Q: Nurdeniz, if you were to describe yourself in 150 words, what would you say?
A: Since I was young, I’ve been motivated by some of the challenges I’ve faced to work hard and overcome them. Throughout my life, these efforts became a dominant part of my personality as I worked to lessen many of the societal challenges that I see around me. It’s also helped in these efforts that I’m an outgoing person who encourages others to express themselves and engage openly with the community. I’m deeply curious about the lives of others and this curiosity has extended to people
in other countries, like Britain and the US, where I got a lot of inspiration and support for my work. These parts of my personality have made my current position as the president of the Guide Dog Association in Turkey a perfect fit. I’m continually working with people who have disabilities to improve their standard of living and I’m outspoken about our needs with organisations who I believe can offer their support.
"Real authority comes through kindness and a generous attitude"
Q: What were the main challenges you faced along the way and how did you overcome them?
A: As the first association for guide dogs in Turkey, we have always done work that is entirely new for the country. There have been cultural barriers to using guide dogs since people here have never encountered guide dogs and the infrastructure, for example on public transportation, does not yet exist to accommodate them.
To make progress as an organisation, we made ourselves visible to the community by appearing in local and international media outlets. We’ve been working to reach the public and make each success something the community can be proud of. We have also come into contact with likeminded people, like volunteers and financiers, who have helped us in our goals. I’m especially grateful to the puppy walker families who opened their homes to the dogs for one year, raising them until they can begin training.
Q: You are advocating for disability rights in Turkey. What inspired you to pursue this cause?
A: In my own life, I’ve been fortunate to have a family who supported me and encouraged me to be independent. Unfortunately, I noticed that many other visually impaired people did not share this sense of empowerment. I felt the society hadn’t been doing enough to give our lives purpose, moving freely through the city and going to jobs that we could be proud of. I wanted to help my country turn a corner, becoming more inclusive in its communities, and I believe this has happened. We’ve seen a lot of progress in the last several years.
Q: How did you get where you are today, and did anyone (or something) help you along the way?
A: I’m grateful to the many people that have helped me in my life and later in my organisation. The role model for the Guide Dog Association has always been the British Ambassador’s wife, Maggie Moore, who is also visually impaired and has a guide dog. She is a member of the association and any of the progress that we’ve made began with inspiration from her.
Q: Talk to us about the Guide Dog Association in Turkey, which you established in 2014.
A: Today, we have four working guide dogs while ten more puppies are training in Istanbul and Ankara. Together with trainers and puppy walker families, we are generating public awareness for the visually impaired community in Turkey. Apart from our work with dogs, we have programmes to introduce visually impaired citizens to the workplace. We are also collaborating with Turkish Standards Institute to create a mirror community, which will represent us. Together, we are creating the terminology related to guide dogs, which will give any such organisation official standing within the legal system.
Q: What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
A: For a long time, Turkey has been a patriarchal society, so many members of the public see women as belonging to narrow, feminine roles. Fortunately, Turkey is more progressive than some countries, for example, we’ve had a female prime minister, but scepticism from more male-centric parts of society force women to be more determined, myself included. Whenever I meet resistance and doubt, I push back until I’ve proven my abilities.
Q: How would you qualify the progress made to date with regards to how women are being perceived as an authoritative figure?
A: In Turkey, if women receive a good education, they have an increasing number of opportunities open to them. It’s common to see women in places of authority and this is most often due to their academic achievements. Unfortunately, the same is not true for poor or uneducated women in society. Life is still difficult for them,
so we must find opportunities to support and educate them too.
Q: How do you define success?
A: People can establish goals and they will either succeed or fail. In failure, there is sometimes an action that could have been done differently, but oftentimes this is due to circumstances beyond their control. For me, it is different. Success means having doors open to you, which will more often allow one to do work that is more meaningful. If I can give others these opportunities, I will consider it success.
Q: What advice would you give to younger women who want to succeed in the workplace?
A: As I said before, determination is a necessary part of any success. Women especially shouldn’t expect to have anything handed them. They will have to earn their position in life through hard work and continued self-improvement. I’ve found it helpful to dismiss negativity and doubt about a woman’s ability, focusing instead on constructive influences in my life that will give me the motivation to persevere.
Q: Can you share with us a couple of stories that have either inspired you or transformed the way you think/ act?
A: While I was in middle school, I still had some of my vision, but it was greatly reduced. I had only about 10% of my vision left. Because of this, I was forced to sit alone at the teacher’s desk at the front of the class, so I could see, with all of my classmates behind me. My teacher kindly explained my condition to the class and encouraged them to assist me if I needed it, but I remember feeling lonely when I didn’t get their support, only ridicule. But during that time, I began to feel empowered by my position at the front of a class and I understood that real authority comes through kindness and a generous attitude, not through keeping others down. I promised myself then that I’d persevere, fulfilling my wish since childhood of becoming a lawyer.
I’d also like to talk about my life with Kara, my dear companion and the first guide dog in Turkey, since she’s done so much for my life. People around me are curious about her and their interest often gives me the opportunity to share our story, creating public awareness person by person. These interactions have helped me realize the importance of going out into public and talking to others since their perspective is also changed by the meeting. Sometimes, I’m disappointed by a simple misunderstanding with others, like a hotel clerk or ferry worker who stops me with questions. But I have so many more positive interactions that I feel like I have a better outlook on life. I can’t reduce this feeling to a single story since this has almost become part of my daily life.
Owner, Law firm of Nurdeniz Tuncer & President, Guide Dogs Association
After graduating from the Law Faculty at Istanbul University in 2001, Nurdeniz started a law office which focused on business and contract law. Given this experience, she has devoted an increasing amount of her time and energy to disability rights in Turkey. Working to adequately train and provide guide dogs through the Guide Dog Association is a major part of these efforts. In her role as President of this Association, she also works to advance the legal status and standard of living for the visually impaired in this country, providing them with employment and improved education opportunities. Her own visual impairment began at 10 years old, which makes this mission of empowering all members of the community personal to her. Nurdeniz is also a member of the British Chamber of Commerce in Turkey and has graduated from Common Purpose Leadership Programme. In 2017, the Sabanci Foundation selected her as a Change Maker.