With high internet and mobile penetration, a booming youth population, and consistent GDP growth over the last decade, Turkey is emerging as a leader in the MENA and Eastern European region. Furthermore, Istanbul made Wired’s hottest startup capitals list for the third consecutive year, and accelerators like Startupbootcamp and Endeavor have set up camp in the historic city, indicating a clear sign of confidence in the developing ecosystem.
Despite these glowing numbers, the statistics for women entrepreneurs are not nearly as promising. According to TurkStat, as of 2012, only 7.5% of entrepreneurs in Turkey are women and in the WEF’s gender gap index, Turkey ranked 127 out of 136 in terms of economic empowerment. While general findings in the region indicate common obstacles for both male and female entrepreneurs, numbers for women are distinctly lower, implying other factors at play. GEM’s 2012 Women’s Report states that fear of failure rates for women in the Developing Europe region are 41% versus 33% for men, and perceived capability of starting a business for women is a mere 35% compared to a competitive 53% for male entrepreneurs.
While these statistics may seem bleak, it’s important to separate the numbers from the strength or character of the individuals that account for them. As Peri Kadaster, Angel Investor and Director of Marketing at Monitise states, “While it is certainly not a 50/50 gender ratio (as it is not in Silicon Valley), several top startup founders and investors are women.” Digging into that 7%, you will find a community of entrepreneurs that are not only highly ambitious and innovative, but drivers of the most underutilized asset of developing the Turkish economy.
As GEM reports, 25% of female entrepreneurial activity and established business owners offer innovative products or services, versus 13% male. The report continues, “In crowded competitive environments with saturated markets, entrepreneurs need to distinguish themselves from current offerings in order to get a foothold.” When facing such steep competition, not only do these women entrepreneurs stand out, they shine. If that’s not enough proof for you, remember back to earlier this summer when the women of Turkey literally laughed in the face of oppression.
In terms of economic growth, the contribution from women entrepreneurs in the region is undeniable. Highly educated and ambitious, the vast majority are entrepreneurs opportunity-driven. Looking back to Wired’s list of hottest startups in Istanbul, three of ten are founded or co-founded by women, includingHemen Kiralik. Helmed by Rina and Remi Onur, the Turkish version of Airbnb has expanded rapidly in the last year, attracting 25,000 homes and closing a Series C of $2.5 million.
Additionally, since 80% of women-led businesses hire one or more employee, they are creating jobs. The best example of this job empowerment loop is Endeavor-backed b-fit, a chain of gyms for founded by serial entrepreneur Bedriye Hülya. By using a franchising model to hire other women entrepreneurs, b-fit has opened 230 locations.
Coupled with the success stories of individual entrepreneurs, larger organizations are also doing their part to close the gender gap. In 2011 IFC and Netherlandish bank FMO lent $40 million to Turkish bank Akbank to support female-led SMEs, in an effort to address the issue that only 15% of have access to formal finance. Additionally, Istanbul-based women entrepreneur networks like Turkish WIN are connecting entrepreneurs with investment, and KAGIDER who has teamed up with the World Bank to create a certification process to ensure that businesses “are fostering equal opportunities for men and women in the workplace.”
However, on an individual level, women entrepreneurs are focused on… just being entrepreneurs. “I think being an entrepreneur in Turkey is as difficult for women as for men,” says Verda De Eskinazis, co-founder of food sharing platform Favoreat.” Echoing this, Kadaster explains “In order to drive the percentage up I think most of the issues are actually gender agnostic.” – having more social acceptance of risk-taking, a stronger culture of collaboration / cooperation, and an even more robust ecosystem of innovation.” Clearly, driving entrepreneurship and innovation is not exclusively a gender issue in Turkey and the region. Yet as women entrepreneurs in the region continue make high-risk, high-impact choices, they will not only change the statistics, but become leaders in the ecosystem.