UCL master’s student Mher Datyan shares his experience of launching a business in war-torn Armenia during the pandemic, with support from UCL Innovation & Enterprise.
Mher is part-way through his MA in Educational Leadership at UCL. Since arriving in London in 2020, he’s successfully launched an education business for displaced children in Armenia. He took part in UCL’s Build your own business (Explore and Launch) programmes, to access business support and get his social enterprise up and running.
With a background in inclusive education in rural Armenia, I’d come to UCL to build my educational leadership skills. Then, literally the day I landed, I discovered that a new war had been unleashed in Nagorno Karabakh, an unrecognised republic in South Caucasus.
Being an educator, my focus was on children because war (particularly during a pandemic) can affect their wellbeing and relationship with the world in myriad ways. I was in London, yet fully immersed in what was going on in my home country.
Together with three friends, we came up with an emergency response project to support children who’d been forced to leave their homes because of the war and COVID.
We set up the not-for-profit NorArar Education Initiative, firstly as an after-school programme. With access to psychosocial support, we’re helping displaced children deal with their trauma, and build their relationships and resilience.
The next stage
The first 15 children have now completed our course, and are moving onto our one-year-long guided mentoring programme.
As many adults in a post-war crisis become emotionally unavailable, it becomes harder for children to overcome the chronic stress they go through. The aim of the mentoring is to bring a trusted adult into the life of every child experiencing difficult life circumstances.
Accessing business support and advice
UCL’s 'Build your own business 2: Explore and test your idea' programme was the perfect place for me to solidify my idea. It’s all taken place online because of the pandemic but it’s been my best experience at UCL so far.
I wanted to combine my passion for education and entrepreneurship, and that’s what the Explore programme has been great for. It’s highly personalised, you get one-to-one coaching and the resources are tailored to what you need. I learnt a lot about understanding my customers and defining my unique selling point (USP) in particular, as well as how to develop a sustainable business model.
Being part of a community
One of the aspects I’ve valued the most has been the community. We spent time in small groups, so we got to share ideas and get a lot of feedback on what we were doing.
The programme gave me the chance to network with like-minded people with an entrepreneurial mindset. Many of them supported me in better articulating my solution, disseminated my campaign on social media, and donated to my cause.
Many members also reached out asking for opportunities to mentor children in Armenia. This was an important indicator that the concept will grow and has huge potential. If we could open it up to mentors all over the world, imagine the difference that could make to children living in the Armenian hills.
We've now launched a GoFundMe campaign to develop a more comprehensive after-school education programme for children in a post-crisis context. Many students we work with have been out of school for two to three months, and have significant learning challenges. So we want, and need, to take this support much further, and open it out to more children.
Advice for potential entrepreneurs
If you have a passion for making change, never wait for the ideal moment, because it may never come. Go for it. The support is here. The enterprise courses at UCL are excellent. After Explore, there’s Launch, which I also took part in. All in all, you’ll be pushed outside your comfort zone and well supported at the same time. Most importantly, you’ll be part of a community that’s cheering you on and willing you to succeed. That’s made all the difference.
The NorArar Education initiative is being run as a partnership project with UNDP Armenia 'Women in Politics' programme. This programme is funded by the RA Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure and OxYGen Foundation, with financial support from the UK Good Governance Fund.