Eighteen business students from Indiana University Kokomo sat by the windows in their Turkish hotel rooms recently and watched history unfold before their eyes.
Several city blocks away, 200,000 people protested in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. They were doctors and lawyers and students who were concerned about several new laws that had increasingly religious overtones. After all, Turkey was a secular state.
But while the IU Kokomo students were in Istanbul, the Turkish parliament passed a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Another law barred companies from advertising their alcohol in social media.
Companies already were barred from advertising alcohol in print media — making the new laws even more devastating.
IU Kokomo professor of business law Linda Ficht spoke to the CEO of a beer company in Turkey who was reeling after the law passed. The woman had no idea what she was going to do. She made it clear the government had closed nearly every avenue for marketing her products.
The protesters recognized this. So they peacefully gathered to let the government know they didn’t support this new agenda.
“They have rights they’re desperately trying to hold onto,” Ficht said. “They can feel things shifting back to an Islamic way of doing things.”
Ficht said the people in Turkey don’t have the same right to protest as Americans do. So as the protest grew, the government tried to stop it.
Police units donning riot gear stepped in and started gassing protesters and using force, Ficht said. By the end of the protest, 4,000 people had been injured, three had died and four or five people were blinded by the gas.
Ficht said she was worried the protests would ruin the students’ trip, but in the end, it was an important lesson for them. If you’re going to study business, you need to understand the environment you’re working in, she said.
Student Steve Vas said he was glad he got to see it.
“It became a protest about protecting the separation between church and state,” Vas said. “They are defending their democracy. It was kind of exciting to witness it in person.”
The protests broke out in the final days of the IU Kokomo trip. For five days before that, students toured nearly a dozen American- and Turkish-owned businesses.
“This was not a vacation,” Ficht said. “I ran them ragged.”
Ficht set up all of the tours herself by networking with people all over.
They toured the textile company Zorlu. Students witnessed the entire business cycle from production to distribution to retail.
Students watched people weaving the fabric and painting details on sheets and pillowcases. They also got to see designs for the new retail stores. Those designs haven’t been unveiled yet.
“It’s top secret,” she said. “We couldn’t even take pictures.”
They also toured the Starbucks in Turkey and learned how a coffee shop operates there.
It took Ficht two months to set up that tour. She called and emailed people all over the world for more than a month. Finally, someone in Turkey saw the email and called her. Two days later, the tour was set up.
She really wanted students to learn about how Starbucks works over there.
“How do they position themselves in a tea-drinking culture?” she wondered aloud.
Ficht said very few master of business administration programs take immersive trips to Turkey. Often, programs opt to go to places like China instead.
Her students were among the first to tour businesses and speak to top executives in Turkey.
Student Gabby VanAlstine thought it was a good choice. She said Turkey is quickly becoming a global force economically. Its trade is increasing significantly.
And it has an interesting dynamic.
Just 20 percent of Turkey’s women are in the workforce, but 65 percent of the country’s top executives are female.
“I loved Turkey, but that made me even admire it more,” she said. “They’ve recognized the value of women in the workplace.”
Ficht hopes to return to Turkey with students in the future. She is just starting to plan a trip to Prague, Czech Republic, in 2015. Her own trip to Prague while she was an MBA student made her a strong believer in overseas study.
“The lens you view business with changes once you go abroad,” she said. “It is important to see firsthand what is happening in other countries. When you immerse yourself, you see it up close. You talk to the people, you deal with the currency exchange rate, and you live it. It takes what you are learning from theory to real experience. You can’t read that personal experience in a textbook.”
Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at firstname.lastname@example.org