Bedriye Hülya’s b-Fit uses a unique model that combines access to sports and entrepreneurship as vehicles to promote gender equality, education, entrepreneurship, and empowerment of women and girls in Turkey.
The New Idea
Bedriye uses the b-Fit health and sports center as a medium for female empowerment—which she believes requires women’s access to physical and mental space free from their traditional gender roles and male pressures; to discover their bodies and potential as women. b-Fit launched in 2006 when Bedriye, a female entrepreneur struggling to exist in Turkey’s male- dominated business world, came up with the idea and leveraged resources from five women entrepreneurs in various fields, including public relations, psychology and fitness, to make her idea of a women-only sports and health center a reality.
Within eight years of creating her first “by and for women” b-Fit, thousands of women have come together as a result of Bedriye’s work. They have left their homes, enjoyed their bodies through sports, developed self-awareness, and attended trainings on a wide-range of issues including nutrition, hygiene, sexual health, communication, leadership, and entrepreneurship. In addition, b-Fit enables hundreds of women to enter professional work and gain economic citizenship.
Today, b-Fit has become the largest and most widespread health and recreation center chain in the country, significantly transforming a sector that is largely dominated by male-only billiard halls, weightlifting saloons, and football fields. It has also formed a community of empowered women entrepreneurs who are shaping attitudes toward women’s capabilities as leaders and decision makers, especially in the traditionally male-dominated fields of entrepreneurship and the sports industry. Co-owned, franchised, managed, and used by women only, the b-Fit model combines a gym with a community center to form alternative spaces where women of all ages and backgrounds have the opportunity to develop a range of essential life-skills. Having impacted over 90,000 women in 200 centers in Turkey, one in Northern Cyprus and another in Germany, b-Fit plans to expand to the Middle East and apply its model to benefit the elderly.
Sports, professions, and entrepreneurship are traditionally defined, constructed, and promoted as male-specific activities in Turkey, where there is a cultural inclination to regard these activities or priorities as “unfeminine” and a significant lack of opportunities for women to exercise or work. As such, significantly fewer women than men engage in sports and only 26 percent of women participate in the workforce, leaving half of Turkey’s population largely absent.
There are clear health benefits of women’s participation in physical activity and sports. An active life can prevent a range of non-communicable diseases, which account for over 60 percent of global deaths, while it can also reduce the risk of chronic disease later in life. In addition to improving health, sports provide women and girls with an alternative to participate in social life. Sports also develop essential life-skills such as the ability to work as a team, set goals, pursue excellence in performance, and other life milestones.
In Turkey, where traditional gender roles are strictly reinforced in urban and rural settings, the realities of women’s daily lives—domestic work, childcare, lack of money or time—inhibit their participation in sports and the development of these skills. These social obstacles are further reinforced by the physical spaces where exercise takes place: private spaces are dominated by male-only activities, such as billiard halls, football fields, and body building saloons that make up 80 percent of all recreation enterprises. Other public spaces, including parks, are generally not secure or socially acceptable places for women to exercise.
Women in Turkey face similar challenges to their participation in work life—most women do not work due to traditional gender roles, while the minority that do experience dual career-family pressures, gender discrimination, lack of equal opportunities, and few women-friendly work environments. The difficulty in achieving a work-life balance for women is evident in the low employment rates of women with children: only 24 percent of mothers in Turkey are employed after their children begin school, which is the lowest in the OECD—the average in OECD countries is 66 percent. This reality leaves women largely dependent on their fathers, husbands or other male family members and vulnerable to violation of their basic human rights.
Driven by the vision that every woman in Turkey has access to physical exercise and the space to foster entrepreneurship, b-Fit centers create spaces open only to women in which they can enjoy sports and each other’s company, as well as develop a range of skills and self-awareness. Women’s physical, mental, and economic empowerment is central and crosscutting throughout the b-Fit model. The centers are founded and entirely managed by women, creating opportunities for them to start, grow and own businesses while mastering certain skills that will help them become more entrepreneurial. In turn, they become role models and local changemakers, inspiring many more to follow.
It is b-Fit’s procedure that only women who are in need can apply to be franchisees—be it financial need or a need for success, fulfillment, or achievement in their lives. While b-Fit expects its franchisees to be solution-oriented, motivated and friendly, it does not base its selection criteria on education level or previous work experience—in fact, many of the franchisees have basic education and had not worked.
A franchise costs 60,000 liras (roughly €24,000) and covers the costs of exercise machines, brand rights, and furniture. Upon joining b-Fit, franchisees are taken on a journey where they are given constant support on gender awareness, entrepreneurship, management, communications and other skills. b-Fit franchisees are also brought together periodically to communicate their needs, build a sense of community and create a local network of women changemakers. The b-Fit company reinvests 100 percent of its profits back into b-Fit and its non-profit academy for women’s vocational training. Bedriye and the b-Fit team encourage the franchisees to also invest back into their businesses for greater sustainability and to make safe financial investments for their financial security. Bedriye believes that in a country where 92 percent of all immovable property is owned by men, it is part of women’s empowerment to make smart financial investments for their future.
The b-Fit centers are comprised of a gym and café and marketed as such to make women feel comfortable and welcome. Monthly membership fees range from 30 to 120 liras (€12 to €48), and are determined by location. Each center is required to organize a minimum of one seminar/training and one social event per month, although many choose to do more.
b-fit members are mostly housewives (40 percent), students (10 percent), teachers (20 percent), health and legal sector workers and retirees (30 percent), making up a strategically important group holding key positions for social influence. Many belong to lower-middle classes, and Bedriye has made an attempt to make b-Fit more available to women from lower classes by joining forces with local women’s citizen organizations (COs) in some of Turkey’s most impoverished regions. She has set up a center without any costs and a lower membership fee of 5 liras (€2.5). Bedriye continues to develop a strategy for sustainability and expansion to lower-income groups.
Bedriye is encourages franchisees to come up with social projects each month; especially those that further women’s entrepreneurship skills and how women can change society. She is institutionalizing such engagement by acting as a mediator between the country’s leading COs, public social service institutions, and b-Fit’s network of 90,000 women. b-Fit is deepening the ways it is empowering women: (i) physically, women learn to enjoy and take care or their bodies through sports (ii) mentally, women gather to share experiences, knowledge, and skills (iii) economically, as b-Fit franchisees gain economic citizenship, and (iv) socially, b-Fit franchisees and members change society through their volunteer engagement. As such, b-Fit is adding a new perspective to its work, seeing its members as women with the potential to make significant change in society and fostering community engagement and changemaking.
Bedriye started the first b-Fit center in her hometown of Izmir in 2006. The center attracted a lot of attention from the women of Izmir. Soon after, she opened two more centers in the same city, followed by another in Istanbul within a year. After a newspaper interview in 2007, Bedriye started to receive demands for franchises from women from all over the country and opened another 10 centers in 2007, 15 in 2008, 30 in 2009 and 52 in 2010. Over the years, b-Fit has grown exponentially, reaching over 200 centers—the largest gym franchise in Turkey.
Bedriye has a successful track record of entrepreneurship, having founded and managed several enterprises in the tourism and textile sectors. During her career, Bedriye has successfully identified needs and opportunities and put together teams and resources. She crossed to the social side at 42, deciding to be the solution to her challenges as a woman entrepreneur.
It was not until she took a career break to realize her dream to study psychology in the U.S. that she realized much of her struggles resulted from gender inequalities and being a woman in a male-dominated field. During her exploration of the U.S. lifestyle, she came across the concept of women-only gyms, which spurred her inspiration for b-Fit. Realizing that none of these centers were truly diffusing the idea of women’s empowerment in their core approach, she kept innovating, reinventing and eventually created her own unique model and approach.
Women’s involvement and enjoyment of their bodies through sports and exercise had always been close to her heart: since a car accident that significantly limited her physical abilities in her teenage years, Bedriye is a firm believer that self-awareness and empowerment start with the body.
Returning to Turkey with increased awareness and much inspiration, Bedriye gathered five of her women friends and founded the first b-Fit center in 2006. “I saw an opportunity to enable Turkish women to empower themselves” says Bedriye, which is exactly what she did. Today, Bedriye is looking for strategies to better assess, understand, and deepen her social impact on women in Turkey. She is looking to measure and deepen her impact, increase the diversity of women members, and at opportunities to expand across the Middle East.