Didem Altop, Managing Director Endeavor. Series of interviews with investors in Turkiye n°4.
Turkiye is a very interesting country when it comes to woman in business. Of course there is room for improvement to achieve the gender balance we all strive for, and the perception at the start is different. Middle East countries, with Turkiye in a special position also belonging to Europe depending on the context, looks very masculine from the outside. A testosterone environment avant la lettre. Reality is surely different for the west side of Turkiye. Sitting around the table with Didem Altop, the strong woman behind Endeavor Turkiye had also another remarkable trait. Positivism. A rare good in Turkiye after a turmoil that continues to shake up the whole country. Combined with an enormous drive we spent a very good time at her office, very nicely located in Kurucesme, Istanbul.
Didem’s entrepreneurship started in 1992 during graduate school at Carnegie Mellon and then continued in 1994 as a new business development manager at EDS, which had just launched a startup management consulting arm at the time. Indeed in the US as she was raised there, a product of her hometown in Pittsburgh among other cities where she studied and worked. Somehow I think that some local American city experiences have helped her to see creative solutions to the hardships in Turkiye. Her journey to Turkiye, started in Ankara where she worked for the Turkish Airforce at the start of the internet. It is interesting to reflect upon the huge digital transformations that occurred a generation before the digital natives were even born and how far behind the universities lagged during these early days of our professional education and training. For me it was even more dark side stuff as I was at art school discovering video tapes called U-Matic instead of using 16 mm film. Just the thought of it sounds like a retro documentary.
Next to her professional life, Didem’s love for NGO activity was ignited by the big earthquake in Turkiye in 1999. She discovered TEGV, Educational Volunteers Foundation of Turkey and volunteered as a board member. She set herself the goal to modernize and escalated their operating and fundraising model. The goal was to raise enough funds from Turks and other stakeholders in Turkey and around the global to serve 1 million underprivileged children over five years. And the campaign was a huge success, not just for TEGV but also for raising the profile of the NGO sector. I am not sure if it was her background, raised in US, that made her volunteer, but my experience is that Turkiye suffers from of a lack of dedicated volunteers with expertise as is the norm in more developed Western countries. We see this with CoderDojo Turkiye every day. Didem saw huge potential behind civil society movements combining forces with corporate social responsibility agendas. This insight marked her career plans for the next 20+ years. After her experience with TEGV, she puts her effort in starting a consultancy company with an incubation and angel investment activity, called ECOM Consulting & Project Finance. It evolved very quickly into a CSR consulting company that partners with DDB in its 3rd year. It was a rewarding experience where she also developed her entrepreneurship skills which help her today truly appreciate the real life challenges that entrepreneurs face every day. I have a problem with academics teaching entrepreneurship who have never left the building. The university is the only professional ground they walked on. When I made my first short movie I was the main actor, as I could not imagine myself being a director without knowing what acting is. You can really only talk about the water after you have first jumped in. And this is also how I discovered that the water in Seferihisar is much nicer than the water in Balikliova (check the map and you understand).
Endeavor was born in Latin America and it was actually founded by a group of Didem’s school friends from the States. At one point, her brother Timur even worked in the Endeavor Global office in NYC and they started talking again about Turkey and timing. Endeavor Turkiye was officially born in 2006. In reality, Didem started lobbying the business community about the importance of entrepreneurship several years before. In 2005, Didem was finally able to convince a groups of C-levels from Turkey’s leading holding companies to discuss entrepreneurship as a social and economical good that needed a new push with emphasis on helping out young entrepreneurs with high potential through mentoring and extending their networks. It took quite some time, but Didem was determined to keep going until everyone understood the need for corporate leaders to play a collective role on supporting entrepreneurship and building the ecosystem.
Between 1995 and 2005 she saw a lot of R&D projects coming to light supported by various government grants and incentives. Very exciting but the lack of going to market with these projects was baffling. Around the same time, mobile and internet infrastructure kept growing. This was where Endeavor could make a difference. With the support and leadership of C-level people from Dogan, Fiba, Koç, Sabançi and Tahincioglu Holdings she started to convene a group of people who could mentor, make introductions to key stakeholders and engage their networks. Knowledge shared was more important than knowledge kept. And when talking about high potential — high impact in Endeavor lingo — it was not only meant for Turkiye, but also for outside the home market. The result is high impact entrepreneurship, as a founder or as an employee becomes a viable and respectable career choice. Attracting higher profile talent leads to better and faster progress. In the end you create a very knowledgeable and valuable company with growth potential that attracts investors. And inşallah, one day you can even sell. In my opinion, a successful entrepreneur sells high, but I’m sure all the family businesses will flash me an evil eye for suggesting this.
With 10 years of experience in this sector you always end up organizing trainings. As stated in the beginning, very few schools or universities provide good training based on the needs of today. So Endeavor created different outreach programs to help build the ecosystem starting with Global Entrepreneurship Week, Angel Investor Workshops and its most recent initiative called CaseCampus. Endeavor Entrepreneurs benefit from other private workshops called Endeavor Atolye covering topics ranging from public speaking and mindfulness to brand building and organizational strategy plus numerous other global partnership program opportunities with leading organizations such as Harvard, Stanford and Ernst & Young. Mentorship is key and Didem underlines the 3 types of gaps that mentors fill: “I don’t know”, “I don’t know that I don’t know” and “I know but there’s still more to know”. Of course the basics of the Business Canvas are taught and discussed too. It is still the best way to check on the validation of the different aspects of your business model. We also discussed the lack of management skills, especially with the younger founders who also lack previous work experience. It is clear that Endeavor can make a significant contribution here thanks to the 200+ members of its mentors and investor network who are all experienced professionals and subject matter experts.
When Didem looks back at the entrepreneurship of last decades she sees family businesses that are very locked in, with a huge lack of dialogue between the generations. In the 80’s and 90’s we had mainly traders, distributors with no added value. In textile we had production but once it was clear it was a good business too many started and it became just cheap producing, no R&D or innovation was seen. The potential is there though. The MENA region including Turkiye is huge, around 600 million, young and not afraid of using new things. We also have the smart people, the guru’s, the game changers. What we miss is the global outlook, stepping out of the comfort zone, the huge local market. A good way of doing this according to Didem is to have an international team. Diversity is key, it incorporates more cultures than just the Turkish one, and you speak English, opening a huge world around you.
The local investment scene in Turkiye is not so big. Around 20 Angel Investors and 15 VCs are active but most very conservative with small ticket sizes. Students rely too much on the grants, in a way they go around the hot potato called Market/Product Fit and Sell, representing 90% of all startups. Only 10 % are professionals with a decent experience. This part is afraid, mainly to fail and bruise their ego. Endeavor wants to help this part with creating more self-awareness. According to Didem there is a huge opportunity for Science based startups, but somehow that does not kick off in Turkiye. Angel investors look big in member numbers but their activity is too low and too little. She sees a lack of ideation based on real problems. She calls it lacking of opportunity identification. Combined with missing good role models who can tell their stories with passion and drive to inspire other starters.
Endeavor has also an impact investment vehicle called Catalyst which is something like a side car fund that any Endeavor Entrepreneur can engage for up to 10% of their fundraising rounds of $5MM or more together with institutional investors. The fund is organized outside the normal Endeavor activities where 50–80% of an LPs carry is donated back to Endeavor as part of Endeavor’s sustainability model. As of April 2016, Catalyst invested in 34 Endeavor Entrepreneurs from 14 countries, of which 5 are from Turkiye including Airties, iyzico, Lidyana, Peakgames and Yemeksepeti.
I like to end my interviews with understanding what success means, from a personal and business point of view. Entering the room in the beginning gave me a good idea already, as Didem is a very optimistic and happy looking person. She loves what she is doing. No surprise that the personal and business success indicators are very aligned. She didn’t use the word success but happiness as a goal with the journey as the most important factor. She likes the fact that she has a great team of around 12 to 14 people that doesn’t need to grow as such just to impress people. Also the number of members is growing, now 200, but in a controlled way. Next to the smile there is also the brain. Didem mentioned KPI’s in this part also and that is interesting. She understands very well that talk is easy, but when you measure you can improve. So overall she is the kind of person who matched perfectly personal and business success. A rare good.
Patrick Bosteels, Stage-Co Co-Founder
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