by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
JULY 16, 2020 – With the passing of Karen Vardanyan, Armenia has lost a dedicated citizen, a creative engineer, an indefatigable organizer and passionate educator, a fine human being. He died on July 10 in Yerevan at age 57.
Karen Vardanyan was a pioneer in the high-tech industry. He graduated from the Yerevan Polytechnical Institute in 1986 and qualified as a hydro engineer. He continued his studies at Harvard Business School in 2009. He was executive director of the Union of Advanced Technology Enterprises (UATE) from 2005, after having worked for three years at the Enterprise Incubator Foundation and at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, as head of the IT Development Department. He held seven patents.
We had the privilege of knowing Karen for many years, and met him whenever possible during our almost annual visits to Armenia. Over dinner in one of his favorites local restaurants where everyone knew him, he would always bring us up to date on his latest plans for revitalizing the IT sector in Armenia. We learned from him how much the sector, which had been a leader in the Soviet Union, suffered from the political instability and economic collapse that followed independence. The sector lost thousands of its best engineers and scientists to emigration, factories closed, investment was lacking.
The UITE, where he was executive director, was established in 2000 as a business association of about 70 enterprises in the field. It runs several programs, like the Digitec Expo, the Digitec Business Forum and the Armenian Robotics Developments and Support Program (ArmRobotics). Karen had told us about his brainchild, robotics clubs in the schools. Children, even from a very early age, could become acquainted with the technology, and learn not only to maneuver robots, but to build them, program them, and to invent all sorts of related devices. For the older students, from 5th through 12th grades, these included unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones, with video stabilization cameras mounted on them for application in weather systems and so on. At the Digitec Expo the youngsters would have the opportunity to show what they had created.
Karen had a very clear, ambitious vision. To reestablish the industry in Armenia at the highest level, it would be necessary not just to educate a small number of specialists, but to spread the IT culture throughout the country. The clubs in schools were the vehicles for this educational process. He wanted to forge an alliance of industry with education, whereby companies would support programs in schools and also train students in their enterprises. “One company, one school,” was the slogan, and during our 2014 visit, he estimated that there were about 500 such small and medium-sized companies in Armenia; his hope was that that number would increase to 1,400 by 2018, and that he would be able to match them up with schools. Eventually, he aimed at reaching every school in the country.
“It will take one, two generations,” he told us, “but we have begun, we have clubs in 60 schools so far.” Those students who continued to develop skills through the robotics and engineering clubs, could go on to university, perhaps even with a scholarship to study abroad, then return to Armenia to become part of the growing population of specialists in the industry.
It was a happy coincidence that we were there during the Digitec Expo 2014. At the Mergelyan Institute in Yerevan, where it was held, we had a chance to see for ourselves how the children and youngsters responded. We saw them run their robots, we watched them working on computers that they had programmed themselves (or even built!), and saw the inventions they had created. We saw them guiding their drones, all the while explaining to us (in perfect English) how they worked. The excitement was tangible and contagious; other children visiting the expo were immediately drawn into the activity. We were overwhelmed. Karen was as delighted as the youngsters.
That was six years ago. Since then, the activities have continued to expand, along with Karen’s personal leadership role, which has become increasingly prominent and effective. His passing has come far too soon, too early; he was only 57 years old! We would have wished him better health and many more years, so he could reap the fruits of his endeavors. He never complained. Incurable optimist that he was, Karen was fully confident that, no matter what his personal destiny might be, the process he had set in motion would continue to develop and grow. He was right. It should be of comfort to his family, friends and colleagues, that his vision is becoming reality. What he has accomplished is extraordinary, and the messages of condolences from institutional representatives bear witness to how deeply his creative efforts have been recognized and appreciated.
Yvonne Chiu, Chairwoman of the World Information Technology & Services Alliance (WITSA), offered her condolences: “I cannot adequately express my heartfelt sadness in hearing of the passing of our great friend and colleague Karen Vardanyan. My sincerest and deepest condolences go out to Karen’s family, loved ones, friends and colleagues.” As executive director of UATE, Vardanyan “was considered the ‘Father of Technology Industry in Armenia.’ His dedication to his country, the ICT industry and especially the youth was inspiring, indelible and will be greatly missed.”
She added that WITSA was “very proud to have bestowed upon Karen, in 2019, its highest and most prestigious award, WITSA’s Eminent Persons Award. The award is bestowed on individuals who make a significant contribution to mankind. His name will go down in history with other luminary recipients.” Vardanyan was “a great man and a great, gentle person. He will be sorely missed.”
The Minister of High Technology Industry Hakob Arshakyan said on Facebook: “Karen will remain in our hearts as a struggling, free and bright personality. Mr. Vardanyan left an invaluable heritage in the High Tech Sector. UATE, Digitec Expo, Armath [Engineering] Labs, Digi Tech Business Forum, the World Congress on Information Technology and scores of other projects and strategic programs aimed at the IT sector development would not have been complete without his tremendous efforts. Rest in peace, dear friend.”