50 global Armenians: Vahe Amirbekyan

Mediamax continues its “50 Global Armenians” special project. Today we present Vahe Amirbekyan, who lives in USA and works at PayPal.

Photo: from Vahe Amirbekyan’s personal archive

Mediamax continues its “50 Global Armenians” special project. Today we present Vahe Amirbekyan, who lives in USA and works at PayPal.

The general partner of the project is the Yerevan Brandy Company (YBC), whose ArArAt trademark is a global Armenian brand.

Vahe Amirbekyan was born in Yerevan in 1970. He studied at the Faculty of Radio Physics of Yerevan State University for two years and then continued his studies in Cracow, Poland (degree of MSc in Computer Science at AGH in Krakow, Poland (1994), PhD in Computer Science at AGH in Krakow, Poland (1998). Then, he moved to USA and worked in various startups, CISCO, eBay. He is now Senior Manager at PayPal’s Risk Analytics Department.

When he left for Cracow in 1989, the Soviet Union was already shaking but was more or less stable yet. However, Vahe says the collapse of the empire was felt in the air.

There was an information blockade: people didn't know what was going on in other countries, even in friendly ones like Poland.

Our team, which left Yerevan for Cracow, was comprised of 13 people. On the whole, there were 60 people from the USSR - Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Central Asian countries, Azerbaijan. The room of the hostel we (three Armenians) lived in seemed to be a museum. There was the map of Armenia there, posters with the alphabet, pictures of churches. People in Poland didn't know much about Armenians at that time: only the Spitak earthquake and the Karabakh movement. There was a very strong anti-Russian propaganda in Poland. The USSR Consulate was situated in Cracow, and some people came there from time to time and threw stones at the building.

Photo: from Vahe Amirbekyan’s personal archive

Arriving in Cracow, Vahe found out that the life there strongly differed from the life in Soviet Armenia.

Life in Armenia was still good at that time, and when we arrived in Cracow we learned the meaning of the word inflation for the first time - in the morning the goods were sold at one price and in the evening - at another. But the level of education was very high and we studied at one of the best universities of Poland.

In Cracow, Vahe decided to leave the Department of Radio-Physics and entered the Computer Science Department. He says that it was very easy to enter that faculty but studying there was very difficult. Only one third of the students graduated.

I was surprised when they asked me questions at the exam to answer which it was necessary to be creative rather than mechanically remember what you have learned during the whole semester. The competition was strong and we didn't even think to crib. Our situation was even more complicated because we had only three weeks to learn Polish. They thought if we knew Russian we could learn Polish, but we certainly had too little time. However, after the first year the life became much easier.

The “Polish period” in Vahe's life lasted long enough - 10 years.

When we were leaving Armenia, we were sure we would return in several years. But I graduated in 1994 and it was clear that there were no big opportunities in Armenia to find a job. So, when I was offered to continue my studies school it was the best solution for my dilemma. Then I was offered a job in the Polish office of Motorola.

Even today, when Vahe meets Polish people they are frankly surprised to learn that Vahe is not Polish as he speaks the language without an accent.

When we were in Poland, I and my friend were very active in the Armenian Diaspora of Cracow. We were received warmly there because we were like a “fresh breath” for them. As representatives of the Armenian Diaspora we met the Pope of Rome and the President of Poland Alexander Kwasnievsky. Then, the Embassy of Armenia opened in Warsaw and we did everything we could to help them. These 10 years were very interesting.

Back in school and college, when everyone dreamed of moving to USA, Vahe was very indifferent to it.

I felt good in Poland, I had a good job and I defended my PhD work but I didn't want to stop on what I have achieved. I decided to move not to America but to the Silicon Valley which is a separate world: a place where you are literally infected by big ideas. If that Silicon Valley was in Poland or, for example, in Czech Republic I would stay there.

When I was 29, I decided to challenge myself and radically change my life. When I was already in Silicon Valley, I received an invitation to work at Microsoft in Seattle. However, after working at Motorola I was somewhat tired of working in huge corporations and preferred to work in small companies. I was still in Poland when I applied to such a company, and when I was already in the USA I was invited to an interview and offered a job. I have worked there for three years. 

Photo: from Vahe Amirbekyan’s personal archive

You become a real “star” in the Silicon Valley when you open your own company. It's impossible to live there without dreaming about it. I know people who have succeeded in it, whose companies developed so that their price has reached up to hundreds of millions of dollars. When you don’t know such people you take this idea as something abstract, but when you have concrete examples you think you may also succeed.

During past two years, Vahe moved from Silicon Valley to Texas. He is now glad that he will return to San Francisco soon.

There are brilliant developers in Texas who do serious things but they don't want to strive for something more. Things are quite different in the Silicon Valley. People always have aspirations. Even a short conversation with one person there can radically change your life.

Vahe's wife also studied abroad, in Sweden.

My wife is from Yerevan, we studied at the same school. She is a doctor. She is my close friend’s sister. We have a small daughter, and it’s very important for me that she knew the Armenian language.

Photo: from Vahe Amirbekyan’s personal archive

Vahe keeps in touch with Armenia through his friends as well as through “AYB” Club. He is trying to visit Armenia at least once in every two years.

I became a member of “AYB” Club four years ago upon David Pakhchanyan’s proposal. I always trusted his ideas. On my own life example I became sure that everything depends on person's aspirations. I don’t think leaving Armenia is definitely bad for the country. People achieve such success abroad, which is simply impossible in Armenia.

Some of those who are leaving the country will sooner or later return to Armenia: they will either open “AYB” school, or make investments or create workplaces, i.e. they will use their experience for the benefit of their Motherland.

Ara Tadevosyan


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