Doing good while growing your business

inSITEs from 2024 SITE Global Conference Keynote Speaker Gamze Cizreli

SITE opened its 2024 Global Conference with a keynote address by Turkish hospitality leader Gamze Cizreli. Gamze is the founder and visionary behind BigChefs, a multi-national restaurant empire that Gamze said spans 128 restaurants across 14 countries.  

Gamze walked Global Conference attendees through her personal and professional journey, including opening the first BigChef restaurant in 2007 in Ankara, Türkiye, up through the brand going public last year on the Borsa İstanbul.

In detailing the trials and tribulations she’s faced as a business owner, Gamze emphasized a few key lessons she’s learned about how to be a responsible business owner, CEO, and entrepreneur.

Taking the right risks

Gamze’s path to success can be attributed in part to her ability to make strong, bold choices at important moments. After graduating from university and starting to climb the ranks within a Turkish-American state-backed defense company, Gamze realized she wasn’t all that passionate about what she was doing: but wanted to change that.

She thought of her hometown, Diyar Bakir, she said, and its strong food culture. “We are all foodies, and can spend all day long coming together at long tables,” she shared during her talk.

Inspired by these memories and, despite knowing that the food & beverage business in Türkiye is largely male-dominated, Gamze chose to leave her comfort zone and pursue her gastronomic dreams. She opened her first restaurant at age 24 and grew the concept into several successful spin-offs.

Gamze again had to make a difficult choice though when she realized after 13 years of a successful operation that she was not happy in her marriage, with her husband also her business partner at the time.

She decided to step back and start again, taking another risk of scraping up against rock-bottom odds and dealing with a loss of confidence, that she could pick up new pieces and rebuild toward a new goal.

“Being an entrepreneur is being lonely, and requires building inner-strength yourself,” she noted during her address. “But life is the ability to start over,” she shared, saying this is a mantra that inspired her to spend nearly a year tapping any and all connections until a university friend helped her secure funding for what became that first BigChefs restaurant.

Up through the IPO last year, Gamze has made a point to celebrate her successes and the difficult decisions that led to these big wins. Doing so not only gives her a sense of achievement, she said, but become examples of how women in particular can be successful despite the immense odds they often face.

Overcoming barriers facing women in business

Gamze said that a big motivator throughout her career has been wanting to show that everyone can generate value independently, without the help of (usually male) sources of capital, power, or prestige.

Her keynote highlighted some dismal statistics about the current state of female leadership in industries around the world, with Gamze presenting data that shows only 6.6 percent of CEOs in the Fortune 500 are female, and that it will take 131 years to achieve gender equality worldwide, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Türkiye itself, Gamze said, reflects an economy where only 36 percent of women are actively employed, compared to 65 percent of men — and only 5.2 percent of the country’s parliamentary leadership is female.

Still, there are reasons to be positive despite the grim picture the statistics paint, Gamze also said. Global leaders have shown active interest in addressing inequalities — and spaces like the main ballroom at SITE Global Conference, which featured a heavily female audience, also give her hope. 

Her own venture, BigChefs, is also working throughout Türkiye to change outlooks and outcomes. BigChefs makes a point to source ingredients from rural female producers throughout Türkiye. This win-win strategy results in restaurants that serve fresh, local produce and are shining examples of how organizations can support small growers and producers that would not have widespread opportunities to advance themselves and their families otherwise.

This initiative has now tapped more than 100 producers in the country, and has been recognized by groups like the UN Development Programme for its positive inclusivity impacts.

Emphasis on good growth

The desire to give back and do good was a final strong theme that Gamze returned to during different parts of her keynote address. “Growing is important — but if you don’t give back to the society you live and work in, you aren’t creating value. Is that really success?” she asked the audience at one stage.

Gamze presented an inspiring future vision of where and how she’d like to see companies like hers grow in the future, where “creating value” isn’t left to just NGOs, and making unlimited profits aren’t the sole ask and expectation of for-profit firms.

She instead envisions a model that leaves options open for leaders, celebrates organizations that make a profit to be sustainable, and where leaders take their responsibilities seriously beyond just fiscal bottom lines.

“As leaders, we should definitely create social impact,” said Gamze.  She encouraged leaders in the room to avoid looking out solely for corporate stakeholders, and to be responsive to the suppliers, communities, and employees their businesses touch, too.

“Every day I wake up, I try to inspire more women and children especially to light little sparks within them,” Gamze said, to close out her remarks. “I believe a single spark matters. That’s what turns into a big flame and alights our society. I want to inspire those who feel fires somewhere within to not be afraid to let them burn.”

Our thanks to Gamze for sharing her story as part of Global Conference — and for sparking plenty of inspiration within and across the incentive travel industry with her stirring words!

Written by

SITE Staff


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