Turkish women need boost on path to entrepreneurship

Turkish women need boost on path to entrepreneurship

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Turkish women need boost on path to entrepreneurship

Woman entrepreneurs in Turkey all share the common feature of resilience, as they never back down when facing difficulties, according to Garanti Bank’s Esra Kıvrak. The Woman Entrepreneur of the Year award, which is eight years old, is attracting an ever-rising number of applicants, she said.

Women the country over have bright business ideas that deserve support, but many still require an extra push to take off as entrepreneurs, according to Esra Kıvrak, who oversees the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year award for Garanti Bank.

“We realized that no matter how much you provide financial and educational support, women need to see successful role models,” Kıvrak recently told the Hürriyet Daily News.

Turkey’s Woman Entrepreneur of the Year award was given for the eighth time with a ceremony held last month. Tell us what triggered you to start this award.

The award is part of a program that we designed to support woman entrepreneurs. What triggered this program was the low rate of women’s participation in employment. Both the number of women as employers and employees are low in Turkey. As we started to think about what we can do as a bank to increase these numbers, we first designed a women’s entrepreneur support package that was specifically designed to help woman entrepreneurs to establish and grow their businesses. But in time, we realized that financial support was not sufficient in itself. Our studies showed that entrepreneurs were in need of access to more information; in other words, they needed to be supported by further education and training. So the package was followed with the creation of woman entrepreneur gatherings in 2007, which provided additional training and educational tools and new networking opportunities. In 2013, we began collaborating with Boğazici University to offer an intensive mini-MBA training program for woman entrepreneurs.

But again in time, we realized that no matter how much you provide financial and educational support, women need to see successful role models. Women had to say “if she did it, I can do it, too.” There was also the need for encouragement. So as a third leg of the program – in addition to the financial and educational legs – we initiated the competition together with the magazine Ekonomist and Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey (KAGİDER) as a means of encouragement and a way to [raise] role models.

Tell us how the award has evolved over the course of the past eight years.

Actually when we first started, there were only 100 applications, so our colleagues even worried about its sustainability. At that stage we added a different dimension. Garanti Bank has a 2,000-person-strong team working in the field for small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) banking. In that respect, we have a team that can have access to woman entrepreneurs from the tiniest city in Anatolia to the biggest cities.

But no matter how much we publicize the event, it would remain much less efficient in terms of our team’s ability to seek and reach out to woman entrepreneurs and to encourage them to enter the competition; our colleagues in the bank branches have been the main source of increasing the applications. There have been cases when our friends in the branches have filled out the application forms once they got their consent.

This is a competition throughout Turkey so it was only natural for some woman entrepreneurs to think, “Why should I participate? I don’t do something that is good enough to enter the competition.” But the very purpose of the competition, the spirit of it, is about saying, “Here I am, too, I did it, too.”

The number of applications has increased each year. We have entrepreneurs who apply each year and some who get awarded on their fifth applications. For the past two, three years we have received around 7,000 applications. In sum, 24,000 woman entrepreneurs have applied for the award.

It is important that the stories of these role models are known throughout Turkey. So we include in our activities not only the winners, but other contenders, too.

What are the requirements to participate?

We need to have an upper limit, so the official definition of an SME is our upper limit; in other words we are talking about those with annual turnover of 40 million Turkish Liras and below. The main partners have to be women. At the beginning, we aimed to choose the woman entrepreneur of the year. But in time the applications become so diversified that this has pushed us to create different categories. For the past two years, we have been awarding Turkey’s woman social entrepreneur. We also created an award for promising entrepreneur as well as the entrepreneur who has created a difference in her region.

Obviously we look for a strong financial structure. The entrepreneurship needs to be sustainable. Local economic impact and environmental consciousness are also important criteria.

After the preliminary stage, we take around 500 companies under detailed scrutiny. We then shortlist around 30 to 40 companies for the final jury. It is becoming more and more difficult to choose the winner; in fact we have two winners this year in two categories.

The category for those making a difference in her region – that must be to encourage entrepreneurs in rural areas.

Definitely. In fact it has been a learning process for us as well. With the applications, we realized that there are companies that do not make exports for instance but have succeeded in contributing to change in that region. We received projects that do not have the classic institutional structures, but the work model is sustainable and it makes a difference; thus we created the award for social entrepreneur. This year’s award, for instance, went to the founder of B-Fit Sports Center franchise, a chain of women’s only gyms across Turkey. In certain parts of Anatolia, women refrained from going to mixed gyms. This is a reality in Turkey.

Why is it so hard to be a woman entrepreneur in Turkey?

This has a lot of structural reasons; but one of them is the lack of encouragement. All our polls show that, first and foremost, they need encouragement; that tops the list, to our surprise as bankers. We would expect finance or education to be the first thing asked by women. The more they see success stories, the more they say I can do it.

The one common feature is their resilience. They do not back down when facing difficulties.  

What else do you observe?

Some of our finalists in the last couple of years come from sectors that are generally identified with men, like the defense industry or logistics. This year’s woman entrepreneur provides engineering services in the construction of energy plants and, as such, is known as the sole women in that segment of the sector. It’s pleasing to see the awards for promising entrepreneur go to those working in IT.
Your program has caught international attention as well; tell us about it.

The International Finance Cooperation picked it as a case study. We secured a loan specifically targeted for women from the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. We made presentations at the United Nations as well as in some other countries in the Middle East as a best practice. So the program is becoming a role model itself.

The key to our success is that we made this concept part of our culture throughout the bank, from top to bottom. Another factor is that we maintained strong links with the ecosystem. We work closely with universities, NGOs and all the relevant organs of the state. We remain in close touch with them so as to expand the benefits.

Who is Esra Kıvrak?


Esra Kıvrak has been working for Garanti Bank since 2001 and is currently the head of SME Banking Marketing Department. Previously she was responsible for regional management and corporate branch management at Garanti Bank.

From 1989 to 2001, she worked for Osmanlı Bank and Pamukbank as a branch manager and relationship manager. In 1989, she received a degree from Bosphorus University’s Political Science Department. She is responsible for sales and marketing for small and micro segment.

She and her team are running women’s entrepreneurship and start-up programs at Garanti.