Quintessential People

Hagop Soulakian: Staying Connected


by lisa stamos | Photo: thomas balsamo

Hagop Soulakian, or “Hags” as most call him, is the founding teacher of Barrington High School’s INCubatoredu program. Part classroom, and part real-world training, he was the ideal person to lay the foundational curriculum for the new entrepreneurial class. This was his first-ever teaching job after the wild ride of working at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange up until the Great Recession shifted the job to game over: too big of risks for too little reward.

“As the teacher, he was integral to the program launching successfully,” said Margarita Geleske of Uncharted Learning, the program’s licensor. “Hags was the perfect teacher for the inaugural INCubatoredu program. With his experience as a trader at the Mercantile Exchange, Hags was used to organized chaos and ambiguity—great characteristics for the non-traditional teaching style required in INCubatoredu.”

“It means so much to me,” Hags says of the class. “The beauty is that I can be myself. And while I do have to lecture sometimes, the class is mostly action, and I love the excitement,” he said.

Now in its sixth year, the launch of INCubatoredu from Barrington High School has been replicated in well over 100 schools across the country and is now offered in grade and middle schools.

On the personal side, Hagop Soulakian says his life is all about stories. For him, many are tales of second chances, from his mother country finding hope in America, to the unexpected transition from trading to teaching. He even survived a tree trimming accident where his metal trimmer hit a live power line. The trimmer was held by his right arm, which may have saved his life.

Starting Over

The story of the Soulakian family is similar to that of many other families of Armenian descent. Armenia as a country was established in 1991. Prior to that, it was a Soviet Republic. After World War I, Hags’ grandfather was a toddler who witnessed the loss of his own family in the Armenian Genocide, the slaughter of 1.5 million at the hands of the (then) new Ottoman Empire regime. It was 1918, and many Armenians were orphaned, if they were lucky enough to make it. Hags’ grandfather was one of those orphans.

A desire to keep the Armenian heritage, culture, and tradition alive is the driving force behind Hags’ prominent role in his thriving Armenian community. “Talk to anyone my age, and they all have a similar story,” he said. “Our country was broken apart. They took our land and treasure. They killed our people just because they were Armenian. I’ve never seen my grandfather smile in any family photos. His personal losses were catastrophic.”

Hags’ grandparents met in Amman, Jordan. His mom arrived in the United States in 1959 from Amman, and his dad in 1970 from Beirut, Lebanon. They married in 1971. Hags grew up around parents who were active in their church and stayed close to relatives, fostering holiday traditions. Keeping the family’s traditions alive was a high priority for their family, a tradition Hags and wife Arpik maintain. Today, Armenia is re-establishing itself in the Middle East. The families who moved here made sure their people had a second chance.

Hags grew up in Bartlett, Illinois, and enjoyed the freedom of days past, when children could be out all day without the concern of parents. His good-natured character and ease of connecting with others stems from Elgin High School. “The best thing from high school was that we learned how to get along with so many kinds of people. There was diversity. No one judged others for their skin color or ethnicity. It was about who you were,” Hags said.

Hags was a good student up until high school, when he found the relationship work-around with teachers and other students preferable to studying and doing homework. He admits that he hadn’t learned how to learn. After a brief time at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his social life eclipsed his studies, he was recruited by North Central College in Naperville, where a cousin attended school. With a 1.8 grade average, Hags’ strategy was to take three out of four classes in gym to bring up his grades to qualify for baseball. It worked.

He graduated and took a job as a runner for a firm at the Mercantile Exchange in Chicago. After the recession hit, he called it quits. It was his wife, a kindergarten and 1st-grade teacher, who saw Hags’ potential in her profession. “She said to me, ‘you love working with our church youth groups, you love business, and you played baseball’. I would never have thought of that,” Hags said.

Hags signed up for classes at Roosevelt in Schaumburg, noticing he was not a typical student. His teacher intercepted him from quitting. By staying the course, he worked his way to a teaching degree and did the required student teaching. After a few heartfelt job offers, Hags ended up at Barrington High School where he found an old connections on staff from his Elgin days, Charles Wells, and Coach Joey Sanchez from North Central College.

He immediately felt at home. The man who didn’t know how to learn turned that around, and now teaches students not only how to learn, but how to build a business enterprise and work with professionals from the community.

Hags enjoys seeing the benefits his student’s experience from the INCubatoredu class he teaches. “The students tell me they’ve learned how to listen to others outside their own social groups, and they have much more intrapersonal confidence,” Hags said.

The students learn how to be ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable’, he says. Perhaps that skill comes directly from their teacher, who knows something about taking chances.

Here are some words that others shared about Hagop Soulakian.

Monty Bauer, Friend

I have known Hags for the past six years through the INCubatoredu program at BHS. I have been a part of the program as a volunteer in the roles of mentor, coach, and most recently community champion, connecting the program to the community and cultivating and developing volunteers to support Hags in the classroom.

Hags would tell you the students make this program what it is, but they wouldn’t have achieved what they have without him. That goes not only for the BHS students, but also for the success of the INCubatoredu program and the schools and students nationwide that have adopted the curriculum. The program itself is based on real-world experiences and the development of life skills for the students. Hags brings his own experiences in business to the classroom to inspire and challenge his students to thrive in the environment.

Hags approaches every one, both students and adults, with a disarming humility and level of energy that draws them in. He shows a degree of respect for his students that they immediately reciprocate with. I marvel at this! This inspires tremendous confidence in his students to embrace the concept of “failing fast”, learning from those experiences, and applying them to “grow forward” in the program and more importantly, in life.

Lastly, on a personal note, I credit Hags for helping me discover the “life-long learner” inside of me and for that I will be forever thankful.

Margarita Geleske, Chief Evangelist at Uncharted Learning, NFP

I have been fortunate to work with Hags Soulakian through the INCubatoredu entrepreneurship program at Barrington High School. As the teacher, he was integral to the program launching successfully. Hags was the perfect teacher for the inaugural INCubatoredu program. With his experience as a trader at the Mercantile Exchange, Hags was used to organized chaos and ambiguity—great characteristics for the non-traditional teaching style required in INCubatoredu.

Hags patiently helps students develop their business models and work through team dynamics. He is not shy about sharing “real-world” perspectives and motivating students to dig deeper and work through tough problems. Every time INC alumni return to Hags’ class room, it is like watching a family reunion. “Hags!” really means “Dad!”

Hags is also a terrific colleague. Teachers new to the INCubatoredu community value his experience and encouragement. His energy is infectious.

Michael Miles, INCubatoredu Colleague and Friend

Hag’s is a shining example of a teacher who has a lasting impact on the students who enroll in his class. The title, Teacherpreneur best describes Hag’s work—constantly sharing best practices with other teachers, building relationships with professionals in the community to keep his course exciting and engaging, genuinely caring about student outcomes, and never allowing his classroom experience to become a boring routine. Visit his Incubator (a.k.a. classroom) and it is not uncommon to see former students reconnecting with Hags, current students stopping by on open periods, and adult mentors meeting with students who are launching new businesses. Hags is the ringleader of this dynamic learning environment. His humor, energy, and passion to make a difference is a gift to all involved.

John Roncone, Social Studies Dept. Chair at BHS

Hagop works in our department and I am also the boys’ varsity tennis coach, so we both coach athletics in the building. Hagop is genuine and his students can sense that when they are around him. He cares about them, he cares about what they are trying to accomplish, and he uses a ‘force of personality’ (so to speak) to make entrepreneurship very real and very engaging. I cannot think of another teacher who’d be as effective in our Incubator and Accelerator courses. Hagop’s ability to take his prior life experiences and blend them with sound educational practices to create real-life challenges for our students has made our approach to entrepreneurial classes an example for schools around the nation.

Arpik Soulakian, Wife

Hagop and I have been married for 19 years in May. I’ve known him since I was 19 and he was 22. We have two girls, 15 and 12.

Hagop has always had a presence. He becomes the life of any room he is in. This is known by his friends, family, co-workers, and church community. Hagop and I are Armenian. We belong to an Armenian church community in Glenview and Hagop has taken on every leadership role at our church and the community groups amongst it. He currently is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of our church. He also does not take on a role if he knows he cannot give it 100 percent. This is also obvious in his teaching.

Teaching is his second career. He actually was hesitant to go back to school and become a teacher. I had to push him and encourage him because I know his passionate personality could reach so many students. I also knew he would enjoy coaching baseball which he was able to do after he started teaching at Barrington. I know he needed to coach because having three girls in the house, I knew he needed some testosterone around him to balance out all the female energy in our home! Hagop struggled with this decision to go into teaching because he was unsure. He didn’t want to do it until he knew he could be successful. One day, during this transition, he realized that this was what he was meant to do and since then, he has made every effort to be the best teacher he could be.

Ara Surenian, Colleague

I have known Hagop since 1989. He and I have worked closely for many years to support our church and Armenian community.

The best thing that happened to Hagop was the recession that started in 2007 which forced his hand from being a floor trader to becoming a teacher. When I learned of his decision to make a career change, I could not think of a better career for someone with his personality. A personality full of passion, energy, and a willingness to share his many stories. He is a person that can drop a sports anecdote on a dime and communicates with such energy that even stories I have heard one hundred times remain entertaining.

I consider him the mayor of our church and of the Armenian community since he garners so much respect and love. Of course, it does not hurt that he is related to more than half of our parishioners. Hagop is magnetic and unselfish. He is well-deserving of this recognition and I am proud to consider him a great friend and colleague. Barrington High School is fortunate to have him.

LeeAnn Taylor, Director of Fiscal Services in Barrington 220

I have known Hagop for six years. I hired him during the 2nd semester of the ‘12-‘13 school year. I was the department chair for BHS Applied Arts at the time. We were looking for a dynamic individual to help us write the curriculum and launch the Incubator program which would begin at BHS in the Fall of 2013. 

I remember the day Hags walked in for his interview. He was “low tech” as he entered the room with a yellow pad and pen, admitting he didn’t have much of a background in technology. Minutes into the interview, I knew the “low tech” individual in front of me would be an incredible mentor to BHS students and champion for our new program. Hags struck me as a lifelong learner, willing to pivot and change, willing to adapt. The Incubator curriculum needed a teacher who would forever be a student, and that describes Hagop perfectly! Months of perfecting his lessons, constant questioning, and improvement. Although I no longer work with him daily, he will still call me to vet an idea or talk about the celebrations in his classroom. He is truly a dedicated and influential member of the Barrington community.

Dr. Hovig Vartanian, Friend

Hagop and I have been friends since we were in the same youth group. Also, I serve as a Board of Trustee along with Hagop at Armenian All Saints Church. We are also on the steering committee for the same youth group for the yearly Olympics that is taking place this year in Chicago.

Hagop has a special gift of being a leader of a group, but also treating you as an equal. Every project or event that I have been involved in, he plays the pivotal role of bringing people together and getting everyone involved. He also sets the example by walking the walk. He gets his hands dirty, as well as handles the complex issues. He is truly a valuable asset to our community. Although I don’t know him in his capacity as teacher, I can imagine that he’s getting those students to give their all.

Pat Wire, Friend and Colleague

I’m the Head Baseball Coach at Barrington High School. Anyone who knows Hags knows he’s the life and energy of the room. He’s someone you could spend hours talking to, but it would only feel like the discussion lasted several minutes. Hags loves his ‘80s music and you may get him dancing or singing to hits by the following groups: New Edition, New Order, or Depeche Mode. He is a wonderful teacher, coach, friend, father, and husband. Hags is an absolute pleasure to be around.

Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in our community. For more information, contact QB at publisher@qbarrington.com, or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits By Thomas) at 847-381-7710, or visit www.portraitsbythomas.com.

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Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in our community. For more information, contact QB at publisher@qbarrington.com, or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits By Thomas) at 847-381-7710, or visit www.portraitsbythomas.com.