Forget politicians, entrepreneurs are Turkey’s true leaders

Forget politicians, entrepreneurs are Turkey’s true leaders

Elmira Bayraslı
It is easy to be depressed about Turkey these days. The country’s economy – once an emerging market miracle story – has started to slow down. As things unravel in Iraq and Syria, the country’s foreign policy has gone from zero to many problems – including strained relations with the United States. Socially, Turkey is increasingly moving away from the rule of law and democracy and toward one-man authoritarian rule. Journalists are harassed. Free speech and the right to protest are denied. Tensions between Turks and minorities, particularly the Kurds, have been resurrected.

Yet on a recent visit to Armenia with a delegation of Turkish academics, entrepreneurs, investors, NGO representatives, and other experts, I came away with a small sense of optimism. Turkey indeed may be encountering economic and political problems on massive proportions, but it has not discouraged all Turks. A handful of Turks are moving ahead – guided by a vision of progress. They are entrepreneurs – and the country’s most valuable representatives. Organized by the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), the delegation traveled Armenia from Nov. 5 to 10. The visit – the first one with entrepreneurs from a country that has no diplomatic relations – grew out of a multi-track collaboration between TEPAV, the Public Journalism Club (PJC) based in Yerevan, and the Global Entrepreneurship Week in Armenia.

Politics has long divided Turkey and Armenia. As I witnessed over four days of engaging with entrepreneurs and young people interested in innovation – and even more eager to roll up their sleeves and try their hands at building on ideas – it does not divide the Turkish and Armenian people. More importantly, it certainly does not dissuade Turks themselves, particularly those focused on entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurs and investors are out-of-the-box thinkers,” said Numan Numan, the co-founder and a managing director of the Istanbul-based venture capital firm 212 Ltd. who traveled as part of the TEPAV delegation. “We are driven by success, not politics. Entrepreneurs move on ideas,” he said.  

The idea of learning about and possibly forging ties in Armenia inspired several dozen people to apply to be a part of the TEPAV delegation. According to Ussal Şahbaz, TEPAV’s director of entrepreneurship, the trip was oversubscribed. “I went to Armenia because I strongly believe if you want raise entrepreneurship ecosystem in the region, we have to play in the region all together,” said Numan. “Regional cooperation is important not just for Turkey but for any country in the region.” It’s important, he explained, in order to produce a billion-dollar company. “The only way we can build a billion-dollar company is through collaboration.”

Umutcan Duman, a student at Middle East Technical University who also participated in the trip, added that going to Armenia as a group of entrepreneurs and investors was about adding value to Turkey itself. “If we’re going to make the world a better place,” said Duman, “we have to create. We have to be entrepreneurs.”

In the six years Duman has studied and been involved in entrepreneurship, launching a tech startup of his own, he’s seen Turkey’s entrepreneurial ecosystem advance and expand. The Turkish government, he said, has provided much needed support. Still, he noted, more needed to be done. “We need to take a longer-term approach to entrepreneurship and do a better job supporting entrepreneurs.”  For much of the 20th century, Turks left governance and diplomacy in the hands of elected officials or those at the top echelons of Turkish politics. Turkey’s leaders would still like that to be true today. Yet along with the country’s economy, its people have grown. They are ready to take responsibility and work to resolve any number of issues – whether domestically or abroad. This is especially true of entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs, not politicians, are the true leaders of today – regardless of location. They must be given the latitude and backing to do so further. It will not only contribute to Turkey’s growth, it will help resolve many of the challenges that stump Turkey’s politicians – possibly even those Turkey faces with Armenia. As the 100th anniversary of the Armenian massacres approaches in April 2015, that will be key.

As elected officials in Turkey’s capital concentrate on building expansive palaces that are out of reach for the ordinary citizen, Turkish entrepreneurs and investors push forward to build markets, networks, and value for all. In their drive, they are creating opportunity, generating wealth, and working to improve regional ties – developments today’s Turkey desperately needs. 

*Elmira Bayraslı is the co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted.