Interview with Gizem Şalcıgil White, Founder and CEO at Turkish Coffee Lady

May 8, 2019
Gizem Şalcıgil White, aka the Turkish Coffee Lady, Gizem Şalcıgil White, is a Turkish American mother entrepreneur with a unique mission: to create a global community of explorers and coffee lovers.

Gizem Şalcıgil White has been a goodwill ambassador for Turkish coffee culture since 2009 and is the founder of the award-winning non-profit Turkish Coffee Truck initiative. She has been working voluntarily to promote Turkish coffee culture in the U.S. and abroad for the past 10 years. With the support from a dedicated volunteer team, the Turkish Coffee Truck initiative has been bridging cultures through coffee conversations since 2012.

Through this cultural diplomacy initiative, more than 20,000 people in the U.S. and Europe was exposed to Turkish coffee for the first time. Gizem's one-of-a-kind cultural diplomacy project made the headlines of major international publications including The Washington Post, Washingtonian, PRI/BBC and her fans started calling her the "Turkish Coffee Lady". In May 2012, the Turkish Coffee Lady was honored by the U.S. Congress for fostering friendship between the Turkish and American peoples through their shared love of coffee. In 2015, she was honored as the one of the "Top Young Outstanding persons of Turkey" by JCI. Turk of America magazine also awarded her as one of "40 Under 40 – The Most Influential Turkish American" in March 2016.

In 2017, she started the first and only authentic Turkish coffee chain in the U.S. with the support of her partners and her dedicated team. Turkish Coffee Lady's main mission is to build friendships one coffee at a time and empower other women entrepreneurs.
Being a woman while starting a business in 2017 wasn't helpful either. During my coffee tours around the world, I realized a big potential in the growing specialty coffee market.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you have met in your career?

Gizem : The key driving force for me to become a social entrepreneur was the passion for my cultural heritage. As a Turkish-American mother entrepreneur, I traveled the globe to increase world's awareness for 500-year-old Turkish coffee culture for the last 10 years.

However, it was very challenging to fundraise for this non-profit initiative back in 2009. I heard the word "you will fail" so many times, as people tried to convince me that I was giving up on my career by investing myself in a cultural diplomacy project. Nevertheless, I was able to pursue my dream and created an all-volunteer Turkish Coffee Truck initiative with the support of my community to foster friendship between societies through coffee conversations. My main mission was to highlight the common history between Turkish people, Americans, Europeans as well as Canadians.

Being a woman while starting a business in 2017 wasn't helpful either. During my coffee tours around the world, I realized a big potential in the growing specialty coffee market. However, the large coffee chains were not serving Turkish coffee even though it is a 500-year old coffee culture and the world's first coffee brewing technique.

Turkish coffee is the genesis of nearly all coffee cultures found around the world today. After taking several women entrepreneurship classes, I decided to start a new coffee shop concept to make Turkish coffee accessible to everyone whom would like to have an authentic gourmet experience. I came up with a business plan including an extensive market research for exotic coffee and opened my first retail store in December 2019 at Tysons Corner Center. Now, I can proudly say that Turkish Coffee Lady is the first and only authentic gourmet Turkish coffee chain in the U.S. offering a unique experience with various cultural delights, and we grow everyday with the support of our community.

Q: How you would describe your company culture, and what are the superpowers of your team?

Gizem: We are a one big family committed to promote Turkish coffee culture all across America and beyond. My team and I are on a social coffee entrepreneurial journey with the mission of building a global community of coffee lovers.

We have established the "Turkish Coffee Lady" as a lifestyle brand, where renowned Turkish hospitality meets various gourmet products while building friendships one coffee at a time. It is a women-owned business known for its authentic gourmet delights, friendly staff, cozy environment, and world-renowned Turkish hospitality.

Our team is dedicated to facilitate cross-cultural communication between societies through coffee conversations at our location. In an authentic setting, we bring together all coffee lovers and local communities with our experiential services. Our monthly social and educational events also bring local communities closer through cross-cultural activities.
Storytelling is our communication strategy to promote the art of Turkish coffee to our customers; therefore my primary goal is to hire individuals with good cross-cultural communications and excellent people skills.
Q: What are some challenges or trends you see in hiring today?

Gizem: Our main staff is highly experienced in promoting Turkish coffee culture and managing catering events.

Storytelling is our communication strategy to promote the art of Turkish coffee to our customers; therefore my primary goal is to hire individuals with good cross-cultural communications and excellent people skills. As more businesses are targeting niche audiences, it has become more important to build a team who can provide a better experience to the customer base. On the other hand, this requires more training and investment on employees which might not be ideal for some start-up businesses.

Q: Who inspires you and why?

Gizem: My grandfather, Vedat Dalokay, has always been my inspiration, teaching me to remain resolute in following my dreams. He was a practicing architect, an administrator, a mayor, a politician, a writer and a literature admirer. He was passionate about serving for his beloved city and country. "They have taken away our wind, but we didn't quit sailing", was the title of his last book on the functions of society and the words that I used to hear from him whenever I encountered an obstacle. Like my grandfather, I am committed to give back to my community, do good for the society while empowering other women to pursue their dreams.
Building trust and a good relationship with our team members is a must in my business. I care about their personal needs and help them improve their business skills.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

Gizem:
My leadership style is very democratic where all employees are acting as our brand ambassadors. I greatly value teamwork and make sure my team members are sharing my vision moving forward.
Our employees are dedicated to our mission and managers are free to make decisions on daily operations. We have an open-door policy where employees and managers can express their concerns or suggest improvements at any time.
Building trust and a good relationship with our team members is a must in my business. I care about their personal needs and help them improve their business skills.

Q: Have you ever had an hourly job? If yes, please share with us your experience.

Gizem: I participated in a work & travel program, which is designed to give practical experience to young people from different countries. I worked at the Hollywood Bowl in 2001 throughout summer where I was a sales associate on an hourly wage. It was a significant learning experience and helped me to evaluate myself and better understand my strengths. This gave me first hand experience of business life. Because of my performance, I was promoted shortly after starting the program. Through this experience, I also learned the ability to adapt to new environments and appreciate diversity.
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