Why Role Models Matter For The CEOs Of Tomorrow

Long processes, one-way communication, top-down decision-making—this was the norm when Istanbul-based Sina Afra started his career in consulting. Then a junior associate at KPMG, he didn’t dare to contribute ideas unsolicited. Now, some 20 years on, this serial entrepreneur shares what inspired his path to becoming one of Turkey’s biggest internet entrepreneurs—and what changing norms in leadership and business mean for young people today.

Ashoka: How did your growing up years influence your entrepreneurial path?

Sina Afra: My father was a diplomat, so we were always moving. I was born in Turkey and lived in the Netherlands until age six – then my father was seconded to Germany and four years after that, we moved again. So I speak five languages, could live anywhere, and love to explore new environments. These early experiences gave me a feeling of no boundaries and a global mindset that helped me as an entrepreneur. I really don’t care if I do something in Tokyo or the U.S. or in Germany.

Ashoka: What led you to start your first company in 2008 – Markafoni, Turkey’s first and leading online fashion site?

Afra: I worked for a long time in the corporate world and only decided to become an entrepreneur once I met another entrepreneur – so I’m a big believer in role models. This was Niklas Zennstrom ten years ago. He was very successful with Skype and the story was amazing. So I thought, I’ll skip corporate life and start my own venture. I’ve started 20 more since then and look forward to a new project this year.

Ashoka: From consulting to building your own teams to investing in start-ups, you’ve seen leadership from every angle. What looks different today?

Afra: Leadership is an incredibly fascinating topic. When I started out in the early ’90s, the model was: level 4 does the work and presents to level 3, which adds something and presents to level 2, which then goes to the CEO for the final decision. Today, there’s a different mindset, almost the opposite. Gifted leaders want others to raise their voice. They work like conductors of an orchestra. And this is true whether it’s construction or high tech. In my case, I want to get around a table with whatever team did the detailed work and hear their opinions and ideas. This speeds up decision making and builds ownership of the project and company.

Ashoka: Do these principles inform how you invest?

Afra: Well, I like teams. One-person shows are difficult. And I like teams of two or four over three. When it’s three and they become successful or run into big problems, it’s often two against one with one person losing. If you’re two or four, you have to be able to communicate, to work together and reach agreement.

Ashoka: The skills you point to – empathy, teamwork – are increasingly critical for success in business and life. Is education keeping pace?

Afra: No, it’s increasingly out of sync. I mean, we would probably all agree that education is the single most important dimension for any country’s future – and yet we use a school system that started 200 years ago! What would happen if we asked a team of entrepreneurs to design a new system? Not just an innovative school, but a new system that works for everyone. I’m guessing it would look 90 percent different from current practice.

Ashoka: Interesting… what would you prioritize in the new design?

Afra: I’d look at customizing learning to support students of varying skill levels and introduce peer learning as the norm so that kids grow up discussing and collaborating rather than being lectured to. And foundational skills like understanding democracy, women’s rights, and respecting other people – these are more important now than ever before. Finally, role models really matter, inside and outside the classroom. When I was finishing high school, everyone wanted to go into investment banking and consulting. Now, my daughter – she’s 18 – looks to the Google guys or Mark Zuckerberg for inspiration. They are her heroes. So this is a big shift. We need more changemakers inspiring young people to ask themselves: What do I hope for the future? How can I contribute?