Saturday, July 9, 2011

A journey from Ohio to Istanbul

I'm fascinated by success stories. I also love to hear how people thrive in İstanbul. Hence, this miniseries of people I know and respect in İstanbul who are making their mark in creative and unexpected ways. This series is an extension of my theory that being a foreigner plays a role in an expat's success abroad.

Take Carl Holtman, for example. He came here with a bachelor's in political science and a master's in Russian, East European and Central Asian studies. Now he is a well-respected and prominent businessman who helps send Turkish students to study abroad, is an employer of native-speaking educators for the administration of the IELTS, and a strong proponent of the idea of students coming to Turkey on study abroad programs.

The journey begins

Carl's journey started while taking a couple of political science courses in post-Soviet politics. While studying he became very interested in the Turkic republics of the former USSR. He realized back in 1997 that if he began to learn Turkish (which was offered at Ohio State University) then he would be well positioned to do business in that part of the world. Carl credits his learning Turkish as the key to the many professional opportunities that have come his way -- he has had many interactions with international businesses interested in expanding into the Turkish market. Speaking Turkish also helps him immeasurably with daily interactions.

Creating opportunity

The following year, Carl decided that he would like to study abroad, but at the time Ohio State did not really have a program set up in Turkey. Rather than let the lack of a program dictate his choice for study abroad, Carl worked with one of the faculty members in the department of Near Eastern languages and cultures at Ohio State to develop an exchange program between Ohio State University and Koç University in İstanbul. Carl attended the exchange program as the first student during the autumn of 1999.

In September 2003, Carl Holtman and his wife moved to İstanbul. After a short foray into the world of online journalism as an editor for several publications, Carl has been active in international education in Turkey, quickly establishing himself as one of the leading figures involved in the sector.

A masterful networker

Carl's decision to transition to this job was led by his desire to get out and network with people -- he calls himself a “masterful networker” and he is one. His wife and he knew that they needed a change and contemplated moving back to the States. By chance while looking at job postings on, he discovered educational consultancy job opportunities that resonated with his desire to link education with his need to interact with people. However, after having worked for a couple of companies in the industry, Carl felt frustrated at the overall lack of professionalism and student focus that he believed to be the keys to successful student recruitment and retention. As a college graduate, he knew that the student experience meant more than numbers. He believed that by putting students' interests first he could help American universities expand their markets in the US and meet their students' desires to participate in rewarding cultural opportunities in Turkey.

Carl's efforts have paid off and his vision is a successful reality. He is currently the person that individuals and companies cite as the go-to-guy for educational opportunities.

An independent businessman

Carl is an independent businessman with a strong sense of integrity. He does not credit a mentor for his success. However, he believes that the objectionable behaviors of other people in the industry who do not appear to respect students' needs fuel his desire to continue to build his business. Their bad examples energize him to redouble his efforts to create “positive change to the student placement industry” that he believes is necessary to polish Turkey's image.

Carl's skills

Carl says that he has “the entrepreneurial bug” and credits his aptitude and flexibility to allow him to adjust to whatever circumstances are presented to him. Although he is not a big risk-taker, as a global, reflective thinker, he takes calculated risks. He credits his experiences at Ohio State University for preparing him for his current work, especially offering Turkish as a potential language of study. He believes that, as a past Russian major, had he not taken Turkish, he “might now be spending [his] days in Moscow.”

The foreign edge
Carl believes that being a foreigner gives him an edge in this field because it allows him to have a broader network of people with whom he develops significant professional relationships. These networking opportunities, such as working with representatives at the US consulate, leads to referrals, including his “first major breakthrough in Turkey” opening a Turkish branch support office for a US English language school.

Challenges of working in Turkey?
Because Carl works for a company, he does not have the challenges like getting work permits. However, he finds that although he believes that his company has the competitive edge in terms of student recruitment and retention, it does not have the financial edge created by companies that do not pay taxes or social security. Although the Turkish government is trying to curtail this practice, it is still widespread, seemingly ingrained in the culture. Instead of seeing companies pay salaries at standard rates of pay, many employees receive only minimum wage on the books. Therefore, Carl has to pay for everything “on the books,” while competitors cheat to avoid these legitimate business costs, weakening his potential profit margin.

Advantages of working in Turkey
As an expat, Carl has integrated his past familiarity with Turkey with his vision of student potential to develop a business that feeds his vision of helping the students he serves to gain a considerable edge in a competitive global marketplace.

Had he not chosen to study at a university that offered Turkish it is quite likely that Carl never would have ventured to Turkey in the first place.



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