Joe PARKINSON THE WAL STREET JOURNAL
Many well-educated Turks used to look abroad for their career opportunities. But now many think the best opportunities lie at home.ISTANBUL—Zeynep Dagli never expected to come home so soon.
A graduate of elite universities in the U.K., she worked for four years as a high-flying investment banker in London until 2009, profiting at the height of a boom that made the U.K. capital the center of world finance. Three years later, the 28-year-old Ms. Dagli is making waves back home in Turkey, two years after founding start-up gift-box company Momento, which is forecast to post a turnover of up to 3 million lira ($1.7 million)—a 230% rise—this year.
"In the U.K. or the U.S. I couldn't have had this success and certainly not this quickly. I also couldn't have had this network—it just wouldn't have worked," Ms. Dagli says, explaining the year-and-a-half journey to build the company from scratch after returning from London. "The trend of young Turks returning home to seek opportunities here is going to grow as people now believe that they can make a sustainable fortune here away from the political and financial instability they were used to in the past. If you're a young Turk and you're not going to make it here, where are you going to make it?" she says.
With a rapidly expanding corporate client list of household names including PricewaterhouseCoopers, Unilever and Visa, Ms. Dagli is one of a new breed of educated young Turks whom experts say are returning to their ancestral homeland to cash in on its economic boom as opportunities in developed markets dwindle. For decades, much of Turkey's top talent emigrated to Europe and the U.S., graduating from Ivy League schools and securing senior jobs in some of the world's most influential companies.
But as developed markets struggle to maintain growth, Turkey's star is rising, luring many of the country's top professionals back to the motherland.
Turkish AllureTurkey's government doesn't publish timely data on the number of Turks returning from working abroad, but economic numbers underline the country's growing allure. As the U.S. and Europe have struggled to overcome the financial crisis and return to solid growth, last year Turkey's $735 billion economy grew faster than any other leading economy except China, posting an 8.5% expansion. And that was on top of 9.0% growth in 2011.
Half of Turkey's 75 million population are under 30, standing in stark contrast to ageing Europe and underscoring the dynamism of the economy.
"This is a real trend and it's accelerating. It's a new era in Turkey," says Professor Murat Erdogan, from the Population Studies Center at Haciteppe University in Ankara. "We're richer than before and people want to capitalize. Many educated people can have better opportunities here than in developed markets and their skills make them more likely to succeed," he says.
Turkey's experience speaks to a wider global trend. For generations, the world's less-developed countries suffered so-called brain drain—the flight of many of their best and brightest to the West. That hasn't stopped, but now a reverse 'brain gain' has begun, particularly to fast-growing countries such as China, India, and, to a lesser extent, Brazil and Turkey.
One corner of Turkey's economy attracting a glut of repatriates is the technology sector, which has seen explosive growth centered around Istanbul—emerging as a regional hub for e-commerce. According to the Interbank Card Center, which monitors transactions, Turkish e-commerce business increased 57% in 2011 from the previous year to 22 billion lira. In a country with the world's 13th largest internet market, according to Comscore, this growth surge has given rise to scores of new internet startups since the beginning of the year.
Ari Bencuya, a 28-year-old born and raised to Turkish parents in California's Silicon Valley, moved to Turkey in 2010 to work in the tech sector after working in corporate startups in the U.S.
His venture-capital firm, Inventures, is currently invested in seven technology startups in Istanbul, having already exited several deals successfully this year. "I wanted to make the leap into a fast-growing market and make it in a way that would make a great impact," Mr. Bencuya says. "We're seeing exponential growth in terms of the number and the quality of companies in Turkey. In the next couple of years we'll see a Turkish internet company really make a big impact on the international market. It's only a matter of time."
Surging DemandBut it isn't just technology that is acting as a magnet sucking educated Turks back to their ancestral homeland. Professionals from other sectors are also rushing home to ride the boom. Okan Demirkan returned to Turkey to set up a law firm after stints living in the Netherlands, Israel, London and New York.
The Istanbul-based practice, Kulcuoglu Demirkan Attorneys at Law, has swelled to 20 fee-earners within three years, servicing blue-chip clients across Turkey's booming economy. "It's not that we want to be a big fish in a small pond; there is surging demand and we want to supply it," says the 32-year-old Mr. Demirkan, speaking in the new boardroom of his firm's headquarters, on the edge of Istanbul's business district.
"It's my belief that repatriates will increasingly be a driving force in Turkish society in the years ahead; I'm glad I got in early," he says.
To be sure, business in Turkey offers risk as well as reward. Many economists and ratings agencies have raised concerns that the country's booming growth is unbalanced, with surging domestic demand fuelling a bloated current account deficit of 10% of gross domestic product that leaves the economy vulnerable to external shocks. Many businesses say taxation is uncompetitive and regulation more onerous than in developed markets.
But for a growing number of returning Turks like Zeynep Dagli, developed markets can't compete with Turkey's rapid growth, rising confidence and sense of possibility. "My friends would have said a couple of years ago that I'd never come back, but Turkey is where I am. It's where I'll stay," she says.
"When I was growing up I thought only girls who wanted to get married come home after getting a job abroad... But things have changed."