By Elmira Bayrasli
After just a glance at the flyer marketing the abandoned yogurt factory in South Edmeston, New York in 2005, Hamdi Ulukaya tossed it. Still, the next day he found himself making plans to tour the factory. The Turkish born entrepreneur had already turned one upstate New York facility into a feta cheese production center three years earlier.
None of this had been in Hamdi’s plans. He had left Turkey in 1994 for the United States to improve his English and earn a business degree. Getting into the food business was the last thing on his mind.
Yet when he did put his mind to it, he gave it his all. That is what he told a crowd gathered at Nasdaq on May 31. Hamdi kicked off Turkish Philanthropy Fund’s inaugural innovation summit.
Philanthropy and innovation may seem far apart at first. After all what does charity have to do with startups? A lot. Both are focused on progress, which was the key takeaway from this one-day event.
TPF brought together Turkey’s best and brightest entrepreneurial minds. In addition to Hamdi Ulukaya and Muhtar Kent, the organization hosted a panel with Sina Afra, Magdalena Yesil, Selcuk Sirin, Aysegul Ildeniz, Murat Emirdag – moderated by CNN Turk’s Cuneyt Ozdemir.
Now, I’ve been to thousands of panels about startups and an equal number of discussions on Turkey. All try to spin a positive “feel-good” story. This is what set the TPF Innovation Summit apart. Cuneyt Ozdemir opened with a sobering look at the challenges in today’s Turkey, including those faced by journalists and entrepreneurs alike. Likewise, NYU Professor Selcuk Sirin spoke about the importance of a wide variety of factors in nurturing an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“If you want to improve innovation in any country, focus on education, critical thinking, and good governance,” Professor Sirin noted.
This was most definitely a summit that dug in and went after clear take-aways rather than paying lip service. Every country today is focused on entrepreneurship and innovation. Turkey has come far on both, but still has a long way to go. One thing that was clear from TPF’s event was, time is ticking. If Turkey wants to continue to see its startup landscape succeed, it needs to think beyond the bottom line. Entrepreneurship is not merely about profit. It’s about problem solving.
Solving problems never happens in one moment. It is a process that involves many minds. The community that came together on May 31 made it clear that while there is a lot to be concerned about Turkey, there is also a lot to be hopeful for. Turks are focused on the future. And the community that TPF has built is focused on making that future a bright one.