TUMO Center: Closing the Cycle, Keeping Armenia’s Youth Engaged

American Times speaks with Marie Lou Papazian, Managing Director of the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, who offers a thriving environment for Armenia’s youth in the fields of technology and the creative arts.

Can you offer us some insight into the beginnings of the TUMO Center?

Mrs. Marie Lou Papazian

It was initially a $20 million USD project to create a Techno Park. Now we don’t call it like that now. The idea was to create a group of buildings where education and technology would work together synergistically. There were even ideas of building a university but the plans changed. Construction started in 2003 and ended in 2009-2010 on the first building. Right now we are actually in only one of five buildings.

Currently, we are redesigning the whole campus and the idea is to have a mixed campus where education, entertainment and business are combined. The goal is to have all the profit from the business and entertainment activities filtered back into the educational aspects. Similar to a university campus such as: Boston, Cambridge, UCLA which are depicted by small institutions, branches and surrounding businesses.

“Our ultimate goal is to create jobs in Armenia, not to export.”

For example, the 5th floor is rented. The business model for TUMO is to have two floors dedicated to education and four floors dedicated to IT oriented businesses/start-ups. Profit generated by rent is intended to fund the non-profit educational institutions. Currently, the entire 5th floor has been rented by an American company named Mentor Graphics; a very competitive IT company taking on Synopsys. They are a similar caliber EDA firm.

Is the space available for rent intended only for large firms?

It is trending that way. Even as we speak another large IT firm is looking at renting` an entire floor as well. But that is the general idea; to have a concentration of large foreign IT companies here. But we are also pushing for incubators that originate from Armenia that will have relations with these larger companies in order to create a healthy, dynamic environment.

The TUMO Center stands for 2 things; bringing resources to the kids and completing their formal education with everything they are lacking in technology from their traditional day school. We teach in 4 focus areas:

  • Game-Development,
  • Animation,
  • Digital media,
  • Web Design

Why those 4 areas?

We think that those are the professions where Armenians are best suited for. Additionally, they are in-demand jobs that do not need a lot of resources or investment on their part to pursue a career in that field right here in Armenia. They will be able to work from Armenia. Our ultimate goal is to create jobs in Armenia, not to export.

Indeed, brain-drain is a tremendous concern depicted by the large Diaspora community.

We have a lot of Diaspora coming back to Armenia. And that is one of the positive things that I am trying to identify when we talk about this size of an operation. We are helping re-establish the brain training, to a point where intelligent people are here and stay here. I think this type of operation [TUMO Center] gives people faith that there are some opportunities that can be had here in Armenia.

Can you elaborate a bit on the current student body and how that reflects your values here at TUMO?

The Center is doing several things at the same time. We have been operational for a year and a half now and have created a whole curriculum and teaching methodology which has not been tested nor executed elsewhere. Currently, we are teaching more than 5,000 kids during after school hours for free and are not choosing the children; our center is open to any child. There are no exams and we take everyone. As we grow and demand increases we have waiting lists and when a person comes here, they realize it is not about playing. If they are really interested, they stay. But of course there is always natural attrition.

What opportunities exist beyond youth education?

We have started working in a direction where we want to offer them 2 or 3 opportunities. The first is to continue their higher education in Armenia; as such, we are now starting to make deals and partnerships with universities to open branches here in Armenia for overseas universities.

We realize we cannot just allocate resources and educate kids from 12 to 18. One opportunity is, again, developing higher education and graduate studies programs and then creating opportunities for start-ups. As a country we must have a full-cycle system that closes the loop. In addition to traditional educational opportunities we are creating studios whereby students can develop on a more practical and professional level. Our next goal is to convert the 3rd floor dedicated strictly to start-up companies. There will be a Board and the prospective firm will be required to go through a process of selection. But we also realize that if they have great ideas we need to give them the opportunity to make it happen. We do this by offering low-cost rent and/or sharing space.

What caliber universities are showing interest? Or has it just started?

We spoke with Berkeley, and they are interested. We spoke with two universities in France, one game-development and one in animation. They are interested as well. In fact, while speaking with those universities in France, the first items we agreed on was to invite their graduate students to do their thesis project for a month or two here in Armenia with the end goal of them sharing their experiences and knowledge with the students and helping us in the first steps of building a real branch for the university.

 

In addition, we’ve begun talks with Pasadena Arts School and I hope we will be able to reach out to more. Some of these arrangements will be online, some of them will be visiting teachers coming and teaching here for a period of time. But not for the entire student body, it will be more selective and for the best students. I’d like to re-iterate that our hope is to create an environment where they want to stay in Armenia and not head to the US, leaving us only with the hope they will eventually return.

What we are trying to give them is a balanced education from English to technology and from to programming to art so they have choices later on.

One final thing I would like to ask: If I came here 3 years from now, what would I be seeing? What do you envision in your mind?

Hopefully, new companies that were created by our students and also those which act as board members in different companies and to just be happy here. When you are home, you are always happy. It is a saying in Armenia. That is my dream; to be proud.

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