Armenia’s TUMO Center Looks Beyond the Caucasus

On a hot day in Yerevan, Armenia’s compact capital, a new generation of tech professionals is being put through its paces at the city’s flagship education center. Some kids are running a typography exhibition, showcasing new fonts for Armenia’s ancient alphabet. Others are recording pop tunes, 3D-printing marionettes, creating robots or simply logging onto their account on a colorful in-house operating system. All in all, an average day for students at the $20 million TUMO Center for Creative Technologies, which has become the envy of the education and tech worlds.
Since its inception five years ago the center has become a model which countries and foundations from Sweden to South Korea are desperate to replicate. 7,000 kids are now enrolled at its Yerevan campus, with many more in three other locations. It’s a staggering growth one founder never imagined.

“We thought we’d have maybe 500, 1,000 students,” Pegor Papazian, advisory board member and husband of Marie Lou Papazian, the center’s director, says over a thick local coffee. Marie Lou was headhunted online by TUMO benefactor Sam Simonian, a Dallas-based telecommunications magnate, “to develop something which would be philanthropic but also kind of a progressive, future-oriented project that would serve Armenia’s kids on the global market.”

Simonian is also a member of the approximately seven million-strong spyurk, or Armenian diaspora, that is located almost everywhere on earth. The lion’s share of that diaspora – which far outweighs Armenia’s 3 million domestic population – was created by the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an event which resonates throughout Armenian identity and politics to this day.

Turkey, which as the Ottoman Empire carried out systemic killings, famine and death marches, continues to refute the term ‘genocide’. Its border with Armenia has been closed since 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan, with whom Armenia is still locked in conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. It, too, is off-limits to Armenian citizens and businesses.

With very few export options, Armenia is looking to reinvent itself as a knowledge-based economy. “Armenia is so small that we cannot afford to go the commodity route,” said Papazian. “Outsourcing – India would be much more competitive, not to mention Bangladesh and Egypt which are both going that way. So we focus on content creation, art skills, etc, because that’s more value-added and that’s where a smaller population can be competitive.”

Part of that value, according to several people in the building, is to breath added confidence into Armenian children. Every room is decked out with the latest technology, software and decor. In main halls students check their progress on iMacs propped up on ‘TUMObile’ furniture, futuristic chair/desks that are tethered to the ceiling like dodgems and movable depending on whether a task is collaborative, or not.

Those, and the transparent, open layout – both created by Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury – reflect TUMO’s welcoming, non-hierarchical nature, Papazian, who has worked in IT in Spain, the U.S. and Lebanon, said.  “They can see us working, and we can see them. Everything is totally transparent. It helps them see what they can do with their own futures.

“We want the kids to have access to whatever they may have imagined someone in Brussels, or New York, has access to – that they don’t doubt for a minute that it’s all up to them now to reach their full potential rather than having what used to be called ‘appropriate technology’ – computers that are appropriate for the country,” he added. “We want the best computers.”

Students, who are aged 12-18, study four major disciplines: filmmaking; game development; web design and animation. A network of mentors, many of whom have been selected from the diaspora, or who have arrived in Armenia as part of its Birthright movement, teach for a minimum of two weeks. One class I visited was designing public service posters. Others were updating Armenian folk songs.

Graduates do not receive official certification but rather a “living diploma” accessible via the web, in which they can “show what they did, and hide what they don’t want to be available,” Zara Budaghyan, the center’s head of communications, said.

“We’re not competing with school, we’re completing it,” she added. “What we teach is not taught at school, and we take kids starting at 12. We need school, and school needs us as well, because we motivate them, and sometimes through these unusual classes they learn physics or maths or history better, because their thinking changes.”

“Our relationship with the government has been healthy, but at arm’s length,” Papazian said. “Because we thought that we needed to move at a fast enough pace and have enough flexibility to achieve what we wanted to achieve, given it’s not something that has been tried before. So we didn’t feel like coordinating very closely with the government at this point.”

In addition to Yerevan TUMO now has centers in Gyumri, Dilijan and Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Funding has been largely philanthropic – whether from the government, benevolent funds or, in the case of Dilijan, a small town famed for its bucolic surroundings, the Central Bank of Armenia.

But Papazian doesn’t want to keep it that way. The center already rents out space to startups, including photo firm Picsart, one of Armenia’s best-known startups. Recently it conducted a design overhaul for a local fruit juice firm, running focus groups and competing designs at a fraction of the cost of regular design companies.

More importantly, however, is a crescendo of interest in the center’s model from outside Armenia’s borders. “There is a third expansion thing going on, which is that non-Armenian demographics are interested, so we’re speaking with people from the Middle East, the Gulf states, Moscow – so we could franchise the TUMO model and use these franchise fees to subsidize opening another Armenia location,” said Papazian.

“So it would be more sustainable than these philanthropic models, which I don’t like.”

Funding revenues aside, TUMO’s success has been phenomenal. By 2020 it estimates that ten per cent of Armenia’s teenagers will have passed through the system, an incredible achievement that reflects a nation moving quickly to capitalize on the wealth of its diaspora, and a growing domestic economy.

State-backed efforts to promote intellectualism are evidenced in Armenia’s being the only country in the world to make chess mandatory. TUMO is working alongside that movement, and tooling young Armenians for the digital revolution. That cerebral race is being run for several reasons, Papazian explained.

“Again, one: we’re small so we can add more value if we go for higher rather than lower tasks, or jobs,” he said, as students filed in for the afternoon’s classes. “The other thing is this Armenian self-image, for whatever it’s worth, is about that. It’s about inventing an alphabet, being an early adopter of a new religion – so this early adopter, creator mentality is part of our – not physical DNA in relation to race – but at least our mental DNA, cultural DNA.”

With TUMO, that cultural DNA is being backed by some world-renowned education – and technology.

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