I was born in Asenovgrad, a small town in Bulgaria. Asenovgrad is known for, amongst other things, its wine, and it was here that my family also made our own wine. A love of fashioning exquisite things with painstaking care was possibly handed down to me through the generations – as a little girl I enjoyed watching my grandfather carefully crafting leather saddles for his horses, and my grandmother transforming yards of simple fabric into beautiful dresses.
In 1989, my family – along with 360,000 other Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity – was asked to leave Bulgaria. Our family of four had to escape quickly, as we feared the borders would close, and my mother didn’t have all the necessary travel papers. We left everything behind except what we managed to cram into two suitcases and made our way through the forests, staying close to and following the train tracks. Eventually, we found our way to the Turkish border and finally arrived at a refugee camp set up at the Turkish border in Edirne.
On arrival in Turkey, I looked out over the tented refugee camp and knew that my childhood had ended. But I also remember thinking very clearly: There was one way out of this, and that was through education. I wanted to build a better life for myself, and my family, and I wanted to contribute to society.
There were struggles, fear, and hard times. Sometimes we didn’t have enough to eat. I remember watching my younger brother, aged 9, gather a few of the items we’d brought with us and offer them to local shopkeepers in exchange for money or food.
Fortunately for me, I had one thing that not all young refugees do: a supportive, loving family. The love of my family kept me going when times were darkest.
My parents, immigrants in a country they barely knew, did not have work. While I was able to attend school, it was conducted in a language I didn’t fully comprehend yet, in a class of 84 students. This was a challenging time, but it forged in me a will to succeed. And to empower those around me to succeed, too.
Eventually, I was awarded a place at the University of Miami as an honours student, where I supported myself by tutoring at the university. I completed my Bachelor of Business Administration degree summa cum laude at the top of my class in 2.5 years.
Shortly thereafter, I returned to Turkey, where I obtained my MBA. In 2000 I founded my wholly family-owned leather goods label, Neri Karra, where we began making luxury Italian leather handbags and accessories. “Doing great work with love” is the fundamental principle we adhere to at Neri Karra, which continues to this day as a family-run business with a global reach.
And I continued my education, attending the University of Cambridge on a full scholarship through the Cambridge Trust Foundation. In 2006 I obtained my PhD in Management Studies; my dissertation was shortlisted for the prestigious William H. Newman Award for academic excellence.
It’s been a long journey for that little girl who once stood, confused yet nevertheless determined, gazing out at a tented encampment in 1989, ready to go to school and rise above her circumstances. Since that time, I obtained three degrees, launched two successful businesses, authored three books, and taught or lectured at numerous universities worldwide. And everything I’ve done, everything I’ve accomplished, I’ve managed because of my education. I agree with the words of Nelson Mandela:
Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.
Source: Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela)
My education allowed me to develop my capabilities, and it gave me freedom: freedom to change the course of my life and the lives of others, freedom to start my businesses, freedom to support myself and my family, to pursue goals, to solve problems, to embrace a growth mindset, to view myself as a life-long learner, to understand the opinions and perspectives of others, to learn to appreciate the value in every living thing, and to give back.
For me, the giving back piece is significant and it’s something I believe in wholeheartedly. It’s part of my broader philosophy to do what is right, and it underscores my business practices. I aim to give back by sharing expertise, by making a positive difference in the lives of people we work with, in our environment, in the lives of our customers and the community at large. My belief in the value of giving back is the reason I support the UN Refugee Agency: A percentage of the income generated through Moda Métiers goes to support the education of child refugees around the world. In addition, I offer pro bono strategic consultancy services to young businesses started by refugees who have recently been displaced by war, persecution, violence, or conflict.
I know that even small positive actions can have an impact. In giving back, it is my hope that I can help and inspire other refugees to continue their education, to pursue their dreams, to overcome their circumstances and reach for their goals, whatever they may be, and, in time, give back as well.
It seems fitting to end with another Nelson Mandela quote:
It is in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it.
Check out the TED Talk I gave in cooperation with Bournemouth University What keeps you alive? The guide to never giving up or the Cane Talk I was invited by the University of Miami to give to all alumni and students, and benefactors.