In attempting to launch my social venture BALYOLU, I get three general responses.
Response one comes from the village. It’s the Turkish version of this: “KIZ! (GIRL!) Hold-up. You’re 25, not married, and you have no kids…? WHAT have you been doing all of this time? There is this nice young man who has finished his military service. He is even a teacher…” Or there is this recent favorite from an 18 year-old-admirer “REALLY? You’re 25? You don’t look a day over 17! You don’t even have wrinkles around your eyes!”
Response two, from the man at the regional development office who sits behind a desk wearing a nice suite: “Look, you are a sweet girl, but you are trying to do this at 25? Here is my advice to you. Wait 10 years. Go get a PhD, earn credibility at a university through teaching courses. Come back and try then.”
To my friends in the villages, good effort, but its going to be a while longer. To the man in the nice suite sitting at the regional development office, responses like yours are one of many reasons why we don’t see a lot of women run businesses, especially in eastern Turkey.
Let’s do the math. Waiting 10 years would put me at 35, leaving me a narrow window to have a family (my friends in the villages would have given up by then!). And even if I do manage to secure a family, this work would not be easy with kids in tow. It would be tough on them and tough on me. I am not saying that working mothers cannot establish businesses (the ones who do deserve the world’s respect), or that a PhD would be a disadvantage (heck, most of the people I talk to in Turkey only take me seriously because I’ve told them I am applying to graduate school, “Graduate school? Good. Good.”). But as a woman, if there is a time to take a risk, to start the business of my dreams, to move to a new place and establish something from the ground up – being that young jobless, childless, homeless 25-year-old actually has its advantages.
I read countless articles about how we need to “increase the number of woman entrepreneurs.” Many articles argue that while women are pushing the figurative “glass ceiling” in academics, law, and medicine, women-lead businesses are hard to find.* I can only speak from my personal experiences, but my hypothesis is this: society, grant giving foundations, and formalized start-up funds often target “the established business,” or at least “the established business person.” Yes there are micro-loans for women. And yes there are very cool crowed-sourcing funding platforms. But the programs that have a support network, legal backing, and the resources to help me launch the business of my dreams: a good deal of them want me to have that graduate degree, substantial businesses experience, or some affiliation that makes me greater than what I am – a 25-year-old who quit her job, wrote an abridged business plan, and moved to Kars.
Quite frankly, a part of me believes what that man in the nice suite behind the desk, and many others like him, said. I should go get more experience, go to business school, or I try for that PhD. But unlike my male friends in their thirties who have biological wiggle room, the longer I wait, the harder it will be for me to be a full-time mom and business owner. You may argue, that women who go to medical and law school face the same kind of dilemma, often launching their own very time-consuming practices by the time they are in their mid-thirties. However studying law and medicine, to some degree, has a guarantee. You may be loaded down in debt, but people need health care, and they need legal protection. You will likely be successful in the long-run. On the other hand, business – and its sustainable but often limited revenue generating counterpart social business – is a gamble. And I can imagine how a lot of women once having a family, don’t want to place that gamble on their loved ones. That leaves the gap for us to launch our own businesses pretty small. Sure men do it. But I think more often than not, they have more time to become established (40 year-old dad = no biggie. 40 year-old mom = health risks).
Of course this kind of math and reasoning has its exceptions. But from my perspective, if you really want more businesswomen, support that enthusiastic under-30, “under experienced” aspiring entrepreneur.
This brings me to response three. The hand squeeze. Response three comes from my mentors. They were the complete strangers who replied to my nervous emails; Skyping with me from smokey cafés, village homes, and the back of trucks (thank you VINCENT my mobile modem). They know very little about me, they’ve read a paragraph about my idea, but still they give me advice about registering as a business, or recommended me to friends who could help. They invited me for tea in spite of their overwhelming schedules, and they told me, “go for it KIZ,” we are here for you.
There are also my family, friends, and my partner who knew I wouldn’t be happy thinking about “what could have been,” unless I gave it a try. To my surprise and relief, they continue to give me the hand squeeze. My uncle, the retired beekeeper gave me the hand squeeze when he gifted me all of his old beekeeping gear after I told him I was quitting my job. Strangers, who have become like family, have opened up their homes and their contact books, giving me the hand squeeze as I leave on the midnight bus to my next beekeeper.
I am beyond lucky to have you response number three. You are the reason I am still going, why I believe in my idea, why I able to survive without a steady income or stability, and why I am not giving up just yet.
Even if I fail, I hope in writing this blog post, I can reassure other aspiring young women entrepreneurs to not quit when you meet that man in the nice suit behind the desk (or others who sound like him). Know that unfortunately, not everyone is prepared for the concept that is us. But keep trying, you would be surprised by the unlikely places you just might find response number three.
* Articles on why there aren’t more women entrepreneurs, and similar ideas: