Teaching those Turks
A week of teaching entrepreneurship in Turkey made me realize, once again, how the world needs entrepreneurship. Students, professors, technology transfer professionals all want to know HOW to do entrepreneurship because they have no existing model of entrepreneurship in their country. Entrepreneurship is new to Turkey. Of course people have had small businesses for thousands of years here, but the concept of technology entrepreneurship and high growth startups is new. How to teach it, how to encourage it, how to support it – all new to this country which once had the world in its empire. But, they have the need and they have the desire – which is why I was brought all the way from Pittsburgh to Ege University in Izmir, Turkey.
I’d been to Turkey before to do this, in 2013. I went to Elazig in the east, and to the capital Ankara, but I’d never been to Izmir. It was great to be in one place for a week and get to know the city, perched on the Aegean Sea on a horseshoe shaped bay. I taught in two programs. One was for technology transfer professionals who came from all over Turkey to take an introductory and/or advanced several-day workshop to learn how to encourage and support licensing and startups at their universities. The second program was part of an entrepreneurship certificate for masters’ students at Ege University. These latter were the most fun for me to teach because I love working with students. Interacting with them intensely for a week – 28 hours – I got to know them and what motivates them. I find that students are full of ideas and visions for the future. However, they have more enthusiasm than experience, and Turkish students are no exception.
Culturally, it will take some openness and adjustment for the Turks to create an environment where new companies can start and grow. The students will have to test their ideas through customer discovery just like any startup. They will need potential customers to interview and to give feedback. It doesn’t come naturally yet. I could see that the concepts behind market research, analysis, and customer discovery were foreign to my students. I think that I convinced them that they HAVE to do this or risk developing something that either nobody wants to buy or that is already out there as a competing product. An entrepreneurial movement is starting. I could see it in the eyes of the students. Some of them are on fire about entrepreneurship and realize that this is the way of the future – and of the present. I can see that these individuals have what it takes – the fire in the belly, the passionate heart and the knowledge in the head – to become successful entrepreneurs.
The need for entrepreneurs to help with economic development and growth is why Ege University started one of the first formal certificate programs in the country. Founded by the director of the biomedical engineering department, Professor Fazilet Vardar, the certificate program runs only three months. This first cohort is a pilot; the university plans to run two more sessions this year. I would venture to say that my week with them was the most intense time of the program so far. Prior to my sessions, their ideas had not received any pushback so they didn’t really know how to challenge themselves and each other to get to the next levels. I found them eager for pushback – they are students after all. They really needed my “Babs bashing” to make them see the holes in their ideas, the things that they are not considering. “Stop being in love with your idea,” I told them. After the laughing I yell at them to think through their customers: “Are you really going to sell this everyone? Who really needs this? How will those people find this product? On the internet? In a store? THINK!” They were stretched to consider their ideas through the lens of a business. This was new to them. “Build a business not a product,” I admonished them.
These students need this kind of training. Just like students in the US, the Turkish students are focused on their product/technology; they are not focused on the business. I try to change this focus. Now they understand that they need to build a solid business case around their idea – not just talk about the product. This is a shift in mentality, a reach that starts with understanding the market, customers, value proposition, how to grow and scale, and how to develop a viable revenue model. These are not new concepts to the Turkish students, but they have been just that – concepts only. Through experiential learning, I tried to give them tools for HOW to apply these concepts to their entrepreneurial ideas so that they can become new ventures.
The Turks were not used to the style of teaching: lecture/discussion around a topic, exercise where they work in their groups, and then share their work with their peers. Each day they grew more accustomed to listening to each other in order to learn. They did not participate in critiquing as much as I would like. I believe that peer learning is vital, but it’s only relevant if you actually participate in the learning through sharing your insights about what you see and hear. It’s just not done like that in Turkey. So, the students don’t learn as much from each other as they could.
I noticed that classroom etiquette is different in Turkey too. The Turkish people love to talk, and talk they do – all the time. They talk when others are talking, they talk all the time. I had to get their attention by using a microphone, with my admonishment: “ Ah, my Turks, my Turks, my Turks.” They laughed and quieted down so that they could listen. But it was a constant struggle.
That said, the Turks gained valuable insight and methodologies for how to take their nascent ideas into reality through customer interaction. They learned that the importance is not their idea, but their opportunity. I expect to see some startups zoom out of the program in a few months, better prepared, better armed for what awaits them in the real world. I made friends and hope that these groups call on me again to help them through some challenges that I know that they will face. “Face them like Turks!” I will tell them as I sip my Turkish coffee.