Nilufer Durak: From Corporate America to a Tech Startup in Turkey

Nilufer Durak is the COO of Solvoyo, a Boston based software company with a significant presence in Istanbul.

Solvoyo offers the cloud-based Solvoyo Elevation Platform, a supply chain planning solution which simplifies how its customers’ supply chains are leveraged by the businesses they support, making supply chain proficiency immediately available for every company. 

Solvoyo formed with the purpose to architect from the ground up, leveraging next generation technologies; a singular platform to address every supply chain challenge.

As the COO of Solvoyo, Nilufer is responsible for the Global Operations on a day-to-day basis. with special focus on design, development and implementation of processes to provide superior product experience to Solvoyo customers around the world.

Before joining Solvoyo, Nilufer worked for 18 years at a senior level for US multinationals in the financial services industry. Specialties include M&A, Risk Management, Business Development, Talent Management, Process and Project Management.

We spoke to Nilufer about the challenges and joys of leaving corporate life; the startup scene in Istanbul; and the motto which sums up her approach to life!

TNW: What led to your decision to join a small tech startup after 18 years of working in global corporates?

ND: Three main reasons:

Impact: I thought I would have more impact at Solvoyo: building and nurturing a global team of talent,  institutionalizing processes so that we can scale and grow the business, and developing networks to build our brand.  I took a risk by switching to a brand new industry I know little about. 

Some may view it as a crazy decision after spending so much time in one particular industry and building a name for myself.  That view does not deter me much.   

I joined the company because I believe my transferable skills are industry agnostic and will add immediate value. 

Personal Development: I ran specialized teams in resource roles in my previous jobs but I always wanted to run a business.  Lack of P&L experience is often cited to be a main hindrance behind women’s career advancement.  This role gives me the P&L exposure in a true sense. 

Potential: Solvoyo addresses a clearly identified market need with a scalable product, and the company has long term potential. While we are still deemed to be small business, we grew six-fold in revenue in less than 3 years.  It is not a small feat for a B2B outfit. We serve clients on four continents.  We have a formidable team of talent with advanced degrees.  We are building the infrastructure to grow the business exponentially.  All of this makes the P&L experience real in terms of responsibility and impact. 

TNW: What have you found most challenging about the transition from corporate to startup life? What have you most enjoyed about the change?

ND: I find lack of structure and resources to be the most challenging between my previous corporate job and the start-up life. You have to do much more with much less. 

You have to work extra hard to build a brand to sign customers and attract talent.

What I enjoy the most is the entrepreneurial spirit here.  Our employees do not work for Solvoyo for money or position. 

They join us because they want to be part of the team offering customers the next generation of advanced technology in supply chain optimization.  They work with us because they are motivated by the leading edge product and our passion to continuously stay ahead of the curve. No one can hide behind a corporate structure, everybody has to contribute.

TNW: Your current role focuses on ‘design, development and implementation of processes and systems’. What kind of processes and systems are you developing currently?

ND: My remit is to build the infrastructure in every business vertical so that we can become scale ready.  We are talking about all key functions including accounting/finance, human capital, product development and management, sales and marketing, administration, partner development, investor relations.  We recently closed our Series A financing and our new partners are a catalyst to making the business more institutionalized. 

TNW: How has technology fueled the growth and success of Solvoyo? 

ND: We are a high tech business, built and run by industrial and software engineers with PhDs.  We leverage cloud technology to solve complex supply chain planning problems with very big data.  I had not seen millions of columns in a spreadsheet until I came to Solvoyo!  For example, we worked on a complex inbound logistics problem for a retail customer with over 2,000 stores and 45,000 SKUs.  Our software model had over a million variables and constraints such as frequency of orders, number of shipments or transportation modes.  Our remit was to optimize inbound operations from hundreds of vendors to many different deployment centers and we identified close  to $200 million in savings of transportation, material handling and inventory holding costs. 

Math is the genius behind Solvoyo’s end-to-end optimization models but our software architecture, enabled by the latest technology such as the cloud, makes our product unique in the market. 

TNW: What is next for Solvoyo? As you look to scale the business, how can technology, capital and networks help?

ND: The beauty of what we want to do at Solvoyo is to demystify supply chain so that all businesses can access supply chain proficiency instantly to accelerate their own growth. To solve the most complex supply chain problems requires great math (and most of these problems have been solved in a variety of ways over the years!), yet for it to have broad appeal beyond PhDs, requires a sophistication, an elegance even, so that answers can be understood, and thus trusted by the rest of us!  With Solvoyo, not just large firms with resources but small and mid-size companies leverage our Solvoyo Elevation Platform solutions to compete on cost and customer satisfaction in the marketplace. For example, a mid-size client of ours uses our software to decide on inventory levels in its stores on a regular basis.  Achievement of 40% increase in inventory turns while maintaining base service levels was a big deal for them. 

To do this effectively, we will need more capital, continuous investment in technology not only to enhance our product but also  to better connect with our customers and channel partners around the world.  Collaboration tools will be important to effectively run our growing global workforce.  Networks will be key to help build our brand, connect to prospective customers and partners. 

TNW: Tell us a little about the startup scene in Istanbul. Is it a good place to launch a business? Have you come across any exciting local startups recently?

ND: Istanbul is an exciting city in many respects; culture, history, economic action.  It has become much more cosmopolitan since I left almost 20 years ago. 

Start-up scene is hot here since Turkey has some impressive credentials when it comes to online market.  It  is the world’s 16th largest economy, yet country #7 in Facebook and # 11 in Twitter.

It has  68 million mobile phone and 54 million credit card users.  We see many new companies in group buying, mobile apps,  hospitality, food and gaming sectors.  Brand name international and home-grown VCs such as 212 Ltd back these start-ups (I like the women led businesses in 212’s portfolio by the way) and great organizations like Endeavor provide the mentors and networks for them to be successful.  Istanbul has many B2C start-ups but need more B2B businessess like Solvoyo to support economical advancement. 

TNW: What lessons have you taken from your successes &/or failures?

ND: Let me start with a lesson learned from a failure first.  For a long time I thought my performance was enough to lead me to career advancement.  I learned by experience later on that other factors such as image and exposure actually counted more for success.  Performance is given; if you do not perform you are out anyway.  Other things such as  executive presence or networks or mentors matter so much so that without a conscious investment in them, success will most likely not be possible. 

My biggest lesson learned from success is to invest in talent with all your energy and rigor. 

Spend your time finding the most intellectually curious people, give them resources, allow them the elbow room and the headroom to grow (i.e get out of the way), show genuine interest in getting to know them personally.

TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors? What about a motto which sums up your approach to business, or to life?

ND: I am fortunate to have great mentors and role models even though I come from a difficult industry in terms of female leadership.  Financial Services industry doesn’t have enough female leaders in key P&L roles to look up to.  My savior has been the women networks in companies I worked at.  For instance, I met two of my closest mentors in my last corporate job that way.  One went on to become a very successful lecturer of Leadership at a premier college in the US, the other continues to lead a key division.  My new challenge will be to find new mentors in the software industry.  To do that I will turn to our advisory board whose new members come with strong female leadership and connection credentials and organizations like DWEN. 

This quote from William Shakespeare sums up my life motto “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt”

TNW: How has Dell or the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network supported and assisted you? What do you see as the benefits of all-women networks such as DWEN? 

ND: My exposure to DWEN is new.  I was fascinated when I met Stephanie Goodell and learned about the network.  The ability to connect to other female entrepreneurs all around the world is very exciting to me. Kudos to Dell for taking the initiative to set it up.   I am a big believer in networking, especially among women.  I co-led such networks in my corporate life and experienced first-hand the benefits of exposure, connection and support they provide.  I am now part of an amazing network called Turkishwin which connects women globally who have professional, personal or cultural ties to Turkey. 

As the curator of Turkishwin, Melek Pulatkonak put it “if you can create a network effect, you  find inspiration, empowerment, connections and you’re never alone”.

The Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network (DWEN)celebrates the wonderful accomplishments of women in business, whilst looking forward at how we can progress and learn from each other. Natural networkers and relationship builders, women have innate flair for entrepreneurship. With DWEN, Dell is helping women in business to expand their networks while offering technology capabilities designed to help them innovate and grow their businesses.

In late 2011 and early 2012, The NextWomen partnered with DWEN to bring you a series of 40 interviews with the world's most influential female founders, investors and decision makers: The NextWomen DWEN Interview Series. We're very excited to relaunch the series in 2013 with a further five fantastic interviews.

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