Larry Luxner

Armenia’s TUMO offers teen geeks a path to tech success

Teenage boys at workstations equipped with large-screen Apple iMacs, at TUMO Armenia in Yerevan. (Photo by Larry Luxner)
Teenage boys at workstations equipped with large-screen Apple iMacs, at TUMO Armenia in Yerevan. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

YEREVAN, Armenia — Four years ago, law student Anushavan Yeghiazaryan didn’t know what a programmer was. But after learning Javascript, HTML and CSS—and then serving in the army during Armenia’s brief but punishing 2020 war with Azerbaijan—he found a new calling.

These days, the 27-year-old software engineer streams YouTube tutorials on geeky tech topics in Armenian. By his own estimate, he’s one of only three people offering this service in Armenian, one of the world’s most ancient languages.

It’s not making him rich, but with more than 40 tutorials already posted to YouTube, he’s definitely getting recognition.

“I got this idea during the war and was asking myself, what did we lose? I tried to think what I could do for my country,” said Yeghiazaryan, interviewed last month at a trendy coffee bar overlooking Yerevan’s famous Cascade landmark. “One of my main motives is to shoot videos for people living outside Yerevan who don’t speak English or other foreign languages, and don’t have money to go to training centers. Instead, they can watch YouTube and learn programming.”

Ashot Arzumanyan, partner and co-founder at SmartGateVC, speaks at an October 2019 science and technology convergence conference in Yerevan, Armenia. (Photo courtesy of SmartGate VC)

Yeghiazaryan isn’t the only young entrepreneur here who’d like to see Armenia emulate Israel as the “startup nation of the Caucasus.”

Another one is Ashot Arzumanyan. He’s a partner and co-founder at SmartGateVC, a venture capital fund that invests in startups involved in everything from AI and robotics to biotech manufacturing. The fund is currently seeking $15-30 million from high-net worth individuals, including many in southern California’s large and influential Armenian diaspora.

Companies in SmartGate’s growing portfolio include Krisp, an innovative noise cancellation technology; SuperAnnotate, the fastest annotation platform and services for training AI; and Britive, a cloud-native security solution for cloud-forward enterprises.

Among other things, SmartGate recently established Hero House, a startup hub in the mostly Armenian suburb of Glendale, Calif., that Arzumanyan says “combines the scientific potential of local leading universities with the expertise and network of business leaders in entertainment, aerospace, bioscience and advanced transportation located in the Los Angeles area.”

Teenage girls study in the music lab of TUMO Armenia in Yerevan. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

‘Silicon Valley of the Caucasus’

Armenia further hopes to capitalize on its reputation as the “Silicon Valley of the Caucasus” through a number of initiatives. Chief among them is TUMO Armenia, a free after-school education program “at the intersection of technology and design,” according to its website.

Established in 2011 with a $60 million endowment from Sam and Sylva Simonian—a prominent Armenian diaspora couple based in the United States—TUMO has since served more than 60,000 teenagers aged 12-18 throughout Armenia. Its flagship center contains 750 workstations and accommodates 15,000 students per week. There’s a waiting list of close to 4,000, with the typical wait lasting three months.

During a recent visit to TUMO six-story headquarters on the outskirts of Yerevan, this reporter saw hundreds of teen geeks sitting at large-screen Apple iMacs, intently learning everything from graphic design to software programming at their own pace. Coaches in red vests walked around, ready to lend a hand to anyone who asked. In one classroom, five adolescent boys were jointly constructing a robot from blue, red and yellow Lego pieces, while in the music lab, students performed an Armenian folk song.

The project labs and workshops consist of 14 learning targets: animation, game development, filmmaking, web developing, music, writing, drawing, graphic design, 3D modeling, programming, robotics, motion graphics, photography and new media. In addition, industry professionals from entities including NASA, Nickelodeon, Facebook and Nvidia have come to TUMO to give hands-on lectures.

Teenage boys construct a robot from Lego pieces at TUMO Armenia’s flagship facility in Yerevan. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“Our mission is to innovate the future of learning—putting equitable access to free education at the intersection of technology and design, giving economically disadvantaged families access to this kind of education,” said Chris Shahinian, TUMO’s director of development.

Born in Australia but of Armenian heritage, Shahinian headed business development for the Asia/Pacific unit of American Express for 10 years before joining TUMO and moving back to the homeland.

“People make a lot of comparisons to Israel and Estonia, but 26% of Armenians live under the poverty line, and 2% live in extreme poverty,” he said. “This is all free of charge.”

TUMO operates three learning centers in Armenia besides the flagship Yerevan facility—one each in the cities of Gyumri, Dilijan and Stapenkert. TUMO is currently raising $50 million to build the infrastructure to expand that network to 16 centers, as well as 110 “TUMO boxes” that basically consist of three repurposed shipping containers welded together. These “boxes” will be deployed in rural villages and are aimed at reaching all of Armenia’s estimated 80,000 teenagers.

Yuri Kim, the US ambassador to Albania, tours TUMO Tirana in September 2021 on the first anniversary of its opening. The school, one of a dozen opened by the Armenia-based nonprofit organization, is now at capacity with 1,500 students. (Photo courtesy of TUMO)

From Armenia to Albania—and beyond

The program has proven so successful that TUMO has opened eight centers in seven countries in Europe and the Middle East. These include two in France (Paris and Lyon), and one each in Albania (Tirana); Germany (Berlin); Lebanon (Beirut); Russia (Moscow); Switzerland (Zürich) and Ukraine (Kyiv).

In Tirana, funding comes from the Albanian American Development Foundation (AADF), a nonprofit entity created in 2009 by the Albanian-American Enterprise Fund with support from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

TUMO Tirana, launched at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in November 2020, is temporarily located in the Arena business center at Albania’s biggest stadium. It now serves 1,500 students per week in this Balkan nation of 2.8 million, which before the fall of the Iron Curtain was the poorest and most isolated in Europe.

Next year, however, TUMO Tirana will relocate to the capital city’s 70-foot-tall concrete and glass pyramid—once a shrine to Albania’s former Marxist dictator, Enver Hoxha. The pyramid is currently undergoing a $22 million renovation; when it reopens to the public in early 2024, TUMO plans to be one of its anchor tenants.

TUMO Tirana, currently located in the city’s Arena stadium, could be the first of a network of learning centers in cities throughout Albania. (Photo courtesy of TUMO)

Currently, the center has a waiting list and is set to graduate to the completed Pyramid where 3,000 students will participate weekly,” said Sawyer Hescock, head of international partnerships at TUMO. “The program has drawn attention throughout Albania and a number of cities have expressed interest in developing new TUMO locations.”

Hescock added that TUMO is currently working with the AADF to design a national network of learning centers “to reach every corner of Albania.”

In the first quarter of 2024, TUMO will open its first US center, in North Hollywood, Calif., with $26 million in funding from the State of California and the city of Los Angeles; discussions are also currently underway to expand to Pittsburgh and Dallas.

In addition, five new centers will be established in Germany over the next two years, with strong backing from former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who during an August 2018 visit to Yerevan said: “This TUMO is not for Armenia only. It’s international. It’s a philosophy.”

About the Author
Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017.
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