Female Entrepreneurs Make Some Advances in Turkey

 

By Katie Nadworny August 22, 2019
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​When Meltem Tepeler started her company KM Events in Istanbul in 1995, she knew she was onto something big. Planning destination weddings in Turkey for couples coming from abroad and hosting events was barely done at the time.

"When I started 25 years ago, there were only two or three ladies doing this job," she said. "I thought, 'This is a big business! Why aren't they doing this as a real company?' "

Tepeler trusted her instincts, quit her job in environmental chemistry and started her company. "I didn't find the job," she said, "the job found me."

Tepeler is part of an ongoing wave of growing entrepreneurship among women in Turkey. But a study commissioned by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development notes that female entrepreneurs have less access to capital and training than their male counterparts.

Organizations are working to fill that gap and encouraging women who want to become entrepreneurs, as well as those who have already started their own companies.

"[Our] association's aim is to empower women … and to support them in any way that's possible," said Pınar Akalın, a board member of the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey, known there as Kagider. "The association actually leads the government to create policies or laws for the benefit of women."

Investment Is Key

Akalın benefited from government incentives when she began her company Sentromer in Turkey in 2009. A molecular biologist, she launched her biochemistry company, which synthesizes DNA sequences, after working in the U.S for many years. Sentromer was the first company of its kind in Turkey.

"What actually brought me to start my own company was that there were a lot of new grants offered by the Turkish government in 2008," Akalın said.

Access to capital is a key factor that allows women to start their own businesses throughout the world—and lack of capital can be a significant barrier. A study from Unilever Foundry found that 42 percent of female startup founders named funding as one of the main challenges to starting their businesses. According to Forbes, male entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom (U.K.) are 86 percent more likely to secure venture capital funding compared to their female counterparts. Perhaps this is why the U.K. has twice as many male entrepreneurs as female ones.

Gradual Success

Tepeler's road to a successful business was a long one. She started throwing small parties and events for friends and other acquaintances in her network. Eventually, she realized she should be paid for her work.

"Why should I not open a company? This is like a business," Tepeler thought.

She launched her business in 1995, but it took nine years before a pivotal event raised the profile of KM Events.

"In 2004, I was hosting George [W.] Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, [Gerhard] Schröder, and many other presidents from around the world in Istanbul in Topkapı Palace," Tepeler said. The occasion was the NATO Summit, and it led to worldwide recognition for her company.

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Tepeler came to Kagider at a time in her professional life when the isolation of entrepreneurship was weighing on her. "I felt very lonely, because everybody my age [was] either working professionally, or they were teachers, or they were officers in [a] bank," Tepeler said. "Nobody was opening a business; nobody had the struggles that I had."

A fellow businesswoman, Suzan Sabancı, recommended that Tepeler accompany her to a Kagider meeting. Though some women use the organization for networking or professional development, Tepeler benefited most from the support of similarly ambitious women.

"It helped me to see many more women like me," she said.

Challenges as Economic Crisis Worsens

Women in Turkey are still starting businesses of all sizes, though the current economic climate poses challenges. "We are in a huge crisis," said Gamze Küçükay, founder of Halükar Mimarlık, a boutique architecture and design company. Küçükay started her company in 2012 has had success designing modern spaces throughout Istanbul and Turkey.

The process of starting Halükar Mimarlık was fairly simple: "For the little companies like us, it's very easy," Küçükay said. "You find an accountant, and you show an address and pay a fee, and in one week you can have your own company."

However, as Turkey's economic crisis worsens, Küçükay is finding that the materials she needs to do her work are becoming prohibitively expensive, making it harder to make a decent profit.

Still, Tepeler encourages young entrepreneurs like Küçükay to continue to follow their passions. "I always advise young entrepreneurs not to copy anyone," Tepeler said. "If you have a dream, run after your dream. Never listen to anyone if you are really passionate about what you will do.

We [business owners] are free. We bought our freedom. Nobody hired us from 9 to 5. This is the greatest thing," Tepeler said with a smile. "I'm my own boss. Nobody can rule me."

Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul. 

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