GIP Turkey Recap: Our Recommendations and Tips

First day in Istanbul at the Blue Mosque.  Photo courtesy of Sarah Sung '15.
First day in Istanbul at the Blue Mosque. Photo courtesy of Sarah Sung ’15.

Sitting back in a classroom on Columbia’s campus, it’s nice to think how only two weeks ago a group of us were cutting across Istanbul as we headed from one meeting to the next. We recently presented our findings and recommendations that we will soon be incorporating into a paper to share with the stakeholders we met during our week in Istanbul. It was not only an exciting opportunity to have visited the city and meet with these business leaders, but even more exciting to know that we also have the chance to potentially help shape the future of Turkey’s startup ecosystem through our recommendations.

Here are some of the major takeaways we had:

  • The government is clearly doing a lot in a top-down approach to incentivize greater activity in this space including providing tax-free funding for VCs raising capital, and funding for universities to create incubators and teknoparks. While these are all great initiatives, there seems to be a lack of understanding the effectiveness of these programs.Moreover, after speaking to deserving entrepreneurs, many do not qualify for the government programs and find them to be only great on paper and not beneficial. To initially address this issue, many of us believe that the government should use metrics to assess what programs actually have impact and have created successful startups.
  • Mentorship is lacking in Turkey’s startup ecosystem. There are not yet enough success stories to encourage entrepreneurship in the country, but more importantly, there are not enough successful entrepreneurs to mentor the next generation. One recommendation is to pair up successful Turkish-American entrepreneurs with those in Turkey. (Even Columbia University has thought of organizing this, but more of these connections need to happen.)
  • There needs to be more women in entrepreneurship. We learned a staggering statistic that only 10% of the country’s entrepreneurs are women. From both speaking to women entrepreneurs and research, women feel like they face additional hurdles because of a cultural resistance to women in the workforce. One recommendation is to encourage more women at a younger age to learn STEM subjects. Another would be to teach entrepreneurship to girls (and boys) in high school so that everyone has an opportunity to develop these skills at younger age.

Not to forget, this was also a Columbia Business School Global Immersion trip, which meant we had the chance to experience the city. Here are some tips and advice from our travels:

  • Taxis are notorious for scamming tourists. The most common trick is for the customer to hand over a 50 TL bill and the driver switches it to a 5 TL bill and says you paid a 5TL. Clearly count your money and remember what bills you used when you hand it over to the driver. We also saw cab drivers with rigged meters, but you should always ask your driver to turn on the meter when you get into the car. If you feel like you have been scammed, take a picture of the taxi’s license plate and report it to the police. While you may not get your money back, the police will go after these taxi gangs and help prevent future tourists from being scammed.
  • Definitely go get a fish sandwich underneath the Galata Bridge! They cook the fish and make the sandwiches on the boats and serve them for 6 TL each. You will NOT regret it!
  • Turkish bath is a MUST do, but know that you will become very close friends with the people you go with!

If you have any recommendations for Turkey’s startup ecosystem or if you have traveled to Istanbul before and want to share tips, feel free to do so in the comments section!

Thanks to Professor Jack McGourty and a big thanks to our classmate Saruhan and his wife, Seda, for making this a memorable highlight in our CBS experience!

A favorite hangout spot and pastime for locals...hookah!
A favorite hangout spot and pastime for locals…hookah!
Enjoying the fish sandwiches under the Galata Bridge.
Enjoying the fish sandwiches under the Galata Bridge.
Getting some Turkish Delights to bring home as souvenirs at the Spice Bazaar.
Getting some Turkish Delights to bring home as souvenirs at the Spice Bazaar.
Enjoying the view with CBS alumnus at Turkven.
Enjoying the view with a CBS alumnus at Turkven.
Catching a boat ride to dinner at a restaurant on its own island.
Catching a boat ride to dinner at a restaurant on its own island.
Learning all about safety at successful airline startup, Pegasus! Photo courtesy of Nabila Ahmed '15.
Learning all about safety at successful airline startup, Pegasus! Photo courtesy of Nabila Ahmed ’15.
If things were to go wrong, how to evacuate.
If things are to go wrong, how to evacuate.
Enjoying a favorite local dish, İskender kebap.
Enjoying a favorite local dish, İskender kebap.
Getting ready for a meeting at the Columbia Global Center - Turkey.
Getting ready for a meeting at the Columbia Global Center – Turkey.
A panel of entrepreneurs organized by Endeavor.
A panel of entrepreneurs organized by Endeavor.
Beautifully preserved Topkapi Palace is a must see!
Beautifully preserved Topkapi Palace is a must see! Photo courtesy of Sarah Sung ’15.

Celebrating a successful week at our reception dinner with our local tour guide.

Celebrating a successful week at our reception dinner with our local tour guide.

Some fashionable CBS students waiting to hear the presentation by ecommerce Markafoni.
Some fashionable CBS students waiting to hear the presentation by ecommerce Markafoni.
Until next time, Istanbul!
Until next time, Istanbul!

Under Addressed Issue in Turkey

An issue that I am personally interested in is increasing the number of women in the startup ecosystem, specifically as a woman entrepreneur and investor. The lack of women in these areas is considered a systemic challenge in the United States. There are countless articles, academic research, and personal anecdotes that support the need for more women entrepreneurs and VCs.

So it was definitely interesting to explore this issue in Turkey’s ecosystem. During our week’s worth of meetings with various stakeholders, we discovered that the same issue exists in Turkey, but with some notable differences. While more still needs to be done in the U.S., at least this is a recognized issue…by the majority of sane Americans. On the other hand, the discussion about needing more women in startups is often glossed over.

We don’t even have good entrepreneurs, so why would we consider the lack of women in entrepreneurship a problem? This was a frank response to a question I asked a Turkish VC about what percentage of their deal flow comes from women founded startups given the government funding that has gone to support women entrepreneurs. Though I understand the immature stage at which the Turkish startup ecosystem is at the moment, I had hoped that the Turkey could begin addressing and taking more action around this challenge so that it would not develop into the same situation that the U.S. currently is in.

Diving deeper into the underlying causes of this, what exists in Turkey is a cultural mindset about women in general. A few months ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke at an international conference on justice and rights for women where he stated that men and women cannot be placed on equal footing. Furthermore, Turkey ranks 125th out of 142 countries on gender equality as assessed by the World Economic Forum in 2014.

Clearly the lack of women in the Turkish startup ecosystem stems from much larger issues bout the perception of women in the country. But things, as we saw, are slowly changing. When we spoke to a CBS alumna at a well-regarded consulting firm, she mentioned that the women in the workplace are very ambitious and she had not faced any challenges. We also met a woman entrepreneur who founded a VC backed startup on our last day. She was positive about more women in startups as she is constantly asked to provide mentorship to other women entrepreneurs. There is a lot to be positive about when there are such incredible role models for others!

Old and New: Istanbul at the Cross Section of Time

It’s officially Day 2 of our Global Immersion in Istanbul and our group of 40 has done so much already! Many of us arrived a day early and had the opportunity to tour the city. While catching up on each other’s winter break stories, we walked through ancient structures that date back as far as 500 AD. Our group looked up in awe at the magnificent domes covered with intricate blue and gold painted tiles in the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. Not to be overlooked, the Hagia Sophia stands directly across the Blue Mosque to create the most visited area in the Old City. Standing between these two iconic sites, I couldn’t help but wonder, how did people back then build all of this?

The admiration extended into the first official day of our program. Boston Consulting Group welcomed us into its Istanbul office and provided us with a very insightful overview of Turkey’s current economic situation. We were then whisked away to Fit Startup Factory, one of the first startup incubators in Turkey. As we learned more about the resources made available to entrepreneurs in the last few years, it was incredible to hear how much Turkey has changed.

Yet at the same time, Turkey still seems to have a lot of catching up to do. From the discussions in our meetings, the biggest hurdle facing entrepreneurship in Turkey is the people’s mindset that stems from an older generation. Parents have instilled in their children an aversion to taking on the risks of starting their own companies; rather children are encouraged to find a stable corporate job in which they have a predictable salary. This sentiment was reinforced when we spoke to entrepreneurs at Boğaziçi University’s incubator today.

It will be interesting to see what else we will learn as we continue to explore and analyze the startup scene in Istanbul in the coming days. Oh, but don’t worry, we will of course enjoy as much as the city has to offer in true CBS fashion. Follow our journey at #GIPTurkey and other amazing CBS Chazen trips on #cbschazentravel on social media!

Turkish Delights at the Spice Bazaar
Turkish Delights at the Spice Bazaar

Starting 2015 with Startups in Turkey!

Deb Li ’15

I love traveling to explore new cultures and meet new people. This is probably typical of most MBA students (and evident from this blog). As a co-founder of a startup, the co-president of Lions Lab, which is the Columbia Business School student accelerator, and an investment partner on Dorm Room Fund, I am also passionate about startups. This is why I enrolled in Global Immersion: Exploring Turkey’s Startup Culture.

When thinking about a startup culture in a country, there are many factors to consider. In my travels and meetings with entrepreneurs around the world, there is always a local element that makes each country, even city different. But what has been consistently the same is the growth and energy for startups around the world. Even last week, when I was in Hong Kong, I saw signs around the business district for a recently passed venture forum called I also met with two entrepreneurs who told me about the new government and corporate initiatives to support startups, such as the Blueprint accelerator and co-working space hosted by Swire, one of the largest corporations in Hong Kong.

This makes me even more excited for Istanbul in a few weeks. During our six week classroom component of the course that leads up to our visit, we explored how in the past few years, Turkey’s startup scene has grown and evolved. For example, this past November, the government supported a financial initiative to encourage more women entrepreneurs in Turkey. In the course, we were reminded to take into account each country’s differences and how this influences its startup culture. We used a framework that analyzes a country’s human capital, R&D, financial capital, industrial base, physical infrastructure, legal/government policies, quality of life and support networks.

The framework allowed us to dive deeper into country specific issues. One such issue that resonated with me is Turkey’s position at the cross-section between Europe and the Middle East and how it has shaped its politics. Our Turkish classmates mentioned to us that a few years ago, the popular sentiment was to join the European Union, but now it has shifted to align more with the Middle East. If I were an entrepreneur in Turkey, these political changes are important to keep in mind when I think about which market I would want to develop for and where to expand. And as an investor, there would be different risks associated with each situation that I would need to consider.

I know my fellow classmates and I are looking forward to discussing these and many other issues with stakeholders on our visit to Istanbul starting on January 18th. Stay tuned for updates during our trip!