was always looking for excuses to be in Armenia.

In 2011 when I was here again, for a three-week vacation, and got a job offer, I didn’t even think twice. I was already so used to being here, it was something that was long coming.

Elmira Gabrielyan: If one day you leave Armenia and move back to the US, what would be the reason? 

Tania Sahakian: As I mentioned, my entire family is in the US and I don’t have a background here. It is a personal reason that would draw me there, but Armenia will always be a part of my life.

Elmira Gabrielyan: As you have mentioned, you have been working for more than seven years in TUMO in the management, what would you state as your most significant achievement?

Tania Sahakian: If we are talking about TUMO, I will separate it into two parts.

Something professionally that I’m proud that I was able to create a network, basically to bridge a very talented part of the technology and art in the world to Armenia. TUMO brings on an annual basis over 100 professionals from everywhere, from Google, Twitter, FB to studios in Argentina and Lebanon.

But I also see it from the other side. I have a group of students that I follow up until today, their life and how they are doing. I think that the other most significant impact that we had was the change that we created in the students’ lives. 

We did that by teaching them self-learning, as once you have those kids understand the areas they can open by self-learning, then anything is possible for them. So I follow along with the impact that we created in their lives and make sure that they are continuing on that wavelength. Yeah, I think the most important thing I have been part of is creating an impact on students’ lives. 

Elmira Gabrielyan: Now let’s talk a little bit about DISQO. As a regional director of DISQO,  you managed to recruit 30+ senior tech people in a short amount of time, which is impressive for Armenia, as it is a sad fact that we have a shortage of senior talent. What’s your opinion about solving this problem? 

Tania Sahakian: First, I would like to state this is not an Armenia-specific problem. We have the same issue in LA and the same issue exists in Silicon Valley. I think Armenia talks a lot about “we have this problem,” the world right now has a problem with talent shortage. We have to think more globally when it comes to this. 

Elmira Gabrielyan: Is DISQO thinking of initiatives aimed at solving the aforementioned problem?

Tania Sahakian: The way we as a company think about it is to create opportunities for growth for both seniors and juniors, to become seniors later. So, for example, if you create opportunities for seniors, not only are you attracting them, but a lot of seniors that want to leave Armenia for career growth opportunities will have an excuse to stay. We are opening up positions for juniors/associate talent to join and very soon we will have an internship program. 

One of our key values at DISQO has been knowledge sharing, and we’ve started our own brand of lectures called DISQOtech talks where our team members share knowledge on the technologies they use, and on the products they work on at DISQO to the larger tech community. 

Elmira Gabrielyan: From your social media accounts it is easy to notice that you are interested not only in the tech industry and in education but also you care about social and economic problems of Armenia.   Recently, we often hear people saying, “we need more [someone]s”. In the case of Armenia, who would you mention as that someone?

Tania Sahakian: I think in general, you can go and state specific titles and things we need, but we need to have more “Players” in every industry. People have to figure out what they are best at and be able to be a player in that industry. They need to do their part, not everybody has to be a leader. 

Still, everybody should do their part to make sure that their Industries are progressing in Armenia, and I think this one of the reasons I think the velvet revolution succeeded because everybody became a player. To take that into their industries, I think that will create a more significant impact, and we will progress much more quickly. 

Elmira Gabrielyan: Since you started your career here, you have occupied top managerial positions. Have you encountered any stereotypical ideas or comments around women in managerial positions? 

Tania Sahakian: Have I encountered them? – Yes.

How do I deal with them? I think when you just become yourself, and you’re genuine and connected to people you work with, you break those barriers because they already see your work and see what type of person you are. So I think that at first glance, yes, that might be an issue, but I don’t think it’s a conscious bias, it’s an unconscious bias, which you can break by just being yourself and just making sure that you’re doing your part. Of course, there is a bias, and that’s why we have to make sure that there are more women in every industry so that unconscious bias will be broken down.

Elmira Gabrielyan: Have you noticed any improvements or changes during these past 8 years?

Tania Sahakian: Yes, and specifically in the IT industry. I think it is much more progressive than other industries in Armenia, and having more women in leadership positions will definitely help.

Elmira Gabrielyan: Tell us about a gender-biased funny situation that has happened to you.

Tania Sahakian: Last year we were invited to a government meeting that was held in parliament, and I went with a male co-worker. When we entered the hall, everyone went up to the male co-worker and spoke to him as if he was the director of DISQO and asked him questions that he could not answer. It was funny that the general assumption that the director title refers to a male made them greet my coworker, ultimately giving me the opportunity to correct them.

Elmira Gabrielyan: As an active member of start-up and tech industry member how much do you value pitching and communication in startups and in general?

Tania Sahakian: To me, pitching is about being a very good Storyteller. Being a good storyteller is very important in every part of life, even when it comes to marketing yourself or a company. If you don’t have a story behind and if you don’t go out there when you’re networking, and you’re not able to story-tell well, then you’re going to be struggling. So I think one of the things that a lot of people need to learn is how to market everything, from themselves to their brand.

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