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A Word with Basak Yavuz

Posted 17 January 2024 in EMpower News   |   Share

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Recently, EMpower’s President & CEO Cynthia Steele spoke with Basak Yavuz, Managing Director at Goldman Sachs Asset Management, expert in emerging market equities, and a member of EMpower’s US Board. They spoke about how personal history shapes a commitment to giving back, the challenges youth face today, and more. 

I'm interested to discuss your own philanthropic journey. What sparked and strengthened your interest and your commitment?

I would say my journey really started with my parents, especially my mom, because she lived a life of purpose and service. She always instilled these same values in me and my sister, and we were constantly reminded about our good fortunes and the fact that we have to pay it forward. We need to lift others who are less fortunate in life. 

If I go back to her story: my grandparents (in Turkey) were poor, they were illiterate. And they wanted a different future for their kids. They knew that education was key, but they had to fight social pressures, prejudice, and financial troubles just to get their daughters through primary school. After that, my mom earned a scholarship and she went to boarding school. And her life changed afterwards—which meant that my life changed and my daughter's life changed. So, looking back, it’s really the education of young women that makes a huge difference. We already know this, but I think having lived through this and knowing that the outcome could have been completely different is always a constant reminder for me.

I didn't know that story. How lucky we all are that our parents and our forebears made this sacrifice for us. 

It was the same for me really. In college, l received financial aid from several donors and one of my donors was a retired teacher. It wasn't a lot of money, but it was a big portion of her pension. And I'm forever grateful to those people. I know that they don't want to be paid back; what they want is us doing the same for other people. 

You and I have talked about having adolescents in your life. Given the fact that EMpower focuses on young people, how do you feel about this work as a mother of adolescents yourself?

I think every generation thinks that their lives were the hardest, and they were the unluckiest generation. I also feel that way sometimes. But I have to admit that today's young people are facing many, many challenges, and I did not suffer from those. Think about income inequality. I simply wasn't aware of this, as we didn't have social media. So maybe we didn't have much money, but nobody knew who else had it, so it was fine. Things like global warming, we had those ozone layer issues, and then the ozone layer was fixed, and it was fine. The democracy of politics. The iron curtain was coming down, so there was a lot of hope. Whereas fast forward to now, where we are making very little progress on some issues. If you think about global warming now, it's a big, real threat that could happen in their generation. They face or are much more aware of racial inequalities, income inequalities. And many face mental health issues as well. 

There are a lot of issues, but we have to give young people credit for their resilience. Today's youth are very creative, very dynamic, very solution-oriented. They truly care about the environment, and I think they have a good understanding of global issues. They really need our help with the initial spark, and once we give the first support, I think they are capable of making huge changes for themselves and for the world.

Yes, I couldn't agree more. They're living in such a time of complexity and uncertainty which is why what you're doing as a parent and what we're doing as an organisation is so important. In the midst of all of this, how do you hold onto a sense of hope? 

Obviously, organisations such as EMpower give me a lot of hope because whenever we meet EMpower’s grantee partners we see many young people working tirelessly. They're making a big difference in their communities, and their energy and optimism is very, very contagious. We certainly need more of them in our lives. Tying it back to my experience as an emerging markets investor, I'm an active equity investor in fundamental equities which means that I travel a lot in emerging market countries. Wherever we go, we want to meet the company itself: it's regulators, its competitors, its suppliers. It requires stepping out of the fancy hotel or restaurant of the capital. And once you go out, the first thing you see is poverty and income inequality. But you also get to know so many young people wanting to make a difference who have a lot of local solutions for themselves. In that sense, that part of it really gives me a lot of hope for the future.

It's so wonderful how you had the symmetry between your professional life and your philanthropic life and your personal life. There are a lot of common chords.

Yes, that is for sure. Having grown up in an emerging markets country, I can see the things that can go wrong, and then I also see the dynamism, the potential, the optimism, and the eagerness for change, so it’s always in cycles and it's always a balance. Thanks to organisations like EMpower, certain communities and certain young people can make a big difference, and this is really all we can hope and work for.

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