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Talking Turkey About Technology Startups

Students Study Entrepreneurship in Ankara

Sightseeing in Ankara

By Laura Chisolm

What makes an entrepreneur? And what influence does the cultural environment have on the birth of a company? 

These were the questions at the heart of a course that took College of Management Prof. Steven Tello and five students to Turkey for two weeks in January.

Tello created the course — Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship — in collaboration with Prof. örsan örge of Bilkent University in Ankara. The group held classes at Bilkent’s campus on a hill above the city.

Bilkent, founded in 1984, is Turkey’s first private university. Its business school shares the same Association for the Advancement of Collegiate Schools of Business accreditation as the UMass Lowell College of Management and a cyberpark on its campus is home to one of Turkey’s 28 technology business incubators. Most faculty and staff live in university housing, and all of the business classes are taught in English. 

“Our hosts were really remarkable,” says Tello, who, with his students, blogged about the experience through the University website. “They met us at the airport, made sure we always had what we needed and that someone was with us most of the time.”

Why Turkey?

But why study innovation and entrepreneurship in Turkey? Management major George Walk weighed in in a blog entry about the trip.

“If we had stayed in the U.S. … we would not have had to question our models and assumptions ... about what it means to be an entrepreneur and not just an entrepreneur in the U.S.,” he wrote.

Indeed, says Tello, “we in America need to look at how to grow and create new businesses with international partners and for international markets. It’s important to understand how other countries support entrepreneurship and what the life cycle of a new business looks like in other places.”

Discovering Differences

In Turkey, the students got to see first-hand cultural models at work in a foreign business environment. In addition to meeting for their own discussions, the group attended a session of case-study presentations by students in örge’s entrepreneurship class and met with several entrepreneurs who have technology startup companies in various stages of development.

They discovered that startups are typically funded very differently in Turkey than they are in the United States, with government grants as opposed to venture capital or angel investors. Companies also tend to be family controlled and the business environment values stability over risk. This makes sense, says Tello, given that Turkey’s was a state-run economy until the 1980s and that Ankara, as the capital, is the seat of government.

The American students made a positive impression on their hosts, who praised their rigorous questions and insights. “Most of our students have jobs,” says Tello. “They make connections between concepts and their application, so they were able to be very helpful in discussions about taking fledgling businesses to the next level. I was proud of them.”

Timing is Everything

The time was right to create an exchange course like this one with a university overseas, according to Tello. The College of Management introduced the undergraduate concentration in entrepreneurship in 2007 and the Master's of Science in Innovation and Technological Entrepreneurship program in 2009, and both are attracting growing numbers of students. A concentration in international business was added more recently.

At the same time, the University has recently signed memoranda of understanding with institutions in a number of countries for the purpose of creating academic exchanges and meaningful international experiences for students.

The Value of Culture Shock and Karaoke

“I believe the culture shock of landing in a country where none of us spoke the language actually shook us up and made us open to seeing things in a new way on multiple fronts,” says Tello, who has  adopted some video course materials that örge introduced him to and done some fresh thinking about the contexts that create entrepreneurs. 

The benefits of the trip were not all academic. The students found time to explore the cuisine, shops and historical sites in and around Turkey’s capital, two of them even managing to squeeze in a trip to Istanbul. They also discovered the universal language of nightlife in a modern city where, if you don’t speak Turkish, there’s always karaoke.

Profs. Steven Tello, left, and örsan örge
From left, Management students George Walk, Nathaniel Brown, Michael Tuccinardi, Steven Johnian and Chris Foster at the Bilkent Cyberpark.