Full Name: Sema Basol
Country of Origin : Turkey
Current Company/ Job Title: Co-Founder – Turkish Women’s Initiative
Company website: www.thetwi.org
Sema Basol is an executive with over 25 years of diverse work experience both in the U.S. and in Turkey. She has worked with multi-billion dollar corporations such as Mattel Inc and Koc Holding (in Turkey), small businesses, and non-profit educational and cultural institutions. At Mattel Inc., as Director of Consumer Products, she built its brands into new businesses that generated annual retail sales of over half billion dollars in international markets. Subsequently, as Executive Director of a US based nonprofit, Global Friendship Through Space Education, she worked closely with Space Camp Turkey. She launched an innovative distance-learning program connecting Turkish and American educators and their students in partnership with NASA and US school districts. Currently she is focused on building the Turkish Women’s Initiative and it’s sister organization DLD (Change Leaders Association) a non-profit based in Turkey.
Sema has a B.A. degree from Bogazici University, Istanbul, Turkey, and an M.B.A. from UCLA Anderson School. She has been living in California for more than 30 years.
1. What made you move to the USA? Which city did you move to? Was the move to the USA hard for you?
I came to the USA to get my MBA at Anderson School, UCLA. This was possible as a result of a scholarship I received from Turkish Education Foundation, one of the top foundations in Turkey that provides scholarships to qualifying students. After getting my degree, I went back to Turkey to work there, as required by my scholarship. After two years I came back to Los Angeles. Since I first came to the US as a student, my transition to life here was relatively easy.
2. What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first moved to the USA?
I wish someone had told me the importance of having a mentor. Having such a person can accelerate your adjustment to life here as well as reaching your career goals and aspirations.
3. You have a very interesting career path from working at Mattel Inc to Global Friendship Through Space Education, and then going on to co-found Turkish Women’s Initiative. Can you share what lead you from working for multi-billion dollar corporations to founding your own organization?
My job at Mattel was my first job in the US. There I had the opportunity to work in an organization where women held key executive positions so I was able to observe first hand women in powerful positions which was a totally new experience for me. From then on I started reading about women leaders trying to understand what it takes to be a leader. About 9 years ago, we moved to Silicon Valley which is an area of the country that values the potential of every individual and has a vibrant civic society with many organizations that work with girls and women. There I volunteered for some of these organizations and learned that it is possible to teach women to be confident leaders in their communities.
4. What inspired you to start the Turkish Women’s Initiative? And what does your organization do?
In Silicon Valley, I met women who had decided to make a difference in the world and started their own organizations. This led me to believe that I too needed to give back and inspired me to start my own organization, Turkish Women’s Initiative (TWI). One person who personally encouraged me is Prof. Linda Alepin, founder of Global Women’s Leadership Network, an organization that is committed to global women leaders.
TWI’s mission is the advancement of Turkey’s growth and prosperity by strengthening the contributions of its girls and women. TWI serves in an advisory role to our sister organization DLD (Change Leaders Association, www.degisimliderleri.org) in Turkey and as such helps with program development as well as strategic direction. DLD is a non-profit organization offering programs and services to promote leadership, educational opportunities, and civic engagement among Turkish girls and women. DLD’s signature program is an eight-month long leadership skill building program for university women. We have so far 120 graduates who have completed social change projects that have collectively touched the lives of over 20,000 people in their communities.
Starting and building these two organizations has been very challenging for me personally. What we have accomplished so far in such a short time would not have been possible without the mentoring and guidance of Dr. Jeanne Nidorf, a cultural psychologist who has been very instrumental in understanding Turkey’s unique culture and developing the right programs.
5. Best moment of your career so far?
One of the highlights of my work is being in Turkey with our students. At the end of each school year, we have a three-day Summit when all the participating students, facilitators and volunteers get together for workshops, speakers and graduation. Being there and seeing the change we are creating is the best part of my work.
6. What are some of the biggest hurdles you faced setting up your own organization in the USA? And working with organizations in Turkey?
Even though I had started and ran a multi-million dollar division for a major corporation like Mattel, starting your own organization with the mission of creating social change requires a different set of skills and leadership style. I had to learn how to enroll others in my vision, believe in them and be patient.
7. What advice would you give to expat women who want to start organizations that will help people from their country of origin?
Try hard to find the right people, especially dynamic young people, who have similar values, share your vision and passion. Be patient and don’t give up easily as social change takes time.
8. What are three things you like about the USA?
The freedoms we enjoy here. The belief in possibilities–that anything is possible at any age. And the tolerance for differences.
9. What is your favorite American food? Favorite city in the USA? Favorite store and restaurant?
I enjoy the diversity of food available here, and still enjoy a good hamburger occasionally. My favorite city to live is Saratoga, California, where I currently live and favorite city to visit is Istanbul, Turkey, where I grew up and think is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. My favorite brand and store changes with the times but currently it’s Kate Spade. I do not have a particular favorite restaurant and like to explore different ones.
10. Do you see any similarities between the culture or life in the US and Turkey?
Due to increased communication with wide use of the social media and other means, people in Turkey especially the educated young follow closely what’s happening in the US and enjoy many of the same movies, music and pop culture we enjoy here in the US. But culturally Turkey is very different from the US.
11. What are three things you found about the USA that were different from your country or you found hard to adjust to?
In Turkey I was educated in top schools so I had access to a large well established network I could tap into for a variety of reasons. Here in the US, I had to build a whole new network for social, career and now for philanthropic purposes. This takes time and effort of course.
12. What are three fun or interesting facts about your home country
Turkey is a country of many contrasts. It is really where east meets west. It is a predominantly Moslem secular democracy and a traditional society but also very modern in many ways. Even though it is a male dominated culture, almost 12% of CEO’s are women, higher than even the US. but on the other hand only 25% of women work outside of the home. Almost half the university students are women but women are almost absent in leadership positions.
13. What is your favorite quote?
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead