Entrepreneurial Adventures in the Caucasus

Sara and Neil in Armenia

Armenia and Georgia. Neither are anywhere I ever expected to spend a part of my life. When I was at school, they didn’t exist. They were part of the Soviet Union. And yet, I’ve been there a lot recently (you might have seen the posts on LinkedIn). And I have to say I am glad I have.

Why was I there? The mission was to create Entrepreneurial Universities, done under the auspices of #BritishCouncil’s Creative Spark programme (shout out and huge thanks to @Richard Everitt of #BritishCouncil whose brainchild the whole thing is and @Hande Diker who keeps it all ticking over).

The destinations are Post-Soviet states, one still officially at war with a neighbour (Armenia and Azerbaijan have a Korea style truce going on), one 20% occupied by Russia (Ukraine wasn’t the first to suffer this sort of Russian aggression). On the bright side, Georgia is famous for its wine, and Armenia for its brandy (Churchill’s favourite apparently). I packed my bags, and what I found are countries caught halfway between the Soviet Union and Silicon Valley, and brave and revolutionary predominantly women leaders writing stories of success in adversity.


Yerevan is a new city. Although it has been there for almost 3000 years, it was largely rebuilt by the Soviets in 1924. And it is beautiful. It has a distinctive pink stone that gives everything a rosy hue, frequent parks, and buzzing food and entertainment, particularly around the Opera House in the summertime. There is a sculpture or a monument every 200 metres. Unusually, it is circular, which is something of a challenge to a man whose sense of direction is such that if he were a bird, he would fly north for the winter. You start walking south and end up in the east of the city and yet you went in a straight line and how the hell did I get here..?!?

Armenians as a people are lovely. They are warm, open, and welcoming. They are also hard-working, entrepreneurial hustlers who, because of the war, find themselves in a difficult geopolitical predicament. In Soviet times they were specialists in heavy industry chemical manufacturing. That has all gone now, and it is very hard for them to get physical goods in or out.

So for them, the future is technology, and there is a lot happening. Just a few examples:

  • Tumo centre – an educational Foundation supported by the Armenian diaspora, with self-directed learning and technology at its heart. A very impressive educational model – have a look https://tumo.org/en/
  • Startdoon Incubator – led by entrepreneur and film director Hayk Mnatsakanyan, Startdoon incubates Armenian businesses and connects them to diaspora capital.
  • Sevan seaside start-up summit – https://www.seasidestartupsummit.com/ 1000 entrepreneurs, 40 countries, 30 VCs. And a kicking event. Hi Hovannes 😊
  • Dasaran – Great company running a homegrown Learning Management System (LMS) for every school in Armenia. Hello Rima 😊

And yet, the Universities are lagging a long way behind. Yes, they are underfunded, but that’s not the real problem.

The Soviet model of higher education was classical, academic, purist. It separated teaching from research and separated both from industry. In the Soviet system, there was no commercialisation of research. There was only one customer – the state. The world has changed, and what has been left behind is a very fragmented system of over-specialised universities with little formal connection to business. Employers are unhappy with the skills of students who leave university, and graduates find it hard to get jobs. However, within universities, the pull of ‘pure’ academia from Soviet times is still strong, the pedagogy remains didactic, the pay and resources poor.

But scratch the surface, and you find energy, talent and drive bursting through like a volcano. There is a recipe:

In each university, take 30 academics, combine with a completely new body of knowledge, season with energetic, revolutionary UK pedagogy, and mix in a skillet of inspiring leadership from the fantastic @Amalya Mkhitaryan, @Kristine Soghikyan and @Kristina Tsaturyan. Sauté with the pressure of having to teach their own students Entrepreneurship the very next week, and they don’t so much rise to the challenge as take off like a rocket.

The pictures and testimonials tell the tale.

The result? In three months, from scratch, both these universities went in for #britishcouncil’s  #mycreativespark #BigIdeaCompetition. They were up against the oligarch-funded, three-years-established FAST foundation and won. They won two of the three national categories, and both the overall Armenian national prize and ‘People’s Choice’ awards. Those last two go on to the seven-country international competition with a chance to visit the UK in September.


Tbilisi is a tourist town. It has scrumptious cuisine, great nightlife, architecture and art going back 1000 years. It has always been a crossroads, and that shows in the culture and the history. There is a lot to enjoy, and the hospitality is thorough – witness seven bottles of fantastic Georgian wine on a work night (Hello Ana and Elene 😊). Fresh as a daisy in the morning though. Great stuff, Georgian wine.

In Georgia the Universities are larger, stronger and more diversified. Our partner, Tbilisi State, is in the top 500 in the world, the only one in the region to achieve this. The state is stronger too, and takes a leading role in economic development with, for example, GITA, the Georgian Innovation and Technology Agency, presently working with the World Bank and EU to boost commercialisation of research in Georgian Higher Education.

Yet there is still a Soviet hangover at work. For most, innovation = science. These post-Soviet states struggle with the voice of the customer. In both these countries what became clear was that given the chance, the artists, linguists and social scientists are much more adept at finding a product-market fit, simply because they start thinking about people. Working with Tbilisi State, the Museum Service, the Conservatoire, artists and even lawyers was a great experience of the entrepreneurial principle of a diverse thinking team at work.

Georgia has great potential. It has a youth like in Armenia bursting with energy given chance – at TSU they originally thought we would only get a couple of hundred students to take up Entrepreneurship training. Once we got started however, and the news started to spread, we got over 600 through a bootcamp in 2 months and had to turn others away because we ran out of budget. There is demand for another 1000 places by Christmas.

It has a strong cohort of new leaders coming through (@Nikoloz and @Ana I’m looking at you). And it has good international agency support.

There are some difficult tensions to manage in this more state driven sort of set up. GITA has to walk the tightrope between leading the charge to innovation and crowding out those who want to be part of it. The international agencies can easily end up all chasing the same beneficiaries and missing other parts of the ecosystem altogether. Coordination is not easy.

Making things happen, sustainably.

All three of these projects across the 2 countries have 3 things in common that make them different.

  1. They are locally driven. Often international projects are characterised by experts being parachuted in, who do a bit of (highly worthy) work, and then bobble off again. By contrast, in these projects, the leadership comes from the local institutions. Yes, they are trained, even mentored where necessary. However they not only learn but apply their new knowledge, and cascade it to others. It becomes part of how they do things.
  2. They are systemic. Many projects you come across are point interventions. Because of the difficulties of coordination, often agencies end up all doing similar things at similar times. Instead, these projects have a system map and look to include other projects in theirs. They can, because they know where they fit. It is already happening, with Tbilisi State University supporting the Red Cross in the Entrepreneurship segment of its EU project delivery.
  3. They are framed with a change leadership approach. That means that take-up is a full 10 times what they have had before.

One more thing. A professor of mine at university (we are going back some way now…) had this saying:

“Good wine makes good blood”

In my experience, in the Caucasus good wine (and brandy) makes good blood which in turn makes good people. If anyone reading this fancies a break outside of the usual places, I heartily recommend it. Let me know if you are planning to go – I can recommend some great restaurants 😊.


Neil Marshall, MBA, PGCE is an Adjunct Professor of Management, Entrepreneurship and Innovation faculty, and Development Director of ChangeSchool

- Viren Lall, London