December 19, 2011

Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger and SIPA Dean John H. Coatsworth visited Istanbul, Turkey in November 2011 to launch the sixth Columbia Global Center there. SIPA alumna Ipek Cem Taha (MIA ’93), a Turkish journalist and businesswoman, was appointed interim director.

(Right: Ipek Cem Taha with President Lee C. Bollinger in Istanbul)

Ipek has hosted “Global Leaders,” a one-on-one interview show on Turkey’s leading television news channel, since 2005. Some of the leaders she has interviewed include Kofi Annan, Madeleine Albright, Shimon Peres, George Papandreou, Hamid Karzai, Richard Branson, Howard Schultz and Bill Ford, among others.

She is also the co-founder of two companies (Melak Investments, a firm that provides advice to funds and companies looking to invest in Turkey, and Netwise/IKC Communications, a consultancy and software company that focuses on communications and Internet services) and is a founding member of several NGOs, including KAGIDER (Women Entrepreneurs Association).

In an interview with SIPA’s Michelle Chahine (MIA ‘12), Ipek discusses her country, her new role, and her eclectic career.

What are your thoughts about Columbia’s new Global Center in Istanbul? Is this symbolic of Turkey’s rise in prominence on the regional and even international scene?

Turkey has always been a unique actor in the international scene. The Ottoman Empire, which was a multi-cultural and multi-religious entity, has impacted Europe and the Middle East for many centuries.  Modern Turkey, born in 1923, while a relatively young state, has always been a significant player in our region and internationally.

It is true that with markets globalizing, we have had much more investment flows coming into Turkey, while at the same time we have built a strong economy and strong banking system over the years. If you look at this decade, yes, Turkey is more in the limelight because of its own success, as well as the uncertainty and hope for transformation in some Middle Eastern countries.

Also with relation to Europe, Turkey as you know, was declared a candidate for full E.U.  accession in 1999, but the process is stalled due to the unwillingness to accept us politically, culturally and economically. At the same time, we are also part of that culture.

In the meantime, Europe, as an economic and political power, has been crumbling.  So we are in an era where labels are losing their significance.  We are in an era of ‘rethinking labels’. Similarly, the fact that Turkey refuses to be ‘categorized’ as ‘East’ or ‘West’, but is rather a combination of traditions, values and modern realities, makes us an interesting place to be and watch.

What is your role with the Center? What are your upcoming plans for the work that will stem from it?

My role is to generate ideas, and strategically develop the programs, which would strengthen Columbia University’s presence in Turkey.  We work alongside the University to make sure that our students and professors have a role to play and are in a position to learn from Turkey and its geopolitical hinterland.

We are in the planning stages, but already interesting programs in areas of freedom of the press, trauma rehabilitation, and innovation and entrepreneurship are underway.  We plan for the Center to become an integral part of the academic and research community here, and contribute to both local and international issues which are of significance to our world.

I think it will also be important for the various Centers to learn from each other.  This will also be quite exciting for us, and it is already the case that there are multi-center programs.

How, and why, did you make the move from business to media to your work in non-profits, and now the Global Center?

Actually, I have always been in the non-profits sector, devoting my spare time to many boards locally and internationally, such as causes related to entrepreneurship, competitiveness, women, the Mediterranean region and the environment. In addition, I have been linked to Columbia over the past four years, having participated in the Presidential International Advisory Board, and keeping in close touch with the University ever since. I look at it as a natural flow and feel that my experience in diverse fields greatly helps my work with Columbia.

I think today women and men have more diverse career paths than before.  There is no right or wrong, but a different path for everyone.

During your career, what do you feel you brought from SIPA? And what advice can you offer current students?

SIPA gave me a sense of a truly international community, from students to professors to the way we looked at many complex topics. I would say that it was the first time I understood and felt the meaning of being a part of an international community.  It’s important to understand this nowadays as we struggle to keep ahead of difficult economic and political times globally.  We are truly in one boat. The quicker we understand that, the faster we can find lasting solutions.


Michelle Chahine, December 19, 2011