Despite being from very different industries and walks of life, all these ladies have their core values in common: they prioritise others, especially other women; they believe in the power of education and mentorship; they have a profound sense of community even with those they have never met; and they believe in making the world a better place. So, Dalia Mortada asks, who are these remarkable women of Istanbul?
Sure we can!
When Bedriye Hülya started b-fit, she was already a successful entrepreneur with a long track record, but this project provided her with a whole new purpose. ‘Until b-fit, I didn’t know I needed any reward beyond money,’ she says.
A space for low- and middle-income women to comfortably exercise and encourage one another to get healthy, b-fit is a venture that was born out of necessity, as the few exercise spaces that did exist were high-end and out of reach for most Turkish women. Going beyond empowering women through exercise, b-fit’s franchise model has inspired middle-income women to become independent business owners.
‘I think they are all heroes,’ Hülya says of the women who start their own b-fit centres. She explains that, because these women come from struggling towns with very traditional values, they are often held back by their husbands, brothers and even their mothers when they want to open their own businesses. ‘Even if a b-fit franchise owner doesn’t have the support system she needs at home to start this business, what makes her a hero is that she pushes through it.’
Hülya and 24 other women at the headquarters in Istanbul (including her sister) head up the organisation. ‘Our management system is very flat,’ Hülya says in describing the hierarchy in the office. While she may be the founder of b-fit, she and her team work equally to support the franchise owners and club members to meet their needs. ‘We are a community, and the women I work with are my family,’ she says. It’s standard practice for someone in accounting to lend a listening ear to a franchise owner who couldn’t make her payment on time because of an ailing parent or an unexpected abortion. The conversations get very personal and emotional. ‘It can be difficult, but this is what we’re here for,’ she says with a smile.
The inspiration to start b-fit came from a personal place. Hülya had been in a serious car accident in her late teens and lived on crutches for two years – a circumstance that determined where she could attend university based on the availability of ramps. Despite the hardship, she confesses she ‘became a much stronger person’. She studied business administration in Izmir, although her love of psychology led to her entrepreneurial streak. Eventually, in her late 30s, she earned a Masters in psychology from the City University of New York, where she found the inspiration for b-fit. By using a similar women’s-only facility, Hülya saw the need for such a space in Turkey. Her life experience then led her full circle to the most meaningful project she has ever undertaken.
It was not until after she turned 40 that Hülya founded b-fit, and despite some scepticism she encountered for starting a new venture at her age, the support has been overwhelming, and she wants to share that with her franchise owners. ‘We never think about age: we have franchisees who are 60 and franchisees who are 20,’ she proudly explains. ‘As long as she is going to love what she does, any woman is more than welcome to start a franchise.’
The other condition for a b-fit franchise is an emphasis on healthy body image. ‘We forbid mirrors because we don’t want women looking [in them] and saying, “Oh, I look terrible,”’ Hülya says. Scales and measuring tapes also have no place in a b-fit facility. The use of women’s bodies as sexual objects in advertisements is unacceptable and neutral language is used to talk about women’s health and weight. ‘We do not talk about diets; we talk about healthy eating,’ Hülya explains.
She chalks up her work ethic to her parents, who have always served as her role models. ‘My parents had a very equal relationship: if Mum got home early, she cooked dinner, and if Dad got home early, he cooked dinner,’ Hülya reflects on her childhood. ‘It was never a question of whether she would work; it was just the norm. The same went for me.’ And she would like the same to be possible for any woman who wants to work, whether through b-fit or otherwise.
The organisation has existed for seven years, and will strive for many more. ‘I find myself complete now,’ Hülya gushes. ‘I love what I do. I love it.’
As the managing director of Endeavor in Turkey, Didem Altop confesses that her career isn’t all that different from a doctor or a computer programmer. ‘You know when you’re at a cocktail party and someone comes up to you and asks, “Hey doc, there’s something wrong with my finger, what should I do?” It’s kind of like that, and I love it,’ she says.
Altop believes that achieving a balance of work and personal life is difficult ‘when you’re on a mission you believe in’, which for her is working with Endeavor, an organisation dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs whose business ideas would create hundreds, even thousands of jobs in a developing economy, generating substantial income from revenues and wages. In Turkey, Endeavor has supported success stories like yemeksepeti.com, Airties, Dükkan Burger and even b-fit.
‘Endeavor is not responsible for these businesses’ success,’ Altop notes. ‘These businesses already showed promise or are doing well. We just help them gain momentum.’ Endeavor’s aim is to make a stressful process a little less so by connecting entrepreneurs to the right resources. In return, these business owners spread Endeavor’s mission of high-impact entrepreneurship.
It’s easy to see why Altop would be so dedicated to her work as she excitedly describes the perks of working at Endeavor and the road that led her there. Born and raised in the US, Altop came to Turkey in 1995 for a three-week business trip, which turned into a five-year assignment with the Turkish Air Force. During this time, she also became the youngest person to join the Educational Volunteers Foundation of Turkey (TEGV) and develop a five-year capacity-building campaign. ‘What started out as a hobby became my next career move,’ Altop reflects. When her assignment came to a close, she decided to stay in Turkey and work on helping non-profits establish themselves and create a corporate social responsibility programme.
Since joining Endeavor in 2006, she has drawn on her own experience with mentorship to understand its value for Endeavor entrepreneurs. ‘If my life has been blessed in any way it’s been blessed with mentorship,’ she reflects. ‘Whenever you’re mentoring anybody it’s a win-win situation.’ And that is exactly how it works at Endeavor: while board members and mentors provide entrepreneurs with advice on financial literacy and advertising campaigns, entrepreneurs bring creativity and knowledge about the latest goings-on in the digital world.
Altop is also happy about the number of entrepreneurial women working with her at Endeavor. In a business world where men make up three-fourths of the industry, at least one-third of Endeavor’s entrepreneurs are women. Altop says this is because women have been flourishing in the non-profit segment, where they can have rigorous and fulfilling careers.
In any case, entrepreneurship takes a great deal of energy. ‘Whenever you’re starting up any of these initiatives, you need to think about the big picture. It needs to be a labour of love,’ she says.
Melek Pulatkonak, Nilüfer Durak, Elif Tukin Oygur
Little did Melek Pulatkonak and Nilüfer Durak know when they met in New York in the 1990s that they would end up establishing an international network for Turkish women decades later. Pulatkonak is the founder of the Turkish Women’s International Network (TurkishWIN) while her good friend Durak is among the advisory board members. ‘This is not a one-person job,’ Pulatkonak emphasises when talking about establishing TurkishWIN, an exclusive network dedicated to connecting and supporting Turkish women worldwide.
The bond these women seek to create through TurkishWIN is clearly evident in what Pulatkonak and Durak have with one another. ‘Women and men come to TurkishWIN events seeking meaning in their lives and hoping to become inspired,’ Pulatkonak explains, referring to the TEDx-style conferences TurkishWIN hosts. ‘When you inject that inspiration into the people in a way they have never seen before it really does wonders,’ Durak continues.
The timing was perfect, both in Pulatkonak’s life and in the world of online networking, for TurkishWIN to flourish. In 2011, Pulatkonak left her role as President and COO of hakia.com, a start-up search engine based out of New York, to move to Turkey for a high-level position at Microsoft. At the same time, social and professional networks were thriving online. ‘There were really strong winds and all we needed was a windmill to generate electricity,’ Durak says. ‘TurkishWIN was that windmill.’ Now, just 18 months since its inception in Turkey, TurkishWIN has hundreds of members, thousands of online viewers watching their live-stream talks and one very dedicated Executive Director, Elif Tukin Oygur, who is the only full-time TurkishWIN staff member. ‘Every day, I have the chance to meet amazing women from different fields – their creativeness, flexibility and positive approach to problems make the world a more liveable place,’ Oygur reflects.
Pulatkonak and Durak’s decades-long friendship has been accentuated by a history of mentorship, as both women have taken on teenage mentees from central and eastern Anatolia, a role that led to Pulatkonak’s desire to establish TurkishWIN in the first place. ‘Having been raised in Istanbul and living abroad for so long, I learned so much about my country from [my mentee] Leyla,’ she explains. ‘We could only speak over the phone. I learned she couldn’t even go to an internet café in the village where she’s from because it’s not safe for a young woman.’
She learned through Leyla how mutually beneficial a mentoring relationship can be and established the pillars of TurkishWIN based on their experience together. Upheld by the values of curiosity, generosity, courage and transparency, the network has been growing rapidly, with numerous programmes in place from CampusWIN, which connects members with young female leaders on campuses, to WIN-WIN, which creates links between businesses abroad and those in Turkey. For example, TurkishWIN partnered international microlender KIVA with Turkish microcredit platform Kerev. No matter the relationship, the power of mentoring is undeniable. As Oygur points out, ‘having the chance to be guided by the right mentor can enrich one’s life and lead her to the right place to enjoy her work and her life at the same time.’
Kacie Lyn Kocher, Ezgi Çinçin, Nihan Güneli
Canımız Sokakta: Hollaback! Istanbul
‘He grabbed my leg when we were at the light and I was just so pissed off that this guy chased me through the crowd just to touch my leg,’ Kacie Lyn Kocher says, describing her experience on a Mumbai rickshaw trying to escape a man who followed her off
the train. ‘I felt terrorised and embarrassed and just so furious that someone could put me in that place.’ This was just one of many experiences that led to the founding of Canımız Sokakta, the Istanbul chapter of Hollaback!, an international movement to end street harassment.
Since its inception in April 2011 as an online blog with a map to plot the points of street harassment in Istanbul, Canımız Sokakta has grown into an organisation with at least 30 members. Nihan Güneli, an Istanbul-based lawyer and organisation co-director, has provided legal support from the start, while Ezgi Çinçin joined the team recently as a co-director. Each woman has her own reasons for participating, but the sentiment is the same: ‘[Harassment is] an everyday subject,’ Güneli explains. ‘You start to wait for it to happen. I don’t want any woman to feel [this way].’
‘I’ve been harassed for at least 15 years now. I thought it was just normal,’ Çinçin reflects. ‘But after thinking more about it and looking at the resources on Hollaback!, I realised that, no, it is not normal. They shouldn’t do that.’ Together, this team and their volunteers have launched numerous campaigns to bring awareness to street harassment and its under-told consequences.
The important first step for Canımız Sokakta is defining what street harassment is. ‘People don’t realise that harassment isn’t just when someone is being stalked or chased,’ Kocher argues. ‘Building a definition and providing examples of what street harassment is, showing what it looks like and describing how it makes you feel are the first steps to fighting it.’ Establishing that harassment is an issue of power, not sexuality, is also important when fighting the problem.
As a part of their programme to empower women, Canımız Sokakta is hosting a workshop at Fatih University in November to give women skills for the workplace, including courses in computer literacy and networking, as well as instruction in preparation for a career. ‘Unfortunately, a professional life will likely include sexism, so we hope to teach them how to deal with harassment at work,’ Kocher says. Building professional and personal relationships with other working Turkish women is another of the programme’s goals.
Training women on how to deal with street harassment is also on the horizon for Güneli. ‘First we have to train women; we are the very victims of these acts and yet we don’t even know how to react.’ Eventually, she hopes that we might change our laws to have more protection against street harassment.
Slow Food – Fikir Sahibi Damaklar
Once a restaurateur and the owner of a butcher shop, Defne Koryürek’s life took a complete turn when her daughter Refika was born. ‘That’s exactly when you feel it,’ she says about becoming pregnant. ‘You feel mortality in your cells, and you feel that everything you are eating is sustaining the life within those cells.’ That is the moment when Koryürek shifted her focus from making profits off food to building a sustainable relationship with it.
The Slow Food movement, a non-profit founded to counteract the rise of fast food and the disappearance of local food traditions, did not enter Koryürek’s life until after she had already been practicing its ideals, simply by coincidence. When mad cow disease made its way to Turkey at the turn of the century, she and a handful of mothers from her daughter’s kindergarten organised to keep the school’s lunches meat-free. ‘If these parents wanted to feed their kids meat at home, they could; they had the means,’ Koryürek explains. This was her first experience with this sort of activism.
Eventually, by way of colleagues and friends, Slow Food made its way into her life, and she attended the 2006 Terra Madre conference in Italy to discuss innovative approaches to food production and gastronomy. The next year, the founder of Slow Food, Carlos Petrini, invited Koryürek to start her own Slow Food chapter in Istanbul. ‘It was an offer I just couldn’t refuse,’ she reminisces. ‘I had to do it.’
Today Koryürek’s Slow Food convivium is an activist organisation called Fikir Sahibi Damaklar, which works to protect and promote local food traditions. Among its initiatives, past and present, have been the real bread campaign, the label-reading campaign, the campaign against genetically modified products and, currently, the campaign to protect the lüfer (bluefish), one of Istanbul’s most treasured aquatic creatures from the Bosphorus, at risk due to over-fishing.
As part of the real bread campaign, Koryürek and her colleagues taught kids ages 4 to 14 how to bake their own bread. ‘They realised it was only water, flour, salt and yeast, and all the rest was extra,’ Koryürek says of the experience. ‘The next week, when we took them to the supermarket and asked them to find bread, they did not enjoy seeing ingredients that they could not even pronounce.’ The same happened when the children were given free reign to choose whatever they wanted to take on a picnic. Since they could not understand the labels, they did not want to buy the product. ‘It was one of the most beautiful moments in our history,’ Koryürek asserts.
Now the organisation’s focus is on celebrating and protecting the lüfer. It is a staple of Istanbul’s food culture, and Koryürek and her group fear the fish will disappear soon if strict guidelines are not imposed. ‘We succeeded in raising the minimum length for fishing to 12 inches (20cm),’ she explains, adding that although it was below the goal of 14 inches (25cm), it was still a step in the right direction.
For now, Koryürek claims that they are ‘just airing the earth’ and that ‘the people that are going to sow the goodness will follow’ them. She believes her daughter’s generation will be the next step, but the change starts with today’s mothers. ‘The only people who can change this world and help it return to its natural course are the mothers,’ she says.
Read the original at TimeOut Istanbul. All photos are from TimeOut.