Denizmen works to help Turkish women speak the language of money

Brian Smith | Staff PhotographerÖzlem Denizmen, of Turkish conglomerate the Doğuş Group, delivers Thursday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater about the importance of financial literacy and bridging the gender gap in the workplace.
Brian Smith | Staff Photographer
Özlem Denizmen, of Turkish conglomerate the Doğuş Group, delivers Thursday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater about the importance of financial literacy and bridging the gender gap in the workplace.

If one grew up in a country where money, capital and finance were rarely talked about, imagine how hard it would be to invest, buy a home or even create a savings account.

As a pioneer of financial literacy in her home country of Turkey where that is that case, Özlem Denizmen wants to start that conversation.

Denizmen, who was named a “Young Global Leader” in 2011 by the World Economic Forum, gave Thursday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater on why she believes that Turkey is on track to become an even greater global force and how women are an important factor in the country’s future. Her 10:45 a.m. lecture was the fourth in this week’s series, “Turkey: A Model for the Middle East?”

Denizmen grew up in Turkey but moved to New York when she was 19 to work as an au pair. After receiving degrees from Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she returned to Turkey and worked as the head of social investments for Doğuş Group, one of Turkey’s biggest conglomerates that includes businesses in energy, entertainment, financial services and real estate.

In August 2009, Denizman was on a flight to a business conference when she picked up a copy of The Economist magazine. The cover story depicted a 13-year-old from Afghanistan seated next to a 60-year-old man. The man had won her in a gambling bet with the girl’s father, and the two were engaged to be married.

“I was astounded,” Denizmen said. “I kept looking at this picture and I said, ‘I can’t just live minding my business. I have to do something for the world.’ And this photo was sort of like my ‘wow’ moment. I said, what is that I know how to do? And I figured out that an area that Turkey very much needs [help] is in financial literacy.”

After her “wow” moment, Denizmen approached her boss at Doğuş Group and asked for permission to use her time at work to begin a startup.

“He said, ‘Oz, go for it,’ ” she said. “ ‘We have to be helping our country.’ ”

Denizmen said there are many factors that have led to financial illiteracy in Turkey, especially among women. The cultural norms in Turkey are such that discussing any type of money, whether it be at school, at home or among friends, is strictly taboo. Among women especially, failure to understand the financial system can cause embarrassment. Denizmen believes that fostering a basic understanding of finance will lead to a changing culture.

Turkey’s economy is primed for growth. Interest and inflation rates are the lowest they’ve been in years, Denizmen said. Life expectancy has increased and new financial products are on the market. Turkey has a huge “unbanked population,” she said; up to 20 percent of Turkish citizens still hide cash in places like their refrigerators and under their mattresses. This means that the potential for economic growth in Turkey is even greater.

Turkey’s economy is the 17th largest in the world, with an annual gross domestic product of $786 billion, Denizmen said. Turkey has Europe’s fifth-largest labor force. The past 10 years have seen double-digit percentage economic growth, and even though the rate has come down to earth in the past couple years, it still hovers at a more-than-robust 5 percent. The United States’ growth rate, meanwhile, is around 2 percent. Companies such as Microsoft Corp., General Electric Co. and Pfizer Inc. have opened offices in Turkey, providing jobs and increasing the country’s exports.

Half of Turkey’s population is under the age of 30, and the country has a tech-savvy, secular and diverse populace that Denizmen said is indicative of the country’s high entrepreneurial spirit.

One thing that does need to change is the involvement of women in the country’s evolving economy, Denizmen said.

Even though women have historically been included in Turkey’s civic life — women earned the right to vote in Turkey before women in France or Switzerland — they have been largely excluded from the private sector. All of the Turkish women in business could fit inside a soccer stadium, Denizmen said.

The gender pay gap is currently about 25 percent in Turkey. And even though recent reforms in fields like health care and education have helped give women equal access to these fields, Denizmen believes more aggressive tactics are needed.

In 2011, she started a multiplatform media organization called Para Durumu, which is dedicated to improving the financial literacy of women. The group uses social media, print newspapers, magazines, blogs and television to explain how to budget for things like weddings, home ownership, groceries, savings and credit cards. It is the first organization of its kind in Turkey. Denizmen has helped hundreds of thousands of women to speak the language of money, and many women she met with have gone on to form businesses of their own.

Denizmen credits her time spent in America as part of her inspiration for creating Para Durumu.

“One of things that America has taught me is to dream,” she said. “A candle doesn’t lose its light by lighting another candle.”


Q: We all know that strong growth is a key to stability, and I was interested in your five trillion target, so what are the barriers in Turkey to hit that target as you’ve laid out?

A: Well, one is the savings rate is quite low. And there’s a direct correlation between financial literacy by [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] research and savings rate. We are now very dependent on money coming from outside in Turkey, so the current savings rate has come down in the last 10 years from 25 percent to around 13 percent. So we have to raise it up. And the second one is that ,you know, having women on the workforce, because we don’t use half of our capital in human capital in Turkey. And also political stability is extremely important. So these are a couple of the things that come on the top of my head for sustainable economic growth.

Q: Are there any particular industries where women are making inroads from a managerial point of view in Turkey?

A: Well textile is quite important and tourism is quite important, but there’s not one single industry. It’s very diverse now, and because of the opportunities and the support of entrepreneurship, we see women in a lot of industries, but not very heavily dominated industries by men, like automotive or construction. That’s less so. But mostly on services.

Q: Are there any conflicts between the goals you’ve laid out for females and Muslim society? I mean, are there inherent conflicts in that, or not in Turkey’s case?

A: Well you know, in whatever I try to do, I don’t do it only for women; I do it also for men and women, you know, to not offend men. And to also make sure that they let their wives if they want to work, work, and the financial literacy efforts also, especially on TV and books, reach out to everybody. But many times, we find that sometimes quite conservative families, they don’t like to have their women, their wives working. But you know, there’s a new emerging middle class in Turkey, and Turkey’s getting richer. So I tell them, don’t you want to be taking more part of this? And that can only happen with two paychecks. And this is how it’s going to make your family stronger. So sometimes they tend to think that, ”OK, women will become stronger having money and will leave the house and the men,” et cetera, so some might tend to think that. And that’s why I like to play very much with family, play onto the family values, and the togetherness and common goals.

Q: Are wives and mothers working actively to encourage men to respect women in Turkey?

A: Actually, men do respect women very much, [which] especially comes from respecting the mother. But you know, there can be more. I mean, respecting is one thing and letting them go work and letting them be in charge of finances is another. So we have room to grow in that. But I would not think so. I mean, there’s some men — we cannot generalize all Turkish men obviously — as you see, I’m very lucky in the case of my husband, you know he’s very encouraging, he lets me manage the finances. But we need role models for that. We need hope for that, and we need much more role models who come up and talk about it. That’s why I … had the head of the Ministry of [Religious Affairs] in my show, and I said, “I read a book about a teacher who’s a wife of prophet Mohammed, and she was a businesswoman — she was very wealthy, she was working. Can’t also a lot of women in our religion, it’s not against women working, right?” So he then explained, “Actually, you’re right. In Muslim religion it’s not against [women working].” … So giving the example of the prophet’s wife was sort of fine there. So in other words, having other people talk about it, being religious leaders or being very famous people who are opinion leaders in Turkey, trying to make it into role model that yes, women can also go out and work. Because when I say it, it’s only up to a place. So when others say it, it becomes even more important and effective.

Q: What percentage of women who apply for grants or interest free loans receive them? And what are typical sizes of them?

A: For loans? Well this is a bit of a problem, because you know when you apply for a loan, the bank is asking for a collateral. Do you have a house to show against it? And we do have most of the deeds in Turkey on the names of the men, under men. So women have hard time in entrepreneurship coming out with the loan, because they don’t have collateral assets to show. But that’s something also that’s being worked on to increase the deeds. And also there’s a civil law in Turkey that, just like you would put a knife in a watermelon and it would divide in two like that, now in marriages, everything — if there is a divorce, everything gets divided just like that, according to the recent civil law.

Q: What role, if any, does the government have in business in Turkey?

A: Family business?

Q: I think the question just says business in general. 

A: The government? Well, the government has been trying to be encouraging entrepreneurship, as I mentioned, especially in the region and for Turkish companies to become more entrepreneurial also in the region. But other than that, government, the only way that it gets involved in the businesses is by regulatory bodies, like [the Capital Markets Board of Turkey] likes to make sure that everything is governed in a way that it’s by corporate governed standards, et cetera. But other than that, government does not get involved into the private businesses. I mean, I worked in Turkey for 17 years and I haven’t seen a case like that, the government being involved. But the regulatory institutions are very heavy regulatory in banking, in capital markets board, in the companies that are open to public. There’s a new rule by public companies that they have to have a woman in their board. If you’re a public company in Turkey, meaning listed in the stock exchange, you need to have a woman on your board. And there’s a positive discrimination for that. Hopefully, we’ll have more.

Q: You mentioned there were 80,000 women entrepreneurs in Turkey. Are there any particular areas that they’re focusing on, or are they spread out in a bunch of different areas in their efforts? 

A: They’re, as far as I know, quite spread out. For example, there’s this woman I met in Bursa — she started a factory in the construction business, which is very rare. But you know, there’s more in services, and there’s more and more technology entrepreneurship encouraged for women. Just coming here on the plane, I read that the Ministry of Work came out with a $50,000 grant for women who want to start up a technology company [or] technology related company. So there is much more encouragement for high-value technology startups.

Q: There’s a couple of questions here, I’ll try and summarize them. One has to do with, is your career path unusual for a woman in Turkey today? How likely is it really that someone could have your path? One of our speakers earlier this week suggested that the future — this is a question — was rather bleak for women under the current regime. So I guess the question is, is momentum being lost, gained or picked up relative to some of the programs you’re talking about, relative to female advancement in Turkey?

A: Well, my career path is not very common, I must say, because I left my daily operational position in a very big corporation and I moved to serve the society. But I think it’s becoming more and more common. And for that we need role models. And hopefully, if God may give me health, I would love to be a role model for engaging more women in social issues and taking social leadership. But again, as I said, I’m very lucky. So not everybody has the opportunity or the guidance or the hope or the vision to do this. And coming to the momentum of women’s role in society — you know, it’s hard to say, because I see a lot of different faces all around Turkey. And for some, it’s very hard to come out there and to get more education, or to really have the self-confidence. We lack a lot of self-confidence in women in Turkey, I must say. Although they’re strong, but they need to sort of be reminded. So for that, I go back to being a role model, and giving hope to people is extremely important, and that’s what I try to do. And encourage other girlfriends also who are in different corporate levels and different paths to do a similar thing. But it’s sort of getting there. I feel that this century is woman’s century. I mean, there are so many women’s things happening, and I’m sitting in a couple of things to make more women onboard, to have the equal rights to work, and this became normal. These things were not talked about in Turkey five years ago, 10 years ago, seriously. We could not go out into a company and say “Hey, you are supposed to have a woman on board.” Or you could not just go talk about, you know — “What is your gender gap? Can you please calculate and report to the Internet site?” They would be like, “What?” But now, we can at least talk about it. It all starts with talking, right? I mean, we now talk about it, and we start with reporting. As much as the HR departments say oh, this cumbersome thing we’ve got to fill out — but it’s a process, I feel. So I’m optimistic.

Q: Are there any other initiatives in Turkey that present opportunities for lower income people? So I guess, you talked a lot about the female initiatives. but are there a lot of other initiatives relative to lower income people in general?

A: … There are a lot of lower income initiatives to take people out of poverty by the government. There’s a new ministry, Ministry of Social Affairs and Women. This has gained its shape the last two years. And they’ve been doing a lot for giving conditional cash support so that they go to school, giving all kinds of support so that they go to work. So rather than just giving money, and they’ve been pushing them to go to work, and to go to education, and also present them with different opportunities. As I said, a lot of the times, people just don’t have a bridge to the knowledge, to the information. So there are a lot of them, especially by the Ministry of Social Affairs. And again, civil society has gained momentum also in Turkey. You know in Washington D.C., every corner there’s a civil society, right? There’s a [non-governmental organization]. In Turkey, that’s also new. And they get more and more empowered. And we work very closely with the government and the private center. All the financial literacy education that we bring to people, to women or youth, it’s free of charge for the end user. We take the money from corporate and we bring it to the people, free. So there’s a lot of this that gets done, instead of just making charity dinners. So people work and ask for the money to the corporations or wealthy individuals as such.

Q: I think this can be the last question, and there’s a couple on this, and I think it’s because the questioners don’t know — they’re asking about the education system in Turkey, is it public? Is it private? In particular universities, is it accessible? How does it work?

A: It’s mostly public, and there are also many private universities that happened in the last 10 to 15 years, I must say. But in Turkey, in every city, 81 cities, there’s a university now. There were many public universities built in the last couple of years as well. You go through a university exam sort of like the SAT, and if you pass that exam, you get scheduled to go into a university.  But many private universities also have come about, but in order to go to private university, you have to have the means to do that. But many, I would say, go to public universities. And there are talks on how to improve that entrance exam so that we can have more youth actually coming on board to public universities. And there are also a lot of grants that people can apply and get. Also, coming here to the university — I’m actually staying in the hotel, and I got a little note yesterday: “Are you Turkish? I am here, I’m a student from Turkey in an exchange program at Chautauqua.” I said “Oh, let’s meet!” So we met. He’s from Anatolia, he’s in an exchange program at Chautauqua and signed my book. … And we have a lot of these things also, part of being a part of the global world.

—Transcribed by Nikki Lanka