Most people tell me they envy me my job because I get paid to eat. And I still pinch myself that I do. But the truth is, that’s not the best part. I feel most privileged when I receive unanticipated – and often undeserved – invitations to important, exciting world events. (One early example: being the guest of Slow Food at the Salone del Gusto in Torino, Italy back in 2000 because at that time I had written more stories about Slow Food than anyone in the US.)
On July 8th I was honored to be an invited guest to a conference at the United Nations. The subject: Developing local, sustainable entrepreneurial enterprises in developing countries, including among women, the poor, and the vulnerable. (To use the official terminology: I was invited to “a side event on the margins of the ECOCSOC High-level Political Forum.”) Moderators were the UN ambassador-representatives from the Netherlands and Armenia.
I was there as press, having received the invitation from one of the meeting’s organizers and key speakers, Sylvia Tirakian. Before I try (feebly) to summarize the proceedings, allow me to gush about being AN INVITED GUEST TO THE UNITED NATIONS!
Like any tourist, I took pics of the surroundings. The sculpture above is in the courtyard leading into the Conference Building where the event took place. Last time I had been to the UN was a class trip in 8th grade. I refuse to say how many decades ago that was. (Let’s just say it was post-Dag Hammarskjold.) Here’s a view of my space in the conference room, complete with headphones, mic, and multi-language board. (Cue Audrey Hepburn in Charade):
On to serious business.
I had met Ms. Tirakian through her business, Harvest Song Ventures, which sells artisan preserves made from fruit grown in her native Armenia. Her apricot preserves – all natural, made in small batches from hand-harvested fruit (processed, I believe, in Carlstadt, NJ) – won an award at the Fancy Food Show in 2006. More importantly, her business allows small farms in the Ararat valley to thrive, post-Soviet Union.
Representatives from various UN initiatives spoke of the many impressive public-private sustainable partnerships underway in countries like Liberia, Malawi, South Africa, Laos, and Cambodia. But it was Ms. Tirakian who electrified the room, which was full to brimming, when she shared her “in the trenches” experiences. Born in Soviet Armenia, her family emigrated to Beirut in the 1970s. That was the first time she encountered marketing of any kind. “Laughing Cow cheese was the first advertisement I ever saw,” she said, confessing to a soft spot even now for that product. She went on to earn a degree in engineering and enjoyed a successful career in the corporate world. “If you had told me I would be making fruit jams in Armenia I would have said you were crazy!” she shared. But she considers her entrepreneurial role in helping farmers and traditional artisans thrive “the best form of diplomacy.”
This sentiment was echoed by another Armenian speaker, Vahe Keushguerian of Karas Wines. Just this year Karas began exporting wines, some of which are made with indigenous grapes such as Kangun and Voskehat.
But it must be said that women stole the spotlight. Two among those in the audience who raised important issues were:
Nora Armani, award-winning actress and the founding artistic director of New York’s Socially Relevant Film Festival. Born in Giza, Egypt of Armenian parents, she was educated and trained as an actor in England. She urged the officials on the panel to go beyond lofty goals and deal at the very basic level with issues particular to each environment, among them embedded civic corruption.
Maria Bernardis, an award-winning cookbook author and founder of Greekalicious. Ms. Benardis’ Greek family emigrated to Australia, where she grew up while spending summers with grandparents on the Greek island of Psara. Ms. Bernardis recently relocated to New York. A former Aussie tax specialist, she urged the group to develop strategies for dealing with tax problems encountered by small business entrepreneurs in the targeted countries.
The session was inspiring on many levels, and I am honored to have sat in on it. If you’d like to learn more, the entire proceedings were captured on this UN Web TV video.