Cleveland, OH, United States
They told me that we hadn’t a second to lose. They told me that they packed only what could be carried. They told me all roads were closed by the Azeri army so our only means of escape was a small plane. Three days later, war ignited in Karabakh.
I had a sense that I had to come back one day, come back and help. I don’t remember any of this, I was only three.
I’m thirty now and last year I enrolled in the Birthright Armenia program knowing full well that I was leaving my career, my friends, my family, and my significant other behind. The sacrifice came with great uncertainty as I had no idea what someone in the financial services could hope to accomplish in Armenia. A month prior to arriving, I received a call letting me know that I will be involved with bringing PayPal to Armenia.
Enter Tim Straight, a man with a lifetime of dedication to the human cause. Tim was spearheading the PayPal effort in Armenia. He is a 19-year-resident of Armenia, a knight of Norway, and the founder of Homeland Development Initiative Foundation (HDIF), an organization responsible for employing at-risk women living in border villages. Most of HDIF’s customers were overseas and without a payment processor like PayPal, it was incredibly difficult to facilitate trade. Through Tim’s contacts, we met with the representatives of the Central Bank of Armenia (CBA) who were interested in the same thing. Quite unexpectedly, during our meeting, the CBA invited me to help with some of their other programs.
Within two weeks of arriving, I was in meetings with decision makers from the CBA discussing exceptional long-term projects such as the creation of the first credit union, engaging PayPal, and researching the impact of cryptocurrencies. At the head of the Legal Department was a remarkable man, Varoujan Avedikian, a Harvard graduate. Varoujan is one of the earliest to repatriate, he has been in Armenia since the early 90s, and relentlessly contributes to our young republic.
Central Bank of Armenia’s attempt to bring PayPal to Armenia was the third attempt in the past decade (the first was by a member of parliament and the second attempt was by the Ministry of Finance). We thought we had a good chance since our neighbor to the north, Georgia, has had PayPal; however, early on it became evident that PayPal had no interest in expanding to Armenia. In fact, on their earnings calls and annual reports, they explicitly stated their strategy of penetrating existing markets through synergistic acquisitions such as Venmo. Armenia wasn’t even on the radar and would likely never be.
Down but not out, through my research on cryptocurrency, I realized that Bitcoin could one day replace PayPal and provide much more utility in a country where half the population didn’t have a bank account. I presented my findings to the CBA and although we agreed on the facts, they arrived at a different conclusion. For them, Bitcoin was too new, rough around the edges, and posed too many questions that had no concrete answers. Deep down, every central bank knows that the adoption of Bitcoin will reduce their ability to create and control the currency.
Bitcoin doesn’t play by their rules. It’s a bottom-up, grassroot movement that will free the individual from the system of control imposed by the state. Bitcoin has no middlemen, no headquarters, and no central authority to print or confiscate your money. Bitcoin is a software open to the public built on trust since anyone can check the code to verify it functions the way it is supposed to. Bitcoin is permissionless which means it doesn’t care if you’re black, white, Muslim, Buddhist, rich, poor, American, or Iranian. Anyone and everyone with a $20 smartphone and a WiFi connection can send and receive money directly to anyone else for the first time in all of human history.
I found myself reflecting back to when my father was thirty years old and had approximately $100,000 in purchasing power stored safely in a Baku bank. Then he moved when the pogroms started in 1988 but were only able to transfer $80,000 to Karabakh. It was safe now or so he thought. When the war was all but certain the bank froze everyone’s accounts. Our family, like most, left with nothing and had to start over in a foreign land. However, Russia was no better in the 1990s. As the government was in free fall, they stole from their citizens by way of hyperinflation, a method where large amounts of money are printed which results in a dilution of the existing total. Imagine earning a paycheck on the 15th to only have it become nearly worthless on the 30th. Hope was hopeless when every month felt like being cursed as Sisyphus was, condemned to repeat the task of rolling a boulder up a hill only to see it roll back down again steps away from the top.
My father wasn’t the first (nor the last) to experience theft by his government. An entire nation went through immense pain over a hundred years ago. The Ottomans robbed our ancestors of life, property, and liberty. Those lucky enough to escape could only take what they could carry and had to start a new life in a foreign land with absolutely no safety net. Now try to imagine a past where Bitcoin existed. A past where people could have stored some or all of their wealth on the blockchain (an immutable, decentralized database). If Bitcoin had existed back then, how would things have turned out? By remembering your password (twelve unique random words), you could access your bitcoin anywhere on the planet and on top of that no one could take them away from you. Total control of your wealth unlike cash, gold, real estate or other assets, all of which could be confiscated at the end of the barrel.
Today we have a choice. Do we embrace a technology as fundamentally revolutionary as the internet or do we let every other country adopt and innovate first? Today Bitcoin occupies a grey area just like the internet in the 1990s. It took nearly thirty years for Armenians only now to realize that IT is one of the answers for a brighter future. The question we have to answer now is: will we wait another thirty years to realize that Bitcoin is a part of that future?