Since 1999, the Paros Foundation's principal supporters, the Strauch-Kulhanjian Family, have worked to raise awareness of Armenia's rich culture and promote it on the world stage. Formally launched in 2006, the Paros Foundation is based in Berkeley, California, USA.
The Paros Foundation's goal is to develop high quality high integrity non-governmental organizations in Armenia by significantly upgrading their working environment, providing guidance and needed resources. This includes providing inspiring office space, free of charge, to three of the six organizations we work with in Armenia.
The Paros Foundation works with six organizations in Armenia involving the arts, children and people with disabilities. The Paros Foundation has identified organizations that serve as leaders in their respective fields. Our support comes in the form of organizational operating funds, office space and operational resources and mentoring. The mission is help these modest size projects manage their growth and attract more financial, human, and physical resources to their respective causes. Furthermore, we have built a staff of travelling and in-country resources that other philanthropists or philanthropic institutions may choose to utilize to support their efforts to improve the quality of life and culture in Armenia.
The Foundation welcomes the involvement of our friends around the world.
It was my privilege to address an audience of close friends and many other active members of the Armenian community at the annual Bay Area Friends of Armenia banquet. I was asked to talk about being an ABC, Armenian By Choice, and our Paros Foundation’s philanthropic work in Armenia. I tried to dig deep and reveal aspects of my personal identity. I hope that you too will think about your own identity and relationship with your Armenian heritage and take that opportunity to reflect upon who we are, what we are doing, and where we are going.
The following is a modestly edited version of my remarks:
Bay Area Friends of Armenia Talk Given by Roger Strauch, March 2012
My first memory of things Armenian was when my father brought home and introduced a distinguished scientist and laboratory director from a country called Armenia, then part of the Soviet Union. My brother and I could not keep our eyes off of Dr. Artem Alikhanian’s pointed black shoes – they reminded us of the cartoon characterizations of Russian dancers or characters from the Arabian Nights. It was clear that he and Dad liked and respected one another a lot. My father was a Harvard physics professor and also a director of a national lab. Dr. Alikhanian presented as an extraordinarily intelligent, charming and gregarious person. He had harnessed these gifts to earn support from Khrushchev and Brezhnev to build a world-class physics institute in Yerevan and an experiment station on top of Mt. Aragats.
Here is a picture of Dr. Alikhanian with one of his famous cosmic ray experiments and a photo with his friend and colleague, my father.
It is sobering that when this moment is captured, Dad is 10 years younger than I am today. Part of Alikhanian's secret sauce was to import top talent to his institute – people who were not necessarily welcome in Moscow – Jewish and Georgian scientists, for example.
Speaking of Jewish, contrary to popular belief, I am not Jewish. However, both of my maternal lines, near as we can tell, are entirely Jewish. My parents were both baptized Christians. Ironically, Germany for centuries was one of Europe's most religiously tolerant regions and many German Jews adopted Lutheranism because of their strong national identity. My parents were forced to escape Germany because of their Jewish blood and association with progressive political beliefs. They met in Berkeley, at a social gathering of German refugees meant to encourage young men and women to make one another's acquaintance.
Within a couple of years of meeting Alikhanian, we found ourselves as his guests in Yerevan. It was 1970. I was 14 years old. On the noisy Aeroflot flight to Yerevan from Kiev, we recall live chickens in the tourist section of the plane, chatting with a female executive of Armenia's Communist party, and upon arrival, Dad turning our bodies around to face Mt. Ararat, a place Dad explained was integral to every Armenian's spirit and soul, yet not physically in their own country. Our entourage consisted of several VIP black Volgas. Our first impressions were that of especially warm people, amazing sights and sounds and delicious food. But we were ever cognizant of the fact that it was neither appropriate nor safe to speak our minds or ask all the questions that we had in what was also clearly not a free society. This was an extremely unusual opportunity for an American family at the height of the Cold War.
Here is a picture of my brother and me with Alikhanian, my mom, and Alikhanian's Russian wife Marina, either in his home or more likely at the mid station on the way to the Aragats mountain top lab. We have fond memories of prosperous farmers markets, breakfast at Noon and dinner at 10PM, a fresh shish-kebob dinner at Lake Sevan, and touring Etchmiadzin – complete with bleeding lambs led around the church by their faithful owners and the sacrificial chopping off of chicken heads in a shed adjacent to the sanctuary.
But our most powerful and seminal moment was an invitation to dinner at the private home of Dr. Tina Asatiani, a Georgian scientist, married to an Armenian scientist. Tina was one of Alikhanian’s most devoted, talented and hardest working lieutenants. She became one of the most highly decorated female scientists in the entire Soviet Union. We remember our Intourist minders being quite upset by this most unorthodox idea –intimacy with the enemy! I remember Dad struggling with whether or not to accept – he was primarily concerned with the potential repercussions for Tina. At this point, Dad was Chairman of Harvard’s Physics Department and one of our countries leading representatives to the Soviet science community. The KGB, CIA and FBI tracked his every move, while travelling in the Soviet arena. Ultimately we had a lovely and tasty dinner in Dr. Asatiani's home. While she was threatened, Tina did not suffer any negative consequences with which we are aware. 40 years later upon my first return to Armenia, an 82-year-old ABC (Armenian By Choice) retired scientist, Tina would encourage, cajole and inspire me to commence serious philanthropic efforts in Armenia, in honor of my Dad who had passed away earlier that year.
Here is a picture of Dr. Tina Asatiani at the age of 92 in 2012. She was mentally sharp until her passing later that year. What a gift to befriend my Dad's friend and colleague, 4 years his senior and to work with her for 11 years!
When one passes through the new departure terminal at Zvartnots in Yerevan, one will see a spectacular example of 20th C. Armenian art - a colossal fresco by Minas. Alikhanian was an important Minas patron and promoter –he was also a close friend. He did so in spite of the associated risks and issues that this relationship would cause in his relatively cozy dealings with the Communist Party. Alikhanian introduced my parents to Minas.
Only a year and a half after my Dad purchased this stunning painting from Minas at his studio, all the contents of Minas' studio were destroyed in a fire, probably set by the KGB. And several years thereafter, Minas was probably murdered by the same state apparatus because he refused to conform to the artistic restrictions imposed by the government. I grew up with this work of art as a centerpiece of our living environment and as a reminder of the brave and talented artist who created it.
To this day, this painting hangs in our home in Lexington, Massachusetts and represents to my brother and me part of the soul of my parents' very successful and loving 50-year marriage.
On my journey to becoming an ABC, I earned a fellowship to be a graduate electrical engineering student at Stanford, where I met my wife, Dr. Julie Kulhanjian!
At a large table of mutual friends, Julie, a pre-med undergrad, introduced herself as an Armenian, assuming I would have no clue what she was talking about. I told her and the table of fellow students that I had been to Armenia. Julie was amazed and intrigued. I, in turn, fell in love almost immediately.
This sealed the deal to becoming an ABC. During our six-year courtship, Julie and her Dad ensured that I became well indoctrinated in the rich history and tragic fate of the Armenian people. The more I understood about the denial of the Armenian Genocide, the more I felt compelled to explore reasons that my own family did not speak much of their past and even more importantly to better understand both the reasons for the Genocide denial and its consequences. I began to appreciate how the denial of truth can cause insidious and dangerous effects on the human and community character of the perpetrators and their descendants and a mitigation of self-esteem and the development of psychological trauma with the survivors and their progeny. Through Julie, her father and so many of our close Armenian friends, I have come to understand how deep one’s pride in ancestry, culture, ethnic character and history can be occasionally undermined by the weight of guilt, inadequacy and anger. With this juxtaposition of the most basic human emotions and intellectual and practical life challenges, I found the Armenian cause and struggle to be a powerful and valuable metaphor for the holistic life challenges we seems to face as individuals and as a society. Entirely consistent with my character as an incurable romantic and half full optimist, I am determined to overcome an entirely rational basis for depression with perhaps a less rational, even spiritual, commitment to overcoming adversity and building a better world, no matter how daunting the circumstances.
I have always been a big believer in giving back to a community that has enriched my family. I was determined to learn how to make an impact in the non-profit sector shortly after achieving some personally significant professional milestones. So it seemed entirely natural to return to Armenia in the year 2000 with the intent to learn and see more and to contribute something back to a place and a people that was... is fundamental to the identity of our family. I had for some time, the objective to work in a developing nation. I am blessed with an extraordinarily capable spouse who is an excellent Mom and a talented physician. Julie is a devoted Armenian American, who has generously supported my frequent journeys to the homeland - more than a month a year. I had learned and honed skills that could be shared with others, including how to attract financial, human and physical resources to major philanthropic endeavors.
Fourteen years ago, in the lobby of the Ani Hotel, shortly after I had delivered some comments to the local nascent info tech community, I was introduced to a guy named Adam Kablanian. Adam immediately impressed me as the quintessential, charismatic and super intelligent Silicon Valley immigrant entrepreneur.
Adam had already accomplished what so many had encouraged me to do, build a business in Armenia. A few years later, I recruited Adam to replace me as fund raising leader in our community’s efforts to establish an Armenian Studies programs at the University of California at Berkeley. Adam has done a fabulous job on that task. I really believe that meeting Adam was a transformative point in my journey an as ABC. We are fortunate to be close friends, partners and fellow adventurers. The immeasurable generosity that he and his wife, Rita, have shown our family and me, has made an enormous positive impact on my motivation to work in Armenia. Adam makes work fun.
Here we are learning ballet in the music school all of you helped build in Vanadzor, from the proceeds of Arshak Opera Gala in September of 2001. Adam does not profess Armenian, he just IS. What he is, is what I want to be – proud, but not obsessed with heritage, engaged, fun loving, a loyal friend, a devoted Dad, a bit crazy and professionally ambitious. As I worked to build our philanthropic efforts, Adam shared his Armenian friends with me and most importantly his companionship and advice in what otherwise probably would have been, a lonely, albeit worthwhile endeavor. Adam Kablanian is one of the few Americans who has created over 100 professional technology employment opportunities in Armenia.
I will now share with you a snapshot report on the work of Paros Foundation. The Paros Foundation is an organization that I founded, Julie and I support and Peter Abajian manages. A tour de force is about to occur. Then some concluding reflections on my ABC adventure.
Twelve years ago, if a young disabled wheelchair bound boy were to emerge from his home into the courtyard of his apartment complex, his neighbors would express shame (amot) to be in his presence. Thanks to Tina, I was introduced to a man, a musician, who had become paraplegic while a promising violin student in a Moscow conservatory –he had contracted an infection, which permanently disabled him within hours. Armen Alaverdyan had organized a group composed mainly of disabled individuals to perform in a choir. In the same tiny and moldy office, Armen, also built a small computer training center to help the disabled become computer literate. This project was a precursor to an NGO dedicated to serving and promoting improved access for people with disabilities in Armenia.
Paros Chamber Choir performs a wide repertoire of music. Their inspiring performances promote Armenia's rich musical heritage. They are well known in Armenia, appearing regularly on TV and at major national and regional events.
Our young Maestro, Raffi Mikaelian, successfully led the Choir in a tour and competition in Vienna and Slovakia. The 25 member Choir greeted Placido Domingo with song at Armenia's National Assembly and subsequently performed onstage with Domingo at his Yerevan concert.
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The Choir is currently working on producing their third CD. Paros Foundation supports the Paros Chamber Choir with rehearsal space and program expenses.
The NGO, Unison, has aggressively worked to promote the rights of people with disabilities through public awareness activities, events and conferences.
With the assistance of the Paros Foundation, Unison has also successfully secured employment for people with disabilities and launched a jobs database and skills training program.
Peter’s efforts to secure dozens of customer service jobs at VivaCell for disabled Choir members was a seminal event in Armenia leading to now hundreds of employment opportunities for the disabled in a society that until then simply discriminated against their fellow Armenian citizens. Most recently, with Paros, Peter’s co-leadership and support, Unison, earned a USAID grant along with Save the Children to implement a three-year, substantial effort to promote the employment of people with disabilities. This is the difference between 60 and 80 dollars a month and 300 to 500 dollars a month.
Paros Foundation supports Unison with office space and the annual costs of art, computer and English classes.
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With our Paros Choir and Unison NGO projects, we identify talented, passionate, bright, tenacious, intelligent and high integrity people who are championing a worthwhile cause and leading a related program with ridiculously limited resources.
We work to upgrade the NGO's facilities and increase their operating funds while helping them learn how to attract even more human, physical and financial resources to support their endeavors. We have been quite successful in securing grants from sources including: the US Embassy, United Nations, Norwegian Consulate, and private families in the US and Europe. I have purchased new buildings to house these organizations. The newly refurbished facilities are then provided to our selected NGO's rent free, indefinitely.
Our family covers the administrative expenses of the Foundation so that 100% of your donations benefit the projects directly.
The Manana Youth Center inspires the creativity of students and young adults though after school instruction in journalism, film, photography and animation.
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Annually, more than 75 children benefit from Manana’s programs, including several economically disadvantaged kids who receive scholarships from BAFA. These classes enable the students to develop invaluable creative and critical thought skills. The output from Manana’s various studios is featured at exhibits and festivals around the world and serves as testimony to the spirit and innate talent of young Armenian kids. Several films and photographs have won accolades at international competitions and festivals in Europe and the United States
An award winning photo taken by a student in the village of Nor Hajin
The Paros Foundation provides Manana with office and classroom space as well as annual program and capital equipment support.
Please click above to play the movie!
The Ghoghanj Children's Center annually provides support and guidance to more than 100 socially and financially vulnerable children. The Center helps these children excel in school and become confident young adults. These are at risk kids – kids who do not have a safe, nurturing environment to return to after school. They are frequently the children of poor and single parents who have long work hours.
And if that is the kid’s only problem they are better off than most of their peers at the Center. The woman who runs this organization is Diana Grigoryan, Vice Principal of a well-regarded K-12 private school. The Paros Foundation provides Ghoghanj with office and classroom space and annual support for English, computer and college preparatory tutoring classes. I want you to know that for almost two years, Fr. Mesrop from San Francisco and his blessed wife, Annie, taught and offered love to and participated in projects with our kids.
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Our work is not limited to the geographic borders of Yerevan. Paros also supports the Vanazdor Fine Arts Museum, to ensure its place as a sort of mecca for Lori regional artists and to promote its value as a tourist destination.
Director Papag Aloyan, an accomplished painter in his own right, adores Julie, which inspires us to support his mission. He curates an impressive 1700 piece collection of art.
"Still Life, Fruits" by Eduard Avanesov
"Appearance" by Hrant Sukiasyan
We also serve the Arshak II Opera Committee, taking responsibility for managing building maintenance of the Vanadzor Music School #3 (also known as the Vanadzor Art School).
Please click above to play the movie!
To commemorate the upcoming centennial of the Armenian Genocide, The Paros Foundation has launched the Paros 100 for 100 Projects for Prosperity with the goal of implementing 100 projects sponsored by individuals, families and organizations in Armenia by April 24, 2015. The project categories are development, education, humanitarian and cultural.
We hope to engage you in this ambitious enterprise. The Paros Foundation is continuously adding pre-screened projects to our website and we are accepting suggestions for projects that prospective sponsors would like to implement. Staff and volunteers in the US and Armenia directly oversee all aspects of each project to ensure projects are successfully implemented. Many project sponsors come to Armenia and help us implement their projects. All sponsors will be invited to a special mission to view the fruits of their generosity and commemorate April 24, 2015 in Armenia. Visit www.parosfoundation.org to select the projects you would like to finance and make happen!
Through The Paros Foundation, my family funds all administrative expenses related to this initiative allowing 100% of donor contributions to directly fund these projects. This is a big next step for Paros Foundation – to move from supporting hundreds per day to thousands, perhaps 10's of thousand. Please join my family and make a commitment to get involved with a Paros 100 for 100 project, and reap the amazing spiritual and life experience benefits of doing so.
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Please visit www.parosfoundation.org to view more than two dozen other project videos.
What a privilege it is to work with all of these Armenian leaders, teachers, artists, kids, community organizers, and fellow world citizens. Talk about identity – these people are jam packed with spirit and deeply aware of who they are, what they are doing and where they are going. We get to be part of their team. You can too! I am able to make this impact working part time, on top of all of my other professional, philanthropic and family duties and visiting Armenia regularly. One does not have to be financially well off to make an impact in Armenia. You may have to forgo the next IPad, luxury purse or fancy dinner. Invest your time and exercise the discipline to make this effort a priority in your family's life. Instead of looking at Facebook pages, playing "Words with Friends" or browsing the web, you can see the faces of friendship and appreciation of your fellow Armenian brothers and sisters.
Peter and I believe that your generous donations of hundreds or thousands of dollars is an extraordinary way to fight deniers of truth, to improve self-esteem, and to honor one's parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren. You are directly contributing to a grassroots effort to improve the quality of life in Armenia.
As some of you know, my business partner and I are currently focused on addressing the consequences of global climate change. Again, I find myself in a painful and daunting battle against deniers – people and a society that refuse to acknowledge the work of competent peer reviewed scientists who tell us that our species is polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other green house gasses in a manner that causes our environment to heat up and destroy life as we now know it and perhaps all humankind. I can tell you in this new parallel journey for me, I am drawing upon many valuable learning experiences as an ABC.
Thank you for being part of my journey as an ABC. My family and I look forward to continuing this most enriching adventure with you.
Shad Shnorhagalutune or as they say in Armenia Merci!
In Armenia there are extraordinary people who are willing to sacrifice themselves to generously bring benefit to their fellow countrymen. They harness all of their personal talent and energy, along with friends and neighbors who join their cause to bring new light and new hope into the lives of a group of people who might not otherwise get the support and attention that they so desperately require. Such is the case with the arts and education projects we support.
When you financially support the Paros projects please know that every penny you send us will go directly to the projects. My family underwrites all of the Foundation expenses. All of your money will support the children, disabled adults, or artistic communities with whom we work. If your family supports projects in Armenia directly, you may wish to consider becoming affiliated with our Foundation to leverage the administrative infrastructure we have built to oversee our "investments" and to produce and promote special events which highlight the works of Paros projects, like concerts and exhibitions.
Thank you for making a difference in the lives of so many people.
Roger Strauch is Chairman of The Roda Group, a seed stage venture capital group, based in Berkeley, California. His firm, co-founded in 1997 with Dan Miller, provides entrepreneurs the resources, environment, and guidance to launch and grow their high technology businesses.
Mr. Strauch is Chairman of the Board of Directors of Cool Systems, the manufacturer of Game Ready, a medical physical therapy system.
The Roda Group is the largest investor in Solazyme, a renewable oil and bioproducts company and the leader in algal biotechnology. The Roda Group led or co-led every round of the company’s financings. In 2011 Solazyme set an industrial biotech funds raising record of $227M when they priced their IPO.
He was the first CEO and former chairman of Ask Jeeves (now Ask.com) a leading search engine on the web. Mr. Strauch was a board member and former CEO of Symmetricom, a public telecommunications equipment manufacturer. In 1983 he co-founded TCSI Corp., a telecom software company. As TCSI’s chairman and CEO, Mr. Strauch led the company from a start-up to a successful IPO in 1991 and secondary public offering in 1996. Prior to TCSI, he was a communications system engineer and project manager for Hughes Aircraft's (now Boeing) Space and Communications Group.
Mr. Strauch is a member of the Engineering Dean's College Advisory Boards of Cornell University and University of California at Berkeley. He is the recipient of the 2002 Wheeler Oak Meritorious Award from the University of California at Berkeley. In 2006, Mr. Strauch and his wife Dr. Julie Kulhanjian were named and honored as "Builders of Berkeley". He is Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley and is on the Board of Trustees and is past President of the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Roger was the recipient of the 2010 Helen C. Barber Award from the Board of Trustees for a Trustee who serves the Berkeley Repertory Theatre with unique distinction. He is a Life Trustee of the Armenian Assembly of America.
Mr. Strauch endowed the Roger A. Strauch Chair in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences and co-founded the William Saroyan Endowment for Armenian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. With Mr. Miller, he helped establish the Ask Jeeves Planetarium at the Chabot Space and Science Center and the Roda Theater at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, winner of the 1997 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre.
Mr. Strauch is the Chairman of the Paros Foundation which supports arts and education organizations in Armenia. Roger co-founded and was an owner of ICON Communications, a broadband ISP in Armenia utilitizing WiMax technology.
Mr. Strauch earned a Bachelor of Science degree, with distinction, from Cornell University and Master of Science degree from Stanford University, both in electrical engineering. He holds two patents in the area of wireless communications.
Peter Abajian worked with the Armenian Assembly of America from 1995 until 2006 serving as the Director of the Armenian Assembly of America's Western Office located in Beverly Hills, California and later as Deputy Executive Director. In these capacities, Mr. Abajian worked with both the Armenian community and the Congress to promote a stronger US/Armenia relationship, while simultaneously working to expand the Armenian Assembly's membership and financial support. Nationally, he spearheaded efforts to raise new sources of revenue, organizing several successful national events, and serving as one of the organization's chief spokespeople.
During the 2006 and 2007 academic year, Mr. Abajian moved with his family to Yerevan, Armenia to formally launch the Paros Foundation and develop strong working relationships with the Paros Foundation sponsored projects.
From 1991 to 1995, Mr. Abajian worked with the San Fernando Valley Association for the Retarded--New Horizons, one of the largest facilities serving adults with developmental disabilities in Southern California. As the organization's Marketing Director, Mr. Abajian was responsible for raising funds to support the programs including residential group homes, sheltered work shop, work training and activity center programs.
1988 to 1991 Mr. Abajian worked at the Armenian Assembly's headquarters in Washington, DC serving as Director of the Assembly's Summer Intern Program. Mr. Abajian's first exposure to the Armenian Assembly came in 1986 when he served as an Intern in Washington with Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) through the Assembly's Program.
Mr. Abajian received his Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and took graduate courses in Business and Marketing at George Washington University in Washington, DC.
He and his wife, Houry, are proud parents of identical twin daughters.