Issue 1, 2019. February-March


FROM ABKHAZIA TO DESTINATION 'SUCCESS' celebrates entrepreneurship-and in this issue journalist Tatjana Montik spotlights three Georgian entrepreneurs who have overcome tremendous hardship to create successful businesses in the country.

Nana Arjevanidze, Giorgi Dartsmelia and Maya Kobalia all lost their homes in Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 conflict. Today, all three have created successful businesses by investing their time and talent in Georgia.

Tatjana Montik

Nana Arjevanidze (55), the owner of Demi Catering

Nana Arjevanidze has been in the catering business for over 11 years. "Demi caters only for corporate clients, big organizations, businesses and embassies," Arjevanidze explains. A great achievement, especially if you take into account that she started with nothing. Arjevanidze was born in Abkhazia, in the town of Gagra, and earned her degree in Odessa, the Black Sea port in Ukraine. "After my graduation, I was not at all in a mood to work in my profession. Instead, I was reading books, enjoying life and just dreaming," she says. But then, when the civil war broke out in 1992, everything changed. "Have you ever asked yourself what would you take with you, if someone told you that you have to abandon your home forever within the next 15 minutes? Now, with my experience, I can tell you the answer: you quickly grab all documents, your money and jewelry, and please don't forget your old family photographs carrying your personal history! They are, for that reason, invaluable," she says.

Arjevanidze lost everything due to the war, even her father. At first, she sought to rebuild her life in Israel, where she had friends. But she returned to Tbilisi after just five months.

Even then, she didn't plan on staying. It was a difficult period for Georgia. The country was reeling from the havoc of civil war. Nothing was functioning properly: there was no electricity, no food supply, no gas, no jobs.

But Arjevanidze's aunt mentioned there were good jobs at the Metekhi Hotel.

"So one day, when I was passing by this hotel, I went in in order to ask whether they had a job for me. It was a crazy idea, of course, as I didn't know anyone in that place. But if you don't try, you never have a chance to succeed.

"I had good luck, though, as they had just fired a switchboard operator and were therefore looking for a new one," she recalls.

During her interview with the general manager of the hotel, Arjevanidze impressed her future boss. "When he asked me why I wanted to get this job as a switchboard operator, I replied that I needed not that particular job, but any job. When he asked me what I would choose: a job in the post office or in Metekhi Hotel, I said, I would prefer the job in which the salary would be higher and where the boss would be more intelligent." Arjevanidze worked there for four years, moving up to a position in the accounting department.

In 1997, she left for Moscow, where she first worked in a Marco Polo Hotel. Then she established her own small retail business in a suburb of the Russian capital. She came back to Georgia in 2001, to work at the small Demi Hotel as a night concierge. "After a few months, we agreed that I would rent out his hotel together with another partner in order to run it myself. It was a proper time to do this business. So we were rather successful from the beginning. The other partner left our business pretty soon, though, and I proceeded doing it myself."

Demi Hotel was making a good profit, but the monthly rent was high. So Arjevanidze was interested when one of the hotel's guests told her about his catering business in Yerevan. Eventually she even visited his business in Yerevan to learn more about it.

The idea clicked, and Arjevanidze started her career with a catering job for the German Organization for Economic Cooperation (GEZ).

The event was actually for the launch of the first settlement for IDP families near Gori. Arjevanidze recalls that against all odds-including horrible weather-the event was a success. Perhaps, she jokes, the German ambassador was simply very hungry. In any case, after that, Demi Catering took off.

"The German Embassy started to give us one order after another, and we started catering receptions at the Ambassador's residence. Each time we were getting such an important order, I really thought that it would be our last one. At that time we didn't feel very confident, and we thought that soon everybody would realize that we are just playing a fancy game," she says.

But the orders kept coming. Demi Catering slowly grew, from a single cook, one server and one waiter to a nine-person kitchen staff and four person delivery system.

Eventually Arjevanidze had to leave the hotel business so she could dedicate all her time Demi Catering.

In the first five years, catering felt like a gamble, she said, but the team was inspired and motivated to make it a success.

Today, Arjevanidze says her employees are like a second family.

She is now working at a new project: a stylish café with quite an unusual concept in Tbilisi's Sololaki district.

Giorgi Dartsmelia (41), the co-owner of a Veriko, a successful restaurant in Tbilisi

Giorgi Dartsmelia was born in Sukhumi. "In my childhood, I was always planning to go into business, but I never thought I would ever leave Abkhazia. However, when I was 14 years old, my family, along with many others were, mildly saying, 'asked to leave' due to military actions," Dartsmelia recounts.

Together with his parents, he flew to Tbilisi. He went to school there and afterwards he studied economics at the University of Saint Petersburg in Russia. Twelve years ago, he founded a fashionable cocktail bar there, followed by a Georgian restaurant and an Italian café. Prior to the restaurant industry, he dabbled in the men's fashion retail business.

Despite his success in Russia, Dartsmelia was eager to return to Georgia when the opportunity presented itself. "My school friend Taras Kvaratskhelia called me and suggested that we open a bar in Tbilisi. I liked that idea, but eventually the bar became the restaurant Veriko. However, a wine bar will be our next project," he says, noting that another childhood friend, Mamuka Mamardashvili, joined the project.

Friends from Sukhumi are at the heart of Dartsmelia's project.

"Since we left Sukhumi, we never lost touch. Some of our managers are also from Sukhumi. We call ourselves a Sukhumi gang," he jokes.

We are meeting at Veriko, a cozy place with a pleasant atmosphere: soft sofas, huge contemporary-art paintings on dark-blue walls, chandeliers reflected in huge mirrors and a lot of air and space. Dartsmelia points out that the pieces of art painted by the well-known Sukhumi artists Avtandil and Giorgi Shengelia, all depicting their vision of a girl, Veriko, after whom this restaurant was named.

The restaurant was named "partly because of the fact that we are in Vere district, partly because a famous Georgian actress Veriko Andjaparidze used to live across the road, but generally because this name is just so beautiful and it means 'hope,'" Dartsmelia says, smiling.

Veriko is located in the historic red-brick building of the former First Tbilisi Wine Factory. "We are glad to say that our clients are mostly local Tbiliseli, not only expats and tourists, who appreciate our cuisine," Dartsmelia states proudly.

"I don't like to throw around words like 'success.' In business, the only thing you need is to make an honest, high-quality product. If you do so, you can look into the eyes of your clients and see approval and pleasure there. This you might call success, whereas all stars and ratings don't matter at all," he says.

Is there a difference between doing business in Russia and in Georgia? Dartsmelia believes everyone creates their own success through their actions and the company they keep. "When you work in the right way, setting your tasks properly and controlling them on schedule, you will get a great result.

If an investor says that Georgian people are not reliable, that means that he has lost control. You must be more demanding, you must have stronger control, and you should generally rely only on yourself. To work with other people successfully means being a good psychologist," Dartsmelia advises.

His 'Sukhumi gang' is planning more business endeavors, including a wine bar and a dukhani, i.e. a traditional Tbilisi middle-budget restaurant.

When asked about Abkhazia, Giorgi is not sentimental: "Since my family left it, I have never returned there, although I could have. If I go there, I will return to my home. I don't like to discuss the 'pain' issue. It's just not proper to return home as a guest," he says.

Maya Kobalia (32), Head of the Environmental and Social (E&S) Division, of Crystal Microfinance Organization

Maya Kobalia was born in the Abkhazia capital Sukhumi into the family of a lawyer and an engineer. She does not have many memories of her childhood in Abkhazia, as she was very young when her family was forced to flee from Sukhumi to Tbilisi in 1992.

What she does remember is living in a single 24-square-meter room with her entire family once they settled in Tbilisi.

"In Tbilisi, the four of us lived in a small 24-square-meter room in a former polyclinic that was transformed into a home for displaced families. We spent almost 17 years living there, and this one room served as everything: for sleeping, studying, eating, and receiving guests."

Those years had a profound effect, she says.

"Now I appreciate every little thing that I have in my life, and I don't take anything in my life for granted," Kobalia adds. Kobalia graduated from high school in Tbilisi and went on to get her degree in international relations from Ilia State University, where she also studied English and Polish. She received a scholarship to study in Poland as an exchange student, and then to study at the University of Tartu in Estonia for her Master's degree. A semester at Berlin's Humboldt University followed.

With her international diplomas, Maya did not have too much trouble finding a good job when she got back to Georgia in 2010. In 2011, she started working for the NGO "Georgia Alliance for Safe Roads" as executive director. She became a member of the organization's board of directors in 2018.

"With my colleague, the founder of the organization, Eka Laliashvili, we performed many campaigns for road safety, and we achieved quite a lot," Kobalia states. "Just imagine: in 2011-2014 we had success with the campaign 'Don't drink and drive' in a country which is considered to be the cradle of wine!"

Prior to the campaign, around 9,000 people per year were injured and 600 were killed in road accidents in Georgia. That number is now decreasing, she says.

Since 2012, Kobalia has also been working for Crystal Microfinance Organization, where she is now heading the CSR and Environmental Division. "I had never thought of working for a private business company, as I have never had any interest in the business sector. But this organization is different." Kobalia says.

"We try not to sell fish to my clients, but the knowledge of how to fish," she says.

"At Crystal, I have an amazing opportunity to make a difference in people's lives. I dream of being able to inspire people with all my heart."