An Interview With Armenia Nercessian

Armenia Nercessian
Armenia Nercessian, NOVICA’s President

There are few people in this world that have lead a more interesting, diverse life than NOVICA co-founder and company President, Armenia Nercessian.

Notoriously modest of her own achievements – it took the journalistic prowess of  NOVICA’s former head of Communications, Catherine Gallegos, to obtain the amazing details behind Armenia’s many adventures, both as an Officer with the United Nations, and as NOVICA’s Head of International Development.

The resulting interview from 2005 is featured below.

Catherine: Many travelers (those who travel for work) eventually begin to complain about traveling: “One hotel after another – the thrill wears out quickly.” Obviously, after all these years, you still enjoy being on the road. What do you enjoy most about traveling to other countries? Meeting new and fascinating people? Studying other cultures? Learning languages?

Armenia:
All of the above. I like to travel and I especially enjoy meeting new people. Each journey is a new experience, even when I am revisiting a place. A room in a big hotel or in a small guesthouse becomes “my room.” I quickly feel as if I was living there – not just visiting. And I try to rent rooms with local families, so that I integrate into the culture quickly. There are so many things to see, to learn, to feel, to try, that travel could never be boring. Another thing that sustains my enthusiasm is the nature of my work itself. I love what I am doing. When I arrive in a new country I am not rushing into endless meetings or confining myself to an office ambiance. I visit art fairs and museums, meet with locals, seek out individual artisans, and discover unique and lovely handmade art – what could be more exciting?

Right now I am in India. I’ve stayed in a variety of places here, including four weeks in a family’s home. I frequently dined with the family and could practice some phrases in Hindi with their children. Oh, and the food! I am convinced that I could never have such wonderful dishes and delights even in the five-star New Delhi hotels.

While establishing our office in Ubud, Bali, I moved from a tourist-type hotel to a bungalow within a family compound. It was a great experience. Each morning my landlady arrived with beautiful Balinese offerings made with flowers and food, and she placed them in the shrine at the entrance to our residence. Once, through my open door, I could see the whole family preparing a great ceremony. Many tourists visit temples and attend traditional ceremonies – which is an incredible experience – but that sort of “visiting” experience doesn’t compare to living with locals and learning about their culture from the inside.

Armenia meeting with artisans in India
Armenia meeting with artisans in India

Also, I work hard to learn languages, so that I can talk with people directly, without translators. That really helps. But it is not as easy anymore. I learned my first six languages before I was 24. Now I must double my efforts! Some of the expressions I’ve recently learned in Indonesian and Hindi I might now easily forget if I don’t keep using them. It is a question of age and neurons. But I will keep insisting!

Another aspect I love about this work is that I constantly reacquaint myself with people I have met on previous missions. Very often I realize that the diplomats and the U.N. colleagues with whom I worked for many years in the U.N. are now serving in the countries where we have Novica offices. I just discovered that an old colleague from the U.N., whom I met in Costa Rica and Geneva in the 1980s, is now serving in New Delhi. This also happened in Peru, El Salvador, and Zimbabwe.

When I arrive in the capital of a new country, I also usually approach the Brazilian embassy. Novica is U.S.-based, but I am Brazilian – and our Brazilian diplomats have been especially helpful. The Brazilian Ambassador in India is an outstanding woman and diplomat, and I could spend hours talking about her. She is also very enthusiastic about Novica’s mission.

Catherine: Do you have a favorite place in the world?

Armenia:
I have to think about this for a while. can’t name only one place, because each place I have visited so far has a story, a memory, a special souvenir that has stayed with me. I often think about the places I’ve visited and try to imagine in which one I would most prefer to live. But the answer always comes back the same: I could not choose one place above all others. As a visitor, I am fond of Paris, of its historic streets and buildings, but I equally appreciate a tropical, white sand beach with windswept palm trees – and an Indian bazaar, and the streets of Rio. So the best place for me to live is everywhere – traveling. I should mention that I am an authentic Sagittarian: I enjoy all places, appreciate the best of everything, and quickly forget any negative experiences.

Armenia in the markets of Morocco on a research and sourcing trip
Armenia exploring the markets of Morocco on a research and sourcing trip

But there are also so many other interesting places to mention: Prague, Moscow, Fortaleza in Brazil, the Island of Bali. I also love Italy – it is so diverse. Venice, Rome, and Florence are wonderful. I have visited Venice many times in different seasons. I love it but I couldn’t live there. I presume it would be a difficult place for an everyday life – Venice is for visiting and enjoying. Another magical place is Salvador, in the state of Bahia, Brazil. I visited there in 1969, for the launch of the first film my husband directed, starring my youngest brother, Stepan Nercessian. Stepan was 16.

The day we arrived in that town we went for a walk in the streets and looked for a traditional-style restaurant. We approached a young girl and asked her if she could recommend such a place, but she was not accustomed to eating out and therefore was not familiar with the restaurants. We kept walking and talking to her. Suddenly she said: “Listen, my mother is a great cook. Why don’t you come to our place tomorrow, to try a really typical, homemade meal?”

I was embarrassed to accept her invitation, but she insisted so firmly that we went there the next day. The family was waiting for us with wonderful food, and at the end they gave us gifts. It was so spontaneous, so genuine. I don’t know if the locals still behave like that, since Salvador has since become a tourist place with millions of tourists arriving there from throughout Brazil and abroad. But it was a wonderful experience.

Catherine: You decided to leave a long career with the U.N. to help found Novica. Why?

Armenia:
To be very sincere, I never considered that I was building a career. What I was really trying to do during all these years with the organization was to accept only assignments and duties that motivated me with a strong purpose. I was always more excited to be in hardship posts than in the headquarters. So, as I still believe in dreams – and continue to enjoy change – it was not a difficult decision to leave all my former activities and join this brilliant project. My friends and colleagues from the U.N. and the university where I taught for several years were very surprised when I resigned only a few years before I could retire with a pension.

But there was never any question in my mind as to what I would do. Novica provides a way for me to continue helping people. But this time, instead of solving problems, I am able to offer opportunities. Novica serves as an international marketplace that enables artists, who never previously earned fair market prices for their talents, to now present their traditional cultures and products directly to an enthusiastic worldwide market. I am really pleased with what we have accomplished and continue to accomplish for artisans worldwide. We’ve succeeded in creating an entirely new distribution system, directly linking artisans and customers.

Armenia.artisan.joking
Armenia has a talent for making people feel at ease, which helps her to connect with artisans on a personal level and build trust.

It is also a pleasure to help introduce people to other cultures – to be able to offer people around the world the uniqueness of khadi, for example, the handspun and hand woven Indian cloth that has been so poetically described by Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, the granddaughter of Gandhi, as “a thread of creation, bringing philosophy and reality together and a source of bread and beauty.” Novica has been able to respond to Tara’s appeal for the welfare of traditional khadi artisans by providing them with the opportunity to present their products to the world. Meanwhile, I’ve had the honor of meeting and becoming friends with Tara – an extraordinary and adorable woman.

Likewise, it is also rewarding to read the emails that our Novica customers send to us, thanking us for our mission and raving about how purchasing through Novica turns out to be an extraordinary, unexpected cultural experience. For me, all of this is very exciting, and it is rewarding to hear each new story of how Novica is changing lives. That is what counts in life. Not money. Not a career.

I am in my fifties, by the way, and I love the Internet and the world of unlimited possibilities that it has opened up. The other day I was conversing with a teenager and it really surprised me that all the information I have accumulated during a lifetime of traveling, attending courses, and reading thousands of books, is now available in an instant by a click of a mouse. Isn’t that fantastic?!

Catherine: Novica’s mission is to empower artisans and foster small business development around the world. Meanwhile, massive superstores are succeeding in doing just the opposite – putting small businesses out of business by consolidating the marketplace. Realistically – futuristically – is there room in the world market for both business models?

Armenia:
What Novica is doing is truly revolutionary. We have actually combined the best of both models to create a third, more powerful model. Through the Internet, and through our extensive physical infrastructure, we are able to provide the financial and technological means to promote small businesses, which benefits individual craftsmen, and we are also able to serve as a massive, consolidated, worldwide marketplace, which benefits customers in much the same way as a typical superstore does. But, of course, our items are handmade, and mostly one of a kind, which makes the value much, much greater than any other superstore experience. This powerful balance that we have created has quickly proven to be an extraordinary success.

But beyond business and the economic improvement of artisans, we are also and mainly talking about dignity, about pride, about the international recognition of extraordinary work. Our artisans become personalities in their communities. Luiz Antonio, one of our painters, said that all his neighbors know him and respect him more because he is a Novica artist. When the artisans become successful and important, their children and other young people in the communities begin to have a new respect toward traditional cultures and skills. In many areas, because Novica has dramatically increased demand for traditional crafts, many skilled craftsmen are now able to return to their traditional work. In many cases the artisans had been working as unskilled laborers, because the local market for traditional handicrafts had dried up.

I’ve also heard many stories from our artists about how they go to cyber cafes to check their Novica inventory and experiment with their marketing strategies. Few if any of our artists have computers in the beginning, so they pay someone to log onto our site for them – and of course they love to show everyone that, “This is me – this is my business on the Internet.”

So we are not about merely selling products. We are actively working to disseminate cultures and restore the importance and appreciation of traditional cultures and skills. Since we work hard to make shopping at Novica a personal, truly unusual, enriching experience, we’re succeeding in transmitting human energy along with each item that is sold through us – overcoming the sense of alienation and separation between a product and its maker. We are establishing human contact between diverse peoples around the globe – people who otherwise might not ever have the opportunity to interact.

I am confident that a person in New York, London, or Tokyo who buys a beautiful, handmade necklace by Nyoman Rena will experience a kind of satisfaction that would be impossible to duplicate by buying a necklace from an exclusive, expensive shop. The person who buys from Nyoman has many stories to tell about the necklace and its maker, and that person also learns about Nyoman’s culture. The person who buys at the expensive store will at most be able to say how much the item cost and in which exclusive shop he bought it. Nothing else.

For the Novica customer this is not a $200 necklace from a store – it is a finer necklace handmade of sterling silver that Nyoman put great care and love into making – and it doesn’t cost anywhere near $200.

Catherine: Have you always been an art lover?

Armenia:
Yes – always – art in all its manifestations. When I was a child, I was excited by the circus. The artists, of all kinds, attracted me very much. Of course, like other children at my age, we went to the cinema very often. When I was a little girl, television had not yet arrived in my city. Music and dance also attracted me at that time.

When I was ten, we moved from Cristalina to the capital city of Goias, Goiania, to attend high school. At twelve, I started reading compulsively – newspapers, Brazilian literature, and foreign literature as well. There was a public library next to my house and I was excited to have access to that huge diversity of books. And I read interesting ones. By that time, I was especially fascinated by Brazilian literature, in particular the works of Jose de Alencar and Machado de Assis. The first was from Ceara, my native state, and the latter was, for me, the best writer to compose those now-famous, wonderful descriptions of Rio de Janeiro life and characters.

I started my “travels” through books and magazines. The French and Russian literature transported me to the streets of Paris and Moscow long before I physically went there. I also liked to read magazines, especially those with photographs of other countries, other people and cities. One of my favorite amusements during my youth was to write down on paper the names of countries and their capitals, and then add my “discoveries” to those countries – based on any kind of information I could find. We didn’t have the Internet then, of course. Today I can turn on the computer, browse through the Internet, and actually see the places I am about to visit – right down to the hotel rooms. But it was exciting to search the old-fashioned way also. I enjoyed unfolding maps and pinpointing the cities mentioned in the books I was reading. Then one day I started visiting them – and I’ve never tired of it.

On my fourteenth birthday, my father’s gift to me was a subscription to a newspaper from Rio de Janeiro. And it was then that we started our long, serious talks about politics each night after dinner. We were still living in Goias at that time. He also gave me an extensive collection of classical music – about 100 records. I started to combine reading and music. If I read Tolstoy, I would listen to Tchaikovsky and Glinka. My sisters could never understand how I could spend hours listing to that “horrible music.” They were more interested in rock-n-roll, in Paul Anka and Elvis Presley. My sister Hainy, one year younger than I, once demanded: “Tell me the truth – are you really enjoying that music or do you listen to it just to be different?” She couldn’t understand my preferences!

In the seventies I attended an art course delivered by a wonderful woman, Geny Marcondes, who is a Brazilian musician, writer, journalist, and art specialist. She became a painter in her sixties. At that time, I had already visited the most important museums around the world, but it was she who gave me a much deeper appreciation of art. Her profound knowledge of the history of art and her enthusiasm in explaining her findings in that field were unforgettable. She is now 83. We became very good friends, and each time I go to Brazil I visit her. She is so special. She could not travel as much as I did, but she reads a lot, and she knows better than anyone else how to recognize the different styles and schools of art. The parallels she made between music, painting and architecture in Baroque and Classical periods were amazing. I’m hoping that her own paintings will be soon available though our site – if she will agree to part with some of them.

Catherine: Tell us about your relationship with Mina. As a little girl, what was she like? Did she travel with you sometimes?

Armenia:
I could talk for many days about Mina. She was very special even when she was very young – and she has always been an artist and an art lover. From a very early age she liked to dance and always had around her a captive audience of aunts, cousins, friends, and neighbors. Once, I arrived to pick her up from the ballet studio in Rio. Upon entering the hall, my mother and I noticed a crowd of people in a circle, outside the ballet studio. So we went to see what was going on. Someone told us that a little girl was dancing. We pressed forward to see, and there was Mina in the middle, a little girl of eight years old, dancing like an angel.

Mina, Armenia's daughter, is now NOVICA's spokesperson, and married to Roberto with 4 children.
Mina, Armenia’s daughter, is now NOVICA’s spokesperson, and married to Roberto with 4 children.

I was then told that Mina was given the assignment of improvising on any music that she desired. She created such a beautiful interpretation of a famous Brazilian piece that her teacher – director of the school – decided to call all the students and their relatives who were there to watch. They moved outside the building, and that’s what I had the pleasure of witnessing.

The next year we moved to Switzerland – to Geneva – and after two months Mina had a huge group of friends and colleagues who followed her everywhere. She once organized a show in a park behind our apartment, after teaching the neighborhood girls how to dance. She was very popular. Wherever she was, you would find a group of kids following her.

Mina would wear my clothes, shoes, and accessories. We would frequently return home to find that she had prepared some scenes for us. She was so talented and spontaneous, and always tried to involve her colleagues and friends in her projects. Once, when she was eleven, she organized a show in which she included all the children from our building and other buildings nearby. She taught them how to dance, created the choreography, chose the costumes and music, and she worked with the other children to produce a spectacular performance without the assistance of any adults. We have photographs of that event. I really wish we had captured it on film. Of course my clothes and makeup were almost destroyed, but who cared? It was fantastic – much better than children’s shows prepared by adults.

In El Salvador, Mina had many friends, boys and girls who were fascinated by her personality. When she left for the university, they would come to my place and tell me that their lives had become boring after Mina’s departure. Everybody loves her. She is like a shining sun.

As a child, she was so independent. She never asked me to do things for her. Even in foreign countries she would immediately feel confident and behave like a local. She got her driving license at 16 and would shuttle her friends around. She got a leading role in a professional play in El Salvador, in a foreign language (she grew up speaking Portuguese, of course, and French, but quickly learned to speak very good Spanish). She was also featured in TV ads and newspapers. Sorry to be so excited about my own daughter, but I can’t talk about Mina without excitement and pride. She is so brave. And it is such a pleasure to work with her now.

Armenia with Mina in Bali, meeting jewelry artisan Buana
Armenia with Mina in Bali, meeting jewelry artisan Buana

Catherine: What inspired you to become involved in human rights work?

Armenia:
I am Brazilian and was a student in the sixties. Brazil was under military rule then, and many of my friends and colleagues were being imprisoned and tortured – some of them to death. Therefore, to be involved in human rights work was a natural development of life. Also, my father was Armenian and a survivor of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. My father came to France as a refugee and in 1930 he immigrated to Brazil. Coincidentally, my second assignment with the United Nations was in the international protection of refugees.

Catherine: What was your best experience in the U.N.?

Armenia:
Well, during those 16 years of service in more than ten countries on behalf of different departments of the U.N., each experience proved to be extraordinary.

The most memorable event occurred in 1994. At that time I was in charge of a U.N. human rights education program for the military, police, and other groups. ONUSAL [United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador] – our mission – monitored the implementation of the peace accords that the government and the FMLN guerrillas had signed. These accords called for true reform. Many changes did indeed occur, such as the demobilization of the FMLN combatants and army soldiers, the disbandment of the three police corps, and the formation of a new National Civil Police – educated about human rights.

One day an ex-military and ex-paramilitary group that had been excluded from the reintegration program decided to occupy the Legislative Assembly. They held all of the deputies hostage. ONUSAL was called to intervene, and our entire staff, composed of military, police, and human rights officers, was deployed for the operation. Two women handled the negotiations – the head of the San Salvador Office, Leila Lima and myself. After three days of long negotiation sessions, the building was evacuated peacefully and the occupants were included in a special program to reintegrate them into the civilian society. It worked out very well. What I also appreciated about this particular U.N. mission was the fact that one day we would meet with the President of the Republic and the next we would talk with peasants in Guazapa. Both parts of society were equally confident in our role in that country.

Also, I was very fortunate to have worked for many years with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This U.N. organization does wonderful work, and I was very proud to lead their operations in Brazil for a while. In the late seventies and early eighties, we helped resettle thousands of Latin American refugees who came to Brazil fleeing South American dictatorships. The majority of them came from Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina, and we arranged to resettle them in European countries.

Some years later, while serving in Geneva – in one of those wonderful coincidences of life – I found myself dealing with the repatriation program there, and again helped many of those same Uruguayan, Chilean, and Argentinean refugees return home. It was a rewarding experience – to help them to complete a cycle in their lives. I still keep with me some of the beautiful letters I received from them.

Catherine: Describe the most dangerous situation you have ever been in, while working for the U.N., for example…

Armenia:
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, when serving at the U.N. Mission there, I had to go to Banja Luka, a city far from Sarajevo. I like to drive myself, so I didn’t ask for a driver. I just took an interpreter along. I had a map, and was following the directions, but at a certain point I started to realize that the road was strangely abandoned. We didn’t see any vehicles or people for three hours. When I arrived at my destination and explained to my surprised colleagues how I arrived in such a short time, they were speechless for a moment. “You took a thoroughly mined road which is no longer in use,” they told me. I hadn’t realized the danger. We were lucky, thank goodness. We would have died if the car had hit one of the many mines – yet we made it through unscathed. My daughter says I have a big angel following behind me.

There have been other close calls. In El Salvador, for example, a few months before the ceasefire, I was visiting a community in Guazapa, an area occupied by the FMLN. A few minutes after leaving – just a few miles down the road – I heard a tremendous explosion, and knew that the army had bombed the place. Soon my colleagues started calling me by radio. They had learned that the place had been bombed, and they feared that I had still been there.

Catherine: When you worked in war-torn countries, was your family allowed to be with you?

Armenia:
No, my missions to war-torn areas were “non-family missions,” so my family was not allowed to accompany me. In El Salvador, after the ceasefire, a family presence was tolerated but not encouraged. But, a few days after the signature of the peace agreement, in January 1992 – six months after my arrival there – my daughter Mina, then sixteen, and my son Raphael, then seventeen, came to live with me. My husband, who frequently visited us, remained in Rio de Janeiro. Fabio, our oldest son, was studying in France at that time. We were living in three different countries. I should say that a significant portion of my salary went to pay the telephone bills!

Raphael decided to return to Brazil after eight months, but Mina remained with me in El Salvador until 1994, and left El Salvador only to start her university studies in California. It was the most beautiful experience we could have had. My daughter and I were able to develop a very deep relationship in those years of rich and challenging experiences. Our complicity was absolute. I shared with her all my concerns and views, and we discussed everything from the most delicate political issues to our most intimate problems.

Catherine: Where were you born?

Armenia:
I was born in Brazil, in Fortaleza, the capital of the northeastern state of Ceara. Moving to the central state of Goias when I was eight years old was a big change – the first move of my life. The pristine coastal landscape of white sand dunes, palm trees, and a magnificent blue and green sea was replaced with life on a farm far away from the ocean. My father and my uncle became involved in the mining and export of quartz, so we moved to Cristalina, near Brazilia, where one of the mines was located. It was really a wonderful experience to live for a while on a farm, to learn how to milk the cows, to prune the trees, to bath in rivers, to ride horses, and just to be in close contact with nature and animals. It was an unforgettable and important experience.

Catherine: Did your parents travel much? Do you remember your first trip abroad?

Armenia:
My parents told me that they conceived me while traveling. My parents spent a ten-month honeymoon traveling all over Brazil, and returned home only because my mother became pregnant. She wanted to give birth to me in her hometown of Fortaleza.

My first trip abroad occurred when I was seventeen. The first place I visited was Paris, and I had the sensation of revisiting a place – I’d read so many books about it that I recognized the streets, the buildings, the cafes. My father had lived in Paris when he was young, before coming to Brazil. My aunt Surphoui still lives there, and I feel as I though I have lived there before. During that same year I also went to Prague to participate in a seminar, and on my way back to Brazil I spent a few days in Morocco and Senegal. It was really very exciting, and I remember being impressed by the beautiful, colorful dresses of the African women and men.

Catherine: Tell us your favorite Novica story. It could be about a specific memory of founding the company with your family…or it could be about a specific artist that you met…or a character that you’ve dealt with while setting up one of the offices…

Armenia:
There are many, starting with Abuelita Angelica, Rob’s grandmother from Peru, one of our very first artisans, who sold beautiful hand-knit creations on Novica. Sadly, she passed away last year. I already knew many good things about her, but reading her life story on our Web site for the first time was a big emotional experience for me. I cried. A lady who could transform a dialysis session into a pleasant knitting party – isn’t that incredible? Abuelita Angelica is representative of the Novica spirit – full of affection and enthusiasm.

In Brazil, as Novica’s volume increased, we moved from a small office to a big one. Yes, for a little while, we didn’t have enough help with packing. So some of our artists came to help us wrap the paintings properly for shipping. They spent a few days doing this work for free, with great enthusiasm. I remember when painter Luiz Antonio brought his entire family to the office and showed it to them with pride, as if it was his new studio.

That’s how all of us at Novica feel. We are all part of something so intimately important to each of us individually, yet we are part of something so much bigger and more important than us all.

For all press enquires, or to arrange an interview with Armenia, please contact our PR team.

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