How I Found My Purpose Through My Nana, Arshalous

June 24, 2020 Dr. Patti Fletcher

10-minute read

vintage photo

More often than not, whenever I deliver a keynote about equity in the workplace, I like to open with a story about my nana, Arshalous. Her name means “dawn” in Armenian.

I’m the youngest of three girls with several years between my sisters (Irish twins) and me. Whereas my contemporaries came from traditional families with dads who went to work and moms who stayed home, my mother was a working mom before working moms were a thing in middle-class suburbia. Every weekday morning, she would drop me off at my nana’s and grandpa’s apartment on her way to the office. 

Despite spending years with my nana, I knew very little about her (she is the second from the left in the above photo). Everything I knew was what my mother told me, which wasn’t much. I knew she was born in 1915 in Turkey-Armenia, in a place called Harput. She was orphaned in the Armenian genocide and came to the United States at the age of 19. And she was only able to come here then because of an arranged marriage with my grandfather that her brothers organized. My grandfather, an Armenian whose family fled Turkey at the onset of the genocide, was about 15 years older than her. Nana wore clothes reminiscent of what we called “the old country,” had a thick accent, and spoke six languages fluently. That’s all I knew about her. The unsaid, yet completely understood, rule was that we didn’t ask about nana’s past. In fact, I didn’t really get to know about my nana’s life until after she passed away.

Foray into feminism

I was well into my career with two young kids at home when I decided to get my Ph.D. Rather than viewing my studies as a career steppingstone, I chose to pursue a doctorate. I wanted to learn how to research like a scholar so that I could learn more about my nana’s life. 

As part of the Ph.D. program, I was required to take a feminist leadership theory class. I had no desire to take it because what I was conditioned to believe feminism stood for was contradictory to what I held to be true. I didn’t know what feminism really meant. I was very close with my father growing up, even though we could not have been more different. As early as I can remember, we would watch the news together. I remember seeing reports of college-aged women marching in the streets in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Watching the news, my father would tell me, “If you do that when you’re in college, I’ll pull you out of school.” My father explained that feminism meant women wanted more rights than men. My early understanding of feminism was very much shaped by him and that bias came with me when I first entered that class at 34 years old.

The first day of class was transformative. I learned about Dr. Carol Gilligan, one of the early founders of feminist leadership theory. I also learned that feminism is an “and” equation and not an “or.” The truth is, feminists believe all humans should have equal access, equal rights, and equal treatment.

I could not help but look at my own workplace and industry with a simple question: “Where are all the women?” I’d spent my career in technology. It dawned on me that I was always the only woman in the room or the first woman in the room. I started doing some more research and found there were only 15 women who held board of director positions in publicly held life sciences and tech businesses – the most technology-intensive industries at the time. Right then, I decided to switch dissertation topics (despite a year and a half building the proposal for my original dissertation focus) and shine a light on the common characteristics and factors of trailblazers – women who got to where so few people go. These incredible women opened my eyes to the concepts of unconscious bias and positive disruption.

The women I studied were amazing. They started industries and created new technologies and business models that continue to shape our lives today. I learned about what they had to do in order to disrupt. Some came from farming families with no business connections. Others went to top-tier schools, but most did not. They had several things in common, including a greater sense of purpose that drove their work and a grit that can only be understood by those in under-represented populations. They understood that power is in the platform, not the position. They leveraged the skills they had and the people they knew to create a better world. They inspired the best-selling book I wrote, and pretty much everything I've done since then. But no one has inspired me and no one has fueled the work I do more than my nana.

Nana’s story

While I was studying these incredible women, I started learning more about my nana. I put my new scholar-level research chops to work. What I found was game-changing for me, my mother, and my sisters. Nana was the youngest of 12 children. Her father was killed before nana was born. Her mother (my great-grandmother) told her children that he was killed by a snake bite. My research led to a far sadder end. My great-grandfather’s demise was not due to a poisonous snakebite; he was killed during the early roundups of scholars. 

At the turn of the century, the Ottoman Empire tried to drive the Armenians from Turkey. The Armenian scholars found out and spread the news in their neighborhoods. When the Ottoman Empire decided to rid Turkey of Armenians in 1915, they removed the barriers that stood in their way the first time. My great-grandfather researched and taught at Euphrates College. He and several of his colleagues were captured by Turkish soldiers and they were never heard from again. My great-grandfather never got to lay eyes on Arshalous. 

When nana was 6 months old, her mother found out the Turkish soldiers were coming to raid the part of Harput where they lived. So she hid nana in a bureau drawer. She hid her second-to-youngest daughter, aged 7 or 8, under floorboards in the house. She told her two oldest daughters, aged 12 and 13, to go the church and pray. And she sent her teenage boys to Mount Ararat to hide along with the other boys in the neighborhood. The boys were told to gather sticks and stones to defend themselves against the soldiers with guns. 

My great-nana ultimately sacrificed her life when she went into the street to distract the soldiers from entering her house. Great-nana was killed and hung just down the street from her home as a symbol. The soldiers burned down the church that my great aunts were in. The girls came running out and were captured. They were given a choice to marry one of the Turkish generals and his brother and their lives would be spared, as would the lives of their family members. So that's what they did. They had to denounce their Christianity – a very big deal for Armenians, who as a people, believe they were the first followers of Christ. But they were able to raise my nana because she was still an infant, and their siblings were able to join the millions of other Armenians as they were marched from Armenia to Syria. It was during that march that 1.5 million Armenians died. My great aunts and uncles were spared and made it to Syria. 

When nana was 4 or 5 years old, her oldest brother, who lived in the United States, sent money via an American missionary to two Turkish brothers to help smuggle my nana and her middle sister out of the complex where they lived. They ended up in a refugee camp in Syria and after that, they went to Lebanon. Eventually, nana was put into the arranged marriage with my grandfather, who was very abusive and really dictated her life. Nana was so quiet, and grandpa was a yeller. 

In my research, I was able to meet some of the children and grandchildren of my nana’s siblings. Many of them told me that their parents said when nana was hidden in that bureau drawer, she didn’t make a sound. It struck me that at the age of 6 months, she learned that in order to stay alive, nana learned that she had to be quiet. All because she had the misfortune of being born an Armenian female in Turkey-Armenia in 1915. Yet, here I am, so fortunate to have been born in the United States. My skin is white. I have a brain that won’t shut off, ears that can’t stop listening, a mouth that won’t keep quiet, and a deep-seeded disdain for antiquated status quos that limit the power of everyone while elevating the power of others.

My purpose

As I learned about these female disrupters, my nana, her sisters, and her mother, I found my purpose: to change the way the world views women who disrupt and how they view themselves. For me, a disrupter is someone who sees a status quo that is inefficient, ineffective, or inequitable in the context in which it resides, and she/he/they can’t stop until a more efficient, more effective, and more equitable status quo is created. I’ve learned in the 15 years since as a D&I expert that when you address systemic bias for one population, other under-represented people benefit because they often face the same biases at the same points of decision.

I came to Workhuman® because we are a company invested in enabling people to leverage their own power. We are in the business of human connection. That connection goes beyond diversity and inclusion. It goes beyond recognition. It's "I see you, you see me," which means I can look in the mirror and say, “I belong here.” Wouldn't it be amazing to raise a generation that believes that, acts like that, works like that? And then what happens? Redemption. Being able to really change, to have that feeling of human connection, and be able to be redeemed. 

When you are a female disrupter, you feel alone. If you are a Black American, you feel alone. If you are a member of any under-represented population, you feel alone. That’s why my life’s work is to grow a platform big enough so the voices that are often unheard can be amplified together toward a common purpose: feeling seen, heard, supported, and embraced. There is no better place for me to do that than Workhuman. Human connection is what will enable the kind of change we all need in this world. 

As I look at the crises we see ourselves in today, I think about my great-nana and how, despite all she was facing, she had hope. In the darkness of the genocide, my nana was named “Dawn” – the hope of a new day. I believe we all have stories to tell, something that brought us here. The more we share, the more we can connect and create a world where all of us can thrive. And the more we can create brighter days, despite the darkness we sometimes have to navigate through to get there. 

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About the Author

Dr. Patti Fletcher

Dr. Patti Fletcher is vice president of brand marketing at Workhuman.

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