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Steve Finlay
Steve Finlay

Once a Child in a Violent Land, Now He’s an American Executive

Serge Vartanov talks his early life, AutoGravity’s progess, fellow Millennials and their impact on businesses’ social responsibility.

As a child in the 1980s, Serge Vartanov escaped a bloody Armenian-Azerbaijan ethnic conflict in which violence was both random and directed.

“Gunmen would board a bus and start shooting people,” Vartanov, now in his 30s, recalls. He was 2 years old when he and surviving members of his family – his mother, grandmother and another relative – immigrated to the then Soviet Union.  (There, Vartanov’s original name was changed to something more Russian rather than the typical “ian” ending of Armenian surnames.)

At age 7, he and his family re-immigrated, this time to the U.S. He eventually settled in Orange County, CA, where today he is chief marketing officer for AutoGravity, a 3-year-old provider of an app that allows automotive consumers to shop for vehicles and arrange Internet financing in minutes.

Although much is done online, users ultimately visit the dealership to wrap things up. “We keep dealers involved, because that’s fundamentally fair,” Vartanov says during a lunch in Royal Oak, MI, a Detroit suburb.

He’s there to talk about AutoGravity’s growth and app improvements to make the online process easier for users.

At the end of 2016, AutoGravity had 100,000 users. Now, it’s 2 million. The surge came largely after the company switched from a catalog format to offering real-time dealer inventories by tapping into dealership management systems. “With that, the used-car side took off,” Vartanov says.  

He says two-thirds of users are, like himself, from Generation Y. The average user age is 31. “They typically are shopping six cars,” he says. The new platform makes it easier to cross-shop rather than start anew to check out another vehicle. (Serge Vartanov, below left) 

Vartanov holds a MBA degree from Harvard University. He once taught school in Hawaii. He speaks fluent Japanese. His YouTube viewing preferences are science and math videos. It’s been said math is hard to learn (and teach) for some people, “but there are great videos out there that make learning math easy,” he says. As a boy, he was a fan of “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”   

Vartanov recently attended a Wall Street Journal executive dinner where three Millennial trends were cited. They stuck with him.

Firstly, Millennials are more likely to switch jobs, unlike previous generations that often settled in as lifers at their places of employment.

Secondly, technology and connectivity today have led to people working during off-hours. “They no longer have a 9-5 mentality where you stop working when your shift ends,” he says.

Thirdly, young employees (and customers) look to their employers to do the right thing corporately and socially. It wasn’t always that way.

Before, companies would shy away from getting involved in social issues. Now, many of them publicly support progressive movements, from gay rights to racial equality. That’s in no small part because their employees, particularly younger ones, expect it of them.

“Those three trends have had a real impact on society,” Vartanov says.

He lives close enough to AutoGravity headquarters to commute by bike. He likes where he lives. Where he originally lived is a harsh but distant memory.

“I identify more with being a Californian than an Armenian,” he says.


TAGS: Dealers
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