Student Interview: Armen A. Avakian at CEU

Armen A. Avakian

Where are you from?

I was born in Iran, and then I was raised in the States, in Boston, and then we moved to Armenia. I’m Armenian, so I’m coming to Budapest from Armenia.

Why did you decide to come to Budapest for your MBA?

I wanted to do an MBA – that was for sure, so I was looking around. Why I chose the States first was my initial reaction was that I could get a student loan in the States because I’m a citizen. It would have been easier for me. My parents have a house there, so we have a mortgage, we have credit, my parent’s credit rating is great, so that type of thing. But then when I found CEU, it just kind of fit in. And it’s in Europe, and also CEU had this new transnational leader program that was launched last year actually, we’re the first year to do it. And that fit perfectly into what I was thinking at the moment, that business isn’t just business anymore, especially in Europe and Eastern Europe, and emerging regions, business is more global. There’s politics involved, there’s ethics involved, there’s different issues involved that American MBAs don’t really hit on very much.

You finished the program earlier this year. Where are you now? What have you done since graduating?

I graduated in July, and I’ve been working here [in Budapest] since April, I actually started working before I graduated. It was a great job offer at a marketing consulting firm here. It’s called Garrison Group, and I’m a junior consultant currently.

Did you intend on staying?

It actually came by surprise. I was actually thinking about going back to Armenia. I feel very at home in Armenia. We actually have a small family business in Armenia that my parents run, it’s a tour agency, and we were looking for someone to hire – a marketer – someone who can actually do marketing for us, and there was literally no one. We couldn’t find one person that could do marketing in Armenia, and I thought that would be perfect. And I took a lot of marketing courses here, and I thought I’d be going back. But then this job came along, and I ended up staying.

I think I’m going to go back eventually, but for now, for the next two or three years, probably. My wife is moving here, so I guess we’ll be here for a while.

Did most of your peers stay in Budapest after graduating as well?

I think something like five or six of my peers stayed. It was very interesting, it was mostly people coming from Western Europe and the States wanted to stay, and people coming from Eastern Europe wanted to go back. The way I see it, it was more MBAs moving towards the emerging regions. For someone coming from Serbia, or Montenegro, the emerging region is still Serbia or Montenegro – Hungary is a bit higher up, so they wanted to go back. Whereas we had people from the U.K., America, and Italy that stayed here and are here now.

What was the program like?

A large part of our cases studies was from the States, because in general, a lot of great case studies in business come from the States. But then when we were talking about politics, the legal environment and all these transnational aspects of it, we got into Europe and the States – the similarities, the differences, how it works in Europe, how it works in the States. The code system here and the case system in the States, that kind of thing. And then in the end we had this emerging regions course, it’s a three credit full course that you had to decide from China, Middle East/North Africa, or Central/Eastern Europe, where you really start getting deep into what you’re interested in. So some people were coming from the oil industry and were interested in the Middle East more than any other place, so they took that one. I was interested in Central and Eastern Europe so I took that one.

Most of our professors aren’t academics; the majority of them were businessmen. Most of the guest lecturers either owned their own company or were higher-ups. So we got a lot of hands-on experience in that sense. I have to say that probably 20, 30 percent were Hungarian-based companies, and the rest were mostly multinationals or outside of Hungary. We had people coming from the States or Finland, that type of thing and they had their own business there.

Was the class international? Were a lot of nationalities represented?

It was amazing. I knew it was international, but it was very unexpected. We had 19 different nationalities and there were only 23 of us. So everybody was from a different place. The interesting thing was that when an issue came up and we were talking about any subject or any case, you would get at least 19 different perspectives on the same exact problem. So you start thinking outside the box. It’s a cliché, I know, but you really start thinking outside the box. So now when a problem comes up, it’s easier to solve because you see it in all these different angles, whereas before you could only see it as you would see it. So in that sense it was very interesting to see what an Indian who has an IT background, compared to someone from the States who has an anthropology background, or my mindset, being Armenian from a financial background – totally different.

Can you comment a bit about Hungarian business culture? Do non-Hungarians find it quirky?

Armenia has a lot more quirks, as you say, than Hungary does. So I didn’t find anything that amazed me. But there are things that would amaze Americans. It’s still an emerging region. The great thing about Budapest now, I keep saying when they ask me how is Budapest I say if you’re going to come to Budapest, you have to come now. And everybody asks why, and I say, now is when you have this western influence sitting on top of the eastern mindset. And it’s a very interesting mix; there’s a lot of opportunities here, right now. Whereas ten years from now it’s not going to be like this. The western influence is going to get settled in, and the mindset is going to go away, the eastern one. So it’s going to become more westernized. Whereas now, you actually have this eastern mindset level on the bottom and then you have all this western influence sitting on top. And there’s a lot of opportunities there.

Eastern Europe

What about the language? The CEU program is in English, but what about business?

Hungarian is a very, very difficult language. If you look up the statistics on Google, it’s something like the third hardest language to learn in the world. It’s ridiculous. I’m not learning it currently. I asked a couple of our senior consultants from the States, one of them speaks fluent Hungarian. And I asked him how long it takes to learn, and he said it takes at least five or six years. I don’t see myself here in five or six years, so I’m not really pushing for it. But I do know a lot of Russia so I’m going to push on that more.

The businesses are all in English. Our clients are actually mostly not Hungarian, they’re all Central and Eastern European, and they’re all multinationals so English is the preferred language for them as well.

Would you recommend this experience to others?

I would definitely recommend this. You have to be a bit more of the adventurous type, though. You have to be looking for challenges and opportunities. If you just want to go to a Wall Street firm and make $500,000 a year and sit in your office, then this is not your place. But if you’re looking for challenges and some experiences and some opportunities, then definitely.

Photo Courtesy: Armen A. Avakian

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