Young, female, CEO: The new entrepreneurs of Turkey

Turkish entrepreneurs Zeynep Sener (l) and Zeynep Dagli.
Turkish entrepreneurs Zeynep Sener, left, and Zeynep Dagli.
Credit: Elisabeth Braw/Metro

Though they’re still in their 20s, Zeynep Sener and Zeynep Dagli are successful entrepreneurs. Specifically, they’re successful female entrepreneurs in Turkey, which has recently made headlines for altogether different, and rather undemocratic, reasons.

“There are already mobile wallets in Turkey, offered by specific banks for their customers, but nothing available to all the 67 million mobile phone users here,” explained Sener, co-founder of the company Mobile Express. “If you see an ad for something, you can immediately buy it with your phone, or text us the code number if you don’t have a smartphone.”

Mobile wallets are, of course, long-established. “But that’s why I wanted to do it here,” said Sener. “Silicon Valley is already doing it big time. The opportunities are better here because the population is young, growing and not everything has been done before.”

Dagli, a former JP Morgan banker in London whose employee-recognition firm Momento has quickly grown to a staff of 10, agrees: “I could never have done this in the UK. Doing it in Turkey gives me a huge advantage.”

In truth, when it comes to female entrepreneurship, with only 10 percent of new companies being led by women, Turkey still lags far behind the developed world. But, says 28-year-old company founder Reyhan Cepik, the situation is changing quickly: “Turkish society is based on men, but the government has started a new program to support young female entrepreneurs. The situation is OK now, but five-10 years ago that was not the case.”

Cepik’s company, Fırsat Bu Fırsat, functions as a speed-dating platform for small companies.

And the companies are often started by ambitious young women who, just like Sener, Cepik and Degli, deliberately have chosen to return from work and study abroad because they see more chances at home.

“My business idea is OK for Turkey, not for France,” explained 26-year-old Eda Gunay, the French-educated CEO and founder of the well-being website Uplifers. “And in Turkey, people are trying to promote women in order to fix the gender imbalance. In France, men and women are already equal, so as a woman, I wouldn’t get any special support. Here, when I ask for help, they all say, ‘You’re a young woman trying to do something. That’s great; we’ll help you.’”

And sometimes, the worlds of the young female bosses and the pro-democracy protests do collide. For two months during the Taksim Square unrest, advertisers were on edge and Gunay lost all advertising revenue. But now, she says, business is up.

U.S., Australia best for female entrepreneurs

The best places to be a female entrepreneur are the U.S., Australia and Germany, according to the GEDI female entrepreneurship index, published this summer. Dell, the computer company, which carried out the survey, found that higher economic development doesn’t lead to more female-led companies. Japan, for example, has one of the world’s highest GDP/capita but few female managers. That has resulted in only 9 percent of new companies being led by women. By contrast, women lead 43 percent of new companies in the U.S. Uganda gets the bottom rank in GEDI’s 17-country survey.

Q&A with Sahver Binici, CEO of Olivita Soaps

Is now a good time to be a female entrepreneur in Turkey?

The good news is that the economy is doing very well. And Turkish people are really entrepreneurial, but usually they don’t have the means to expand. And in terms of funding, Turkey is nothing like the U.S., for example. It’s very hard for any entrepreneur, whether male or female, to get funding. But compared to 10 years ago, things are improving rapidly.

Why do well-educated young Turks return to start companies at home?

I’m a Turkish-American, and I run my company in both countries. I could easily work for a big company in the U.S. and earn much more money, but I feel that I have more value here. My company makes unique olive oil personal care products, and I employ single mothers who don’t have an education. Where would they work otherwise?



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