Originally from Armenia, Mikayel Harutyunyan graduated from the IES with a Master's degree in 2021. During his undergraduate studies at the IES, he passed a study stay in Maastricht, the Netherlands, where he focused on behavioral economics. He then continued to pursue this topic further, on a fellowship at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School in the US, which he managed during his Master's studies at the IES. While studying, Mikayel gathered interesting experiences. First, he actively contributed to the student organization AIESEC for almost 2 years, where he eventually became the Marketing and Communications Manager. In 2017, he then started his internship as a Programmatic Intern at Dentsu Aegis and then landed an internship at Google as an Associate Account Strategist in Wroclaw, Poland. As a Business Analyst, he developed an econometric model for Lafluence for a few months in 2018. He then returned to Google as a Marketing Associate intern, where he was even named "most innovative team member". As of July 2020, he is the Head of Marketing at Activeloop, a US startup based in Silicon Valley. Mikayel's hobbies are listening to podcasts while walking, foreign languages, and cooking..
Where do you come from?
I come from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. When I was 16, I moved to the Czech Republic all by myself for my studies
You started the Czech program at the IES even though you are a foreigner. How did you deal with the language barrier and studying in general? It must have been challenging...
When I moved to the Czech Republic, I didn’t speak a word in Czech. In 4 months, I was supposed to take the SCIO entrance exams (an analog of American SATs) in Czech, so it was quite a steep learning curve for me. Funnily enough, I scored 6% in the verbal part of one of the tests. So I studied much harder for a month and scored in the top 80%. I thought after the entrance exams, the challenges were behind me.
Then came Mathematics I. I keep telling myself that I failed Maths I because I didn’t speak Czech well (although by that time, I was already at the B2/C1 level). :)
In sum, it was a pretty challenging and humbling experience - but it’s the challenges that make the experience fun. If anything, the typical complications that come with being an international student (e.g., being all alone in a foreign country, spending weeks prolonging a visa every year, choosing between visiting family back home or studying for the exams, etc.) were harder to tackle rather than the language barrier, especially because I wanted to keep up with my excellent peers at IES.
You worked while studying at the IES; it was a not quite typical IES career, working at marketing. How did you get into this field, and what interested you?
To improve my language skills and do something alongside my studies, I enrolled at a youth organization called AIESEC as a marketing team member. Eventually, I grew into the marketing leader of the branch. Various courses at IES, such as Micro I (with Dr. Stastna) and especially Micro II (doc. Chytilova), inspired me to apply behavioral nudges into my marketing practice. I picked up a behavioral economics book and implemented a couple of insights into the pricing and promotion of one of our products, almost doubling the revenue. IES gave me the theoretical toolkit to explore academic insights and develop a sound marketing strategy based on the hypothesis-driven, iterative implementation of academic research.
Over time, I understood that I'm very excited by the intersection of human behavior (e.g., behavioral economics, psychometrics), marketing, and tech. I'm very thankful that my supervisor for both theses, doc. Julie Chytilová supported me greatly in writing on topics I was most interested in at the intersection of these fields.
You worked on several internships at Google. What did you take from that experience, how did you enjoy the company, and what did you like about it so much that you even passed more internships there?
The first Google internship was the first internship I have ever applied to, so I feel lucky to have been chosen. Google has an incredible culture, products that impact everyone daily, and even more incredible people behind the products building them. I designed an onboarding program for marketing agency new hires for my first internship that taught them all they needed to know about Google Ads. I had to synthesize a succinct program from vast resources that Google had internally (a skill you pick up after a couple of semesters at IES). The program was a success and was scaled to the entire Russian market and a couple of CIS countries (some agencies still use it, years after). This scale of the impact really excited me.
The second internship happened serendipitously. As I was preparing to graduate from my Bachelor's studies, I did not know what to do (do I pursue a Master’s degree, or do I go back to Google?). I decided to take a “gap year off”, but that gap year ended up studying full-time for my Master’s at IES and working full-time at Google as a part of the Central European Marketing team. I was incredibly lucky to have great managers and be assigned to once-in-a-lifetime projects such as helping launch YouTube Music in a couple of Central and Eastern European countries. One of my most prominent projects was coordinating marketing activities at various music festivals (like Colours of Ostrava or Rock for People). It was tons of fun (and good music).
Do you apply the skills from the IES in practice? How did other schools influence you further in the Netherlands or the US, where you also studied?
I do! Last week, I worked on a regression model predicting user churn to increase retention and evaluate the ROI of certain activities we conduct. My exact job is leading Marketing & Growth. Marketing & Growth are far more than coming up with witty slogans and creating leaflets in Adobe Suite. It is a very interesting, data-driven job function that entails constant experimentation on what makes users adopt the product. Whenever possible, we try the A/B test based on initial hypotheses and iteratively improve.
Beyond IES, I decided to infuse my strong analytical background with some business and psychology context (from learning how information retrieval works in human brains to supply chain modeling) from Maastricht. It was great to see that concepts we learn at IES (e.g., distributions in Statistics) come to life in real-life scenarios. At Maastricht, I got to run my first behavioral experiments, which ultimately let me design my Bachelor thesis study.
I've also been rather fortunate to spend a year abroad in the US (thanks to IES leadership, especially Dr. Jiří Novák and prof. Wayne Landsman from UNC at Chapel Hill). I was unsure whether or not to pursue a Ph.D., so I got to take both Ph.D. and MBA courses for an entire year, with a strong focus on marketing and organizational behavior. The Ph.D. courses gave me a lot: a very solid organizational behavior background taught me how to ask the right questions and think like a scholar. My time at UNC resulted in my Master's thesis. Apart from that, I use the knowledge gained almost every day at our startup, Activeloop, - to form and build great company culture, work more productively and be a better manager. I think all good managers need to read organizational behavior research. :)
The skills I've learned at IES are applicable not only in professional life. During the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020, I started a fundraising campaign to help more than 150,000 Armenian refugees displaced by the conflict. Applying behavioral economics insights picked up from the course by doc. Chytilová, doc. Bauer and Dr. Kukačka, as well as findings of my research, I managed to increase pro-social behavior in my online network and turn the campaign viral, raising about $153,000 in just a few weeks.
You are currently working at a Silicon Valley startup called Activeloop. What exactly do you do?
Activeloop (activeloop.ai) is building the database for AI. What does that mean, and why is it exciting?
We're creating the future of data. It's no secret the world is moving beyond excel tables in terms of analysis to more "unstructured" data types such as images, videos, and audio. Even in economics research, scholars use night-time satellite images to estimate economic development.
Especially for machine learning purposes, it's very hard and costly to deal with these types of data because the way we're storing and working with them is very outdated (think saving each image in a separate excel cell). Especially since unstructured data makes up more than 90% of data created, it's becoming a salient problem. To solve it, we've created an open-source dataset format for AI that allows data scientists to repackage their messy, unstructured data in a tidier form to easily create, store, version-control, and collaborate on datasets of any size. Thanks to it, you're also able to stream data instead of fully downloading it (and machine learning datasets can be up to 1000s of GBs in size!), and there's no need to send a copy to your colleague when you edit the data.
On top of the open-source product (i.e., anyone can copy and use the code freely), we've built the enterprise version - the database for AI that helps data scientists visualize, explore, version-control, and query their data and integrate it with other machine learning tools. Ultimately, this helps build better datasets that result in less biased, more accurate machine learning models faster and cheaper.
What is it like to work for a Silicon valley-based startup? Is it a very competitive environment, or is it possible to float through life comfortably and have time for friends, family, hobbies...
Overall, you have to be a strong believer in the vision of the company, otherwise, I wouldn't say you will be happy long-term. It is not easy, but it's fun. Startups are always at the forefront of the race - our space is heating up, and the first one to solve this problem will walk away with a huge payoff. Naturally, many brilliant people strive in Silicon Valley to work very hard, so you need to move fast to stay on par. However, as many of my peers at IES, I've worked either part- or full-time while studying for my degree, so at a certain point in time, you learn to juggle work, friends, family, and hobbies (in my case, it's sleep, long walks with podcasts and cooking). I try to get enough rest, family, and friend time not to burn out. I am not perfect at it, but I am learning to be better. And when I do feel burnt out, I have a great support net of family and friends that I can fall back on. I've seen this one too many times at IES - and one piece of advice I can give any student reading this is to remember that life is a marathon, not a sprint, and distribute tasks across time, so they are manageable. I'm a huge supporter of working in the state of flow, which helps me reduce the hours I waste.
Working for a Silicon valley-based startup is different from working for a Czech startup. So if you'd like to try it out, drop me a message! I'm always looking for great interns or team members to join our growing team.