Style and Substance

Three Armenian-American women who exemplify authentic leadership

The famous line “to thine own self be true” may have been wise advice in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it seems to have eluded many a woman looking to get ahead in her career by following the rules of a game largely devised by men. That is, until several years ago, when academic researchers and organizational and behavioral theorists began exploring an alternative style of management called Authentic Leadership.

According to this proven theory, which has grown in acceptance in enterprises and organizations across the country, an authentic leader exhibits certain key traits—being genuine, self-aware, and transparent. Put another way, it is the freedom to be human, accessible, sociable, and fallible yet still command the respect, admiration, and motivation among employees and stakeholders. This not only encourages honesty across the organization, but also supports integrity in making decisions based on the leader’s values and ethics. Finally, an authentic leader sets the example by doing what’s best for the mission rather than what’s best for her or his career.

This raises the question of whether authentic leadership can add a new dimension to the women’s empowerment conversation to the extent that it allows a female leader to show up to the workplace as her authentic self—and live to tell the story as have the three Armenian-American women who have scaled the heights of their careers in and out of the Armenian world.

Sara Anjargolian, Arda Nazerian Haratunian, and Edele Hovnanian, who just happen to be friends and collaborators off line, graciously agreed to meet online to share their experiences, insights, and advice with AGBU Magazine for the benefit of a new generation of women eager to make a mark in their careers and communities—not just based on what they do, but by virtue of who they truly are.

The Real Deal

Few Armenian-American women in our time epitomize authentic leadership as does Edele Hovnanian, the president and CEO of the H. Hovnanian FAMILY OFFICE, based in New Jersey. A former investment banker with BS degrees from the Wharton School and the University of Pennsylvania as well as an MBA from Columbia University, she was mentored for two decades by her father Hirair Hovnanian, a titan in the real estate and construction industries who also put his stamp of national pride and purpose on Armenia’s first 30 years of statehood. After taking the reins of the company in 2006, Hovnanian restructured the organization and now handles the assets of three generations, including divisions in real estate, land development, and an investment portfolio. At one point, she oversaw the management of over 1,200 employees.

Yet her indelible mark in the corporate world is equally matched by her prolific achievements in Armenian affairs over the last three decades. Today, she also serves as the president of the H. Hovnanian Family Foundation, which currently donates over seven million dollars (USD) to various causes annually. In this capacity, she takes a hands-on approach to many Armenia-mission initiatives supported by the Foundation. In 2003, she founded Birthright Armenia, an immersion-style volunteer service in Armenia for Diasporan youth, changing the lives and perspectives of over 3,000 young people to date.

Hovnanian also incubated or oversees numerous other Armenia related efforts, most notably HIVE Ventures to support Armenia’s vibrant tech sector and HIKEArmenia to promote the country as a premier hiking destination and help support rural development. The Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) is also part of her portfolio of non-profits and, recently, Hovnanian took on the leadership of Repat Armenia—a local NGO that helps those from the Diaspora relocate to Armenia and integrate into local society. Honoring her family legacy while carving her path as a pioneer and visionary in her own right, Edele Hovnanian is a one-woman force of nature whose impact will reverberate across generations to come.

The Reformer

Upon her appointment as the Head of Office/Chief of Staff at the Republic of Armenia’s Office of the High Com-missioner for Diaspora Affairs, Sara Anjargolian emerged on the Armenian landscape as one of the few females and Diasporans ever to serve at the highest levels of the Armenian leadership. She took the position shortly after the Velvet Revolution of 2018 and began in earnest to address the serious competitiveness gap in Armenia by developing a base of professional and entrepreneurial talent from all corners of the Diaspora by which to accelerate transformational change in both government and industry. Building on those efforts, she recently set her sights on a new challenge in the national interest, serving as senior advisor on governance to Armenia’s Minister of Health (the only female minister in the current administration) and Minister of Justice.

Born in London and raised in Cali-fornia, Anjargolian graduated summa cum laude from the University of California of Los Angeles (UCLA) with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Public Policy. She then received a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley and served as a trial lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice and deputy city attorney/policy advisor to the Los Angeles City Attorney. In 2012, she took a giant leap of faith and repatriated to Armenia and, two years later, co-founded the non-profit social enterprise Impact Hub Yerevan, where she served as its chief executive until joining the Republic of Armenia government in 2019. She also served on the Impact Hub Global Board of Directors. Anjargolian’s tenure in Armenia also includes a Fulbright scholarship from 2002 to 2004, teaching at the American University of Armenia (AUA), and working as a multimedia journalist focused on social impact projects from 2009 to 2014.

With a worldwide reputation for bridging the parallel worlds of Diaspora and Armenia, Sara Anjargolian is the woman to watch as she uses her systematic approach to systemic reform in her adopted country. Her soft power approach to solving hard policy issues has earned her the respect and admiration of Armenians both in and out of the country, and—as an inclusive, collaborative leader with a vast network of professional and social relationships—she has used her powers of analysis, combined with a personable, disarming style of communicating to help reconcile the inevitable cultural differences that exist between Armenia and the Diaspora.

The Strategist

In the high-powered world of finance and industry, Arda Haratunian is the voice of reason, where her impeccable credentials as a strategic communications advisor has cemented her reputation among C-Suite leaders in business, industry, and philanthropy. Leveraging her 37-year career in communications, public affairs, and public policy, the graduate of Queens College with a master’s degree from New York University also teaches at her alma mater and, until recently, Columbia University. Though she is no stranger to the podium as an authoritative thought leader in her field, Haratunian’s natural inclination is to bring out the best in others, many of them high profile newsmakers looking to enhance their public outreach and manage their visibility in the media.

However, to the Armenian world, Haratunian is the voice of the people, serving as a spokesperson, moderator, and panelist at numerous conferences and forums about contemporary Armenian issues. During the 2020 Artsakh War, her tireless efforts to generate positive media coverage as a counterweight to the on-slaught of disinformation by Armenia’s adversaries further raised her profile as an invaluable asset to community and nation.

Before launching her own communications advisory practice 12 years ago, Haratunian was senior policy advisor to Nassau County Executive (now Con-gressman) Tom Suozzi, having joined in 2003 from Citigroup, where she was managing director of global corporate communications for its corporate and investment bank. She had previously served as head of media and public relations at the American Stock Exchange, which followed a 10-year career in public service working for former New York Governor Mario Cuomo.

Long active in civic and community activities, she is a member of the boards of The Energeia Partnership and Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). She also volunteers for a number of non-profits focused both on Armenia and her Long Island community, mostly on issues related to women and young professionals.

AGBU: Many thanks for agreeing to talk about leadership and the Armenian woman, here and in Armenia. Since you are all such powerful examples of what authentic leadership looks like, we can start from there and see where the conversation leads. When we speak about authentic leadership, one of the key traits is self-awareness—that is, knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Starting with you, Edele, what do you consider to be your greatest strength as a leader?

On Self Confidence

Hovnanian: I would have to say it’s my self-confidence, which I owe, in large part, to my father. He was my biggest champion and a great mentor to me. And whenever we were together, he treated me as an equal. So I never had to question my self-worth and value to the company mission at various stages of my professional growth.

AGBU: What about in Armenia, where you have spent so much time nurturing and developing programs like Birth-right Armenia? How is your confidence interpreted in that culture?

Hovnanian: That is quite another story, one that I have told many times, especially from the last 15 years when my father was basically living in Armenia and I was running all the businesses in the U.S. To paint the picture for you, once my dad and I were in a very high level meeting regarding the Armenian government’s request for a substantial sum of funding for a particular initiative. My dad literally said, ‘I don’t know. I have to ask my daughter.’ That elicited a snicker from the other side of the table. Then another question came up and again my dad said, ‘Excuse me. I have to ask my daughter, she’s in charge.’ And he kept deferring to me and they kept referring all their requests to him. Finally, my father insisted, ‘No, you don’t understand, she controls all my money. I have to ask her for money.’ When my dad and I left the meeting, he asked me whether this obviously dismissive behavior bothered me. And the truth is it didn’t. And it’s because I have the self-confidence to do business with the best of them and on my terms. And I’ve been to dinners with Russian and Armenian philanthropists, and I will ask a question and they will not make eye contact with me and respond to somebody else. Then I’ll ask another question and, again, they they’ll fix their gaze on some American male counterpart of mine. Still, I do not allow these odd behaviors to fluster me or trigger an emotional reaction. I am there only to advance my work and my causes, not keep score on patriarchical micro-aggressions.

Anjargolian: Funny you should bring this up, Edele, because I was never self-conscious of my gender in my professional life until I joined the Armenian government. Almost all of our government agencies are led by men, and although the number two person is often a woman, like many of the deputy ministers, during the two-plus years I was working at the top levels of Armenia’s government, I did often find myself in rooms of mostly male decision makers. Sometimes it was a double whammy: besides being a woman, I was a diaspora Armenian, and you can count on a few fingers the number of diaspora Armenians, male or female, who have served at the appointment of a prime minister in Armenia.

A boss who is willing to teach you and allows you to go beyond your job description is the real bonus.

On Leadership Style

Anjargolian: Since we are talking about leadership styles, one thing that was really tough for me was the style of leadership that seemed to be valued inside the government, particularly by the mid-level bureaucrats who had been in the government for many years. It was very different from the private sector or the nonprofit world. It was this post-soviet leadership style, common throughout the region, where power is derived not from empowerment, honesty and vulnerability but by “armored leadership” deriving power from intimidation and blocking behavior. I noticed that a sense of importance was derived from making oneself inaccessible and distant. By far, this was the most uncomfortable thing for me, because I couldn’t be further from that kind of leader—particularly having just transitioned from being CEO of Impact Hub Yerevan where collaboration and transparency are the hallmarks of the culture.

I remember very clearly how, in the first six months of my tenure, a male member of the government basically said, ‘You have to be tougher. You have to be more aggressive. You can’t be this nice, they are going to walk all over you.’ The advice I was given was to be something I wasn’t and a couple of times I tried it. It was so unnatural for me, let alone highly ineffective, because authoritative leadership is anathema to innovation, much less change, and Armenia can’t afford to stay stuck in those ways. So I very quickly reverted to what was comfortable for me—but what I did do, very consciously, was just change the rules. I was determined that everything was going to be transparent at our Office. No one’s door was going to be closed including mine, and everything was transparently noted on our shared calendar. Everybody on the team knew where I was, where the High Commissioner was. We made it clear that no power was going to be derived from secrecy, from inaccessibility. And most importantly, when I made a mistake, I announced to the staff that it was MY mistake, no blaming, no passing the buck—which in turn created a safe space for others to also take responsibility, and take initiative. So this was kind of an aha moment for me—that I actually didn’t have to play by those rules—I could make my own.

Focus on the Work

Haratunian: I also want to make the point that confidence as a woman and as a professional means not giving in to emotions and derailing your agenda because of how you might be treated in a male-dominated environment. As I tell—and really demonstrate—to my female colleagues and students: if you want to succeed as a leader, focus on the mission and the work that needs to be done, rather than indulge in grievances. I learned some of this by watching my mom who, in many ways, was ahead of her time. She was well-educated, professionally accomplished, and super active in community affairs. It was all about just ‘getting things done’ without complaining. She set out to make a difference with grace and a smile. I learned early on that you can be strong and command a presence and still be kind. I’ve always welcomed constructive solutions to closing gender barriers, and truly believe the best way is to have a mastery of your field and bring your cumulative expertise to the table as an authority on a subject. Intelligence and effectiveness will trump gender any day.

Find a Mentor

Hovnanian: Yes, and that starts with choosing a field or mission that you are truly passionate about. But for those who don’t have these strong role models in their family, I tell young people just starting out to take the job in which you will have a great mentor. A boss who is willing to teach you and allows you to go beyond your job description is the real bonus. If you can find the right mentor, they will help you test the limits of your abilities. So I strongly recommend picking your first few jobs because of the person to whom you will be reporting, someone with whom you can have a special relationship.

As I tell—and really demonstrate—to my female colleagues and students: if you want to succeed as a leader, focus on the mission and the work that needs to be done, rather than indulge in grievances.

Haratunian: I tell my students and young professionals I mentor that more than salary, focus on finding a position they like in an organization and industry they are interested in, but most importantly, work with people they respect and can learn from. Especially early in their career, wise and gracious colleagues are invaluable. Then transfer everything you have learned to whatever you want to do next.

AGBU: Does this advice apply to women in Armenia? What are their prospects for picking and choosing their jobs and bosses, as you describe it?

Haratunian: My advice can apply to women everywhere, but as Sara pointed out, the work culture in Armenia is somewhat retrograde, and aspiring women and girls are on a different leg of the women’s empowerment journey. But I’m so impressed by the passion and focus of some of the women I’ve worked with. That’s why it’s so critical to provide them resources and training. And, as Edele stressed, we need mentors to help Armenia’s women step into their own power. They need the solidarity and support of other women, because it can be  scary to shine your own light.

Speak Up

Hovnanian: Well said, Arda. In fact, another insight I had many years ago, was that you have to possess the confidence to speak up for yourself. At a certain point, if you see that your talents and efforts are not being properly rewarded, you must advocate for yourself. It can be terrifying to speak up, because as women, we get the message to stay in our lane and not be perceived as aggressive. But as a young investment banker who really produced quality work, I took the risk and asked for what I believed I deserved, and it paid off for me. Of course, it is probably even more risky for a woman in Armenia.

Anjargolian: So true, Edele. There is only one female minister in Armenia, but there is an army of female deputy

ministers, chiefs of staff, advisors, and second-tier positions filled by highly capable and educated women. Why are these women unwilling to step into the limelight and often defer to their male superiors when opportunities to gain public exposure are offered? We need to understand what it is in the culture of governing structures in Armenia that keeps it this way. So, as the struggle for empowerment continues around the world, including in the U.S., women in Armenia have their own set of complex issues to untangle.

Key Takeaways

AGBU: It’s clear that we can go on forever on this subject, because it’s so personal and yet so universal. To try to summarize, what are the top takeaways that each of you would like to impress upon young women today.

Hovnanian: Find your passion. Focus on the work. And remember that there is no moment where a leader is created without a few stumbles. And so, yes, take that leap to the next step, ask for what you deserve, take a challenge that maybe they are only considering men for. It might be scary and sometimes you will fall on your face. But there is no woman or man who has succeeded that cannot tell you in vivid detail about their failures. I can tell you a hundred stories of where I’ve messed up and fought hard for something that turned out to be wrong. If you’re not willing to fall on your face, then maybe you’re not willing to rise.

Haratunian: For me, it’s do your job, be the best you can be and get results. That is the best way to make your mark. Second, don’t make excuses. Learn from mistakes, find solutions, and know when to ask for guidance or help. And third, respect the power of good communication skills, which will help you build positive relationships with your managers and coworkers, which in turn will help you get your work done.

Anjargolian: Find the right allies, people who really have the same value system, care about the result in the same way you do, and surround yourself with those allies. And, then, separately, rely on trustworthy friends that you can just talk to, without any filters and have them really listen, and not have the information leave the room. And the last thing is: Do not model your approach on other people. Mentors and role models are important but try to really figure out what your style is, your way is. In other words, be authentic.

AGBU: And that’s the perfect note on which to conclude this conversation—until the next time.


Originally published in the September 2022 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.