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Why this banker gives away most of his wealth

The Russian-Armenian philanthropist talks about wealth, succession, and the business of giving

Ruben Vardanyan
The year was 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, leading to a drastic transition from a planned to a market economy in Russia. Ruben Vardanyan, aged 22 back then, traded his job at a well-known commercial bank with a monthly salary of US$1,000 to join Troika Dialog – Russia’s first investment bank – offering him only US$100 monthly salary.

But the risks of his salary cut reaped rich dividends in the end: Vardanyan became the head of the bank in 1992, and the bank was sold to the Russian state bank Sberbank for US$1.35 billion in 2012.

For over two decades, Vardanyan was the icon of the first-generation of investment bankers in Russia who opened up new frontiers in Russia’s finance industry. Once touted as one of the wealthiest Russian-Armenian businessmen in Russia, Vardanyan and his family have made US$400 million in donations with a plan to give 90% of his wealth away to charitable causes. His philanthropic works include co-founding the annual US$1 million Aurora prize that recognizes humanitarian effort, co-founding the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo, and others. 

Vardanyan’s interest in humanitarian work was inspired by the life story of his grandfather, whose life was saved by a Turk and four American missionaries during the genocide in the Ottoman Empire. When Vardanyan looks back on his personal success, he is grateful for the people who saved the life of his grandfather. 

He said: “I have the opportunity to become a wealthy and successful person only because somebody saved the life of my grandfather, and that gave me a chance to be born to this world. In life, some people help us succeed, and we need to be grateful.”

Leveraging privatization 

When joining Peter Derby – an American of Russian origin who founded Troika Dialog – as one of the bank’s first employees, he had only limited financial knowledge. But he counted on his training in economics from Moscow State University to navigate the brave new world of market economy, fueled by the state-initiated privatization programs in the 90s.

“It was a really unique time,” says Vardanyan. “Most people knew nothing about the financial industry. There were no regulations, no clients, nobody knew what the securities market was.”

Under Vardanyan’s leadership, Troika Dialog sold some of the state’s assets to the Western investors as a broker. Personally, he also took an active role in developing the Russian legal framework of the securities market and the creation of its first instruments, infrastructure, and institutions.

His business journey with Troika Dialog was not always smooth sailing. In 1998, the global financial crisis hit the Russian economy hard and Troika Dialog, with 80% of its business from western clients, struggled to survive. He witnessed another financial crisis in 2008 and sold a stake to Standard Bank before the company was acquired by Sberbank of Russia in 2012.

Education and succession 

Vardanyan’s experience in pioneering Russia’s investment banking drove him to create a private business school in 2005. Named the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo, the business school offers executive education and corporate programs with 2,500 graduates and 22,000 attendees. 

“You must have your own business school to cultivate business elites for the country,” Vardanyan said. Against the backdrop of BRICS economies, he also saw the potential to attract western executives to study in Skolkovo for the experience.

Now, as Russia looks east as the axis for global growth pivots to Asia, the school also offers a dual EMBA program with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. 

In addition to business education, Vardanyan believed that it is crucial to educate first-gen high-net-worth individuals about wealth and succession. As he put it: “It is very important for the new generation of wealthy to learn how to transfer their wealth and pass on a legacy. This is not just about money, but also about family values and the philosophy behind your will.”

For Vardanyan, he and his wife agreed that they would give 90% of his wealth away for philanthropy and social investment. To educate his children about being financially independent, the eldest two, who are in their 20s, already know how to earn their own income and live on a budget.

Philanthropic portfolio

In 2016, Vardanyan co-founded the Aurora Prize, an annual prize of US$1 million to recognize individuals for their humanitarian effort that makes a remarkable difference. Vardanyan said that Aurora is more than just a prize, but a movement that consists of other initiatives, including the Aurora Dialogues, the Aurora Humanitarian Index, the Gratitude Projects and the 100 LIVES Initiative.

Inspired by his grandfather’s story, he wanted the prize to help people recognize and show gratitude to people who made a difference in other people’s lives. “The main vision of the Aurora movement was to put a spotlight on human values and to showcase best practices in humanitarian works,” he explained. 

Last year, Yazidi activist Mirza Dinnayi, co-founder and director of Luftbrücke Irak (Air Bridge Iraq), received the prize for his work to help the most vulnerable members of the Yazidi community during the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Other past laureates include lawyer and activist Kyaw Hla Aung (2018) from Myanmar, Catholic missionary Dr. Tom Catena (2017) from the United States and Marguerite Barankitse (2016) from Maison Shalom and REMA Hospital in Burundi.

Despite making his fortune in Russia, Vardanyan sees Armenia as his roots. He was born in Armenia as part of the Soviet Union and left Armenia to study economics at Moscow State University when he was 17 years old. Now, he has several philanthropic projects to give back to the communities in both countries. 

One example is the United World College Dilijan, which makes Armenia part of the United World Colleges (UWC) network, allowing international students to study in Armenia and share their cultural experience when they are back to their home country. 

He also has a project – Armenia 2020/2041– with the goal to map out the long-term scenarios for Armenia’s development. Initiated in the early 2000s (“Armenia 2020”), it entered its new phase (“Armenia 2041”) with the discussion paper “At the Crossroads”. 

He believes that Armenia could be a pilot to showcase “how small countries such as Armenia, Moldova, and other similar nations can get ahead without the scale of the population to attract investors and donors.”

“No one cares about them, so it is difficult to invest. The costs of charitable giving are high. I thought, how can we convert this problem into a solution to create something common for other countries like this?”