It was a long journey. From Brazil to Atlanta, I've spent 28 hours traveling. Then, from Istanbul to Brazil it took me another 36 hours traveling, which included a layover in Dubai. But that was not the memorable part of my experience. I'm talking about being away from home for 30 days, sleeping and eating, learning and conversing, and living with 24 students from several countries. Not to mention learning from at least 15 academics or more than 35 major company executives we've met in Atlanta and Istanbul. I'm talking about those beautiful minds I had the opportunity to meet through Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business interdiciplinary course, “Media, Journalism & Business in a Global Context.”
The course took place in Atlanta (USA) and Istanbul (Turkey). Some ten days after I returned home, I went back to work and I was assigned to interview Jonah Lehrer, a neuroscientist who works at The New Yorker as a journalist and happened to write a best seller called Imagine – How Creativity Works. Well, Mr. Lehrer has this concept that says that good ideas are surrounded by good ideas. In other words, he thinks people have to be in contact with good ideas to have great insights.
According to Mr. Lehrer, cities will endure and flourish with technologies that allow long distance communication. And that's why people still choose to live in big cities such as New York or São Paulo, despite security issues or the high cost of living. Because, once they go there, the possibility of achieving something bigger is huge. "Even in this era of plasma screens, Skype and other technologies that allow us to communicate at a distance, is still human interaction that causes sparks," he says.
I have to agree with Mr. Lehrer, because I felt plenty of those sparks for more than a month. Even when I was tired, sleeping only a few hours each night, I've never felt so full of creativity and bright, novel ideas. And I don't think I was alone. I've seen young GSU students, and Marmara University students who shadowed us, push themselves hard to understand how different business practices work in different countries, even if they had never had the chance to work at such a place before. I’ve seen students discover and accept different cultures, learn to act professionally when meeting important executives, and learn how to network or how to work as group. I've seen university students transform into young professionals.
At the same time, I've seen older professionals learning again with young students. They were already experienced working in various media, communications and other industries before. As well, they were experienced with networking and dealing with stressful situations on a daily basis. But it is likely that some of them had not encountered such a multicultural and diverse group as ours before, in such a unique place as Istanbul. I witnessed veteran professionals becoming eager learners. And standing on someone else's shoes is one of the greatest lessons you can be thought in a lifetime.
There is an old corporate cliché suggesting that companies are made of people. Though this is an old idiom, it is very true. When you meet such talented executives as Brad Ferrer, Lynn Brindell, E.C. Estenson or Scot Safon, you understand why CNN is such talent rich organization. How many students or even media professionals have the chance to really get to know one of the major media companies' history, operations, and strategy? For someone like me, growing up in Brazil watching CNN coverage on international issues and admiring those professionals, it was quite an experience to meet and interact with such talented executives.
That was for sure one of the most amazing experiences I cherished as part of GSU’s Maymester class, but our experience in the study abroad part in Istanbul was equally rich and amazing. Listening to executives managing such companies as Coca-Cola’s Eurasia and Africa Group, UPS, Sabanci, or Turkcell (largest Turkish telecom) was also unbelievable. At Coca-Cola, we've learned how an international brand can adapt so well and be consumed as perceived as a ‘local’ brand. At Turkcell, we learned about one of the most fascinating social responsibility projects – the Snowdrops project which aims maximize young girls from rural Turkey to receive college educations (http://www.turkcell.com.tr/site/tr/turkcellhakkinda/Sayfalar/sosyal-sorumluluk/egitim/kardelenler/kardelenler.aspx).
We learned that Turkey is the fourth largest user base in the world for Facebook. We learned how a Turkish conglomerate is so successful in spreading its footprint throughout eastern Europe and Russia.
Mike Harrell, country manager for UPS (United Parcel Serivce Inc.) in Turkey, offered us a very thoughtful vision of what an expatriate needs to learn to be effective in a foreign market. Working and living in another country can really be an arduous task if you are not genuinely curious about the culture and willing to learn. I could not ask for a more comprehensive and instructive prescription of how to succeed in global markets.
On the media side, we were treated to a broad range of international and local media companies in both Atlanta and Istanbul. These included: Bloomberg, CNN, Fox, NTV, TV 8, TRT, and Kapital Medya. Listening to Dr. Jim Schiffman, formerly with CNN International and the Wall Street Journal or the outstanding executive journalists at Fox Turkey, CNN Turkey, and NTV was unforgettable. From those examples, I should highlight Dr. Haluk Şahin, a highly respected journalist and academic in Turkey, who gave us a memorable presentation on Turkish history, politics, media and, yes, censorship. He showed us how beautiful minds can be faded away by government intimidation and harassment.
Indeed, while Turkey is pointed by many as an economic model to be followed by other Muslim countries, especially those that experienced the Arab Spring, it is also the country with the largest number of journalists in prison. Reporters Without Borders currently ranks Turkey 147th in its Press Freedom Index, on a par with Russia and Pakistan. International organizations estimate more than 100 imprisoned journalists are endlessly awaiting trial. Those journalists are considered by the Turkish government as a threat, some alleged terrorists, and kept in prison for years, without being put on trial, and only released when the government considers it is time. By the time they leave prison, their lives are ruined.
The government also routinely blocks a variety of websites on pretense of preventing obscenity. Yet, social media is alive and well in Turkey, providing an outlet for people to vent their frustrations. Speakers from the Turkish regulatory agency with power over the communications industry, Basin Ilan Kurumu, suggested to our group that they are simply regulating media in the interest of the public, and that the arrested journalists are accused of working for terrorist organizations. It's the same old excuse.
We've been through the same scenario in Brazil, when the country was ruled by a despotic military government. I grew up and attended college listening to the stories telling how Brazilian media struggled with dictatorship. Every newspaper in the country had a government official in the newsroom. At the end of the day, this person was responsible for reading the whole issue and judging which stories could be printed. Quickly, newspapers became a medium where readers would look up for recipes, no more. When someone reading the newspaper and encountering a cooking recipe in a politics or economy section, they knew that it replaced the censored article intended for that space! Observing such a strong country as Turkey – with impressive economic figures and amazingly resourceful and sophisticated people – going through this difficult period is really concerning.
Turkey has the world's 15th largest GDP in the world on a purchasing power parity basis. The Turkish economy is characterized as a dynamic, emerging market by the International Monetary Fund and has highly developed and competitive sectors. Yet it needs to reach a much more transparent and accountable government.
This, for me, was the key metaphor: Turkey is really a place of contrasts. It not just the fact that Istanbul lays in two different continents, or that you can see women, side by side, people wearing fashionable western attire and conservative garb with headscarves, or women rising to most senior positions in Turkish corporations such as Turkcell while girls are still kept away from school in the countryside. While Turkey is fast transforming into a competitive and modern economy, it has a long way to go.
Within this fascinating journey made possible by this innovative course, my own learning journey is equally remarkable. We've travelled so many miles to learn about a different country, a different culture, and even a different way of conducting business. I've travelled even a longer distance, so I could touch base with two very different countries, cultures, and ways of doing business. I'll never forget the lovely Turkish people, they're delicious food, the views of the Bosphorus, and the poetry in the characters and streets of Istanbul. As well, I'll never forget the driven way of Americans, the “good morning smiles” I received on the streets of Atlanta, and the southern, delightful hospitality of Phil and Vicki Bolton. I'll never forget the friends I've made and the mentors I had. And, certainly, I'll never forget this journey.
Daniela Almeida is a journalist with Época Negócios, one of the largest business magazines in Brazil. Before joining Época Negócios, Daniela contributed to an economics column and also covered politics for newspapers, including the 2010 presidential campaign. At Editora Abril, a major Brazilian publishing house, she coordinated projects and customized magazines. Daniela graduated in journalism in 2002 and started her career working at a public relations agency, working for such companies as MSN, Microsoft, Symantec, and Banco Real (Santander). Daniela resides in Sao Paulo.
Daniela was invited and subsequently participated as a guest journalist in GSU’s Maymester course, Media, Journalism & Business in a Global Context, during Maymester 2012. Partially supported with generous contributions from CNN, Global Atlanta, The Coca-Cola Foundation, and GSU-CIBER, this interdisciplinary course enrolls both business and journalism students. Now in its second year, the course is lead by professors Tamer Cavusgil (RCB) and Shawn Powers (Journalism).