What you can learn from a mentor half your age

Xynteo’s Nyla Khan catches up with Selim Tansug, Vice President of Logistics at Unilever about founding Embark, a reverse-mentoring programme in which refugees mentor business leaders that supports refugee integration.

The Embark project came out of the Leadership Vanguard, a year-long acceleration and leadership development programme bringing together senior leaders from global businesses and organisations to accelerate business models that drive positive social and environmental impact.

In 2017, I worked with a group of leaders, as part of the leadership Vanguard programme, on how we could apply our collective business capabilities to understand and respond to the challenges of the Syrian refugee crisis. Selim, a Unilever participant, had witnessed first-hand the scale of the Syrian crisis, with millions of people fleeing war and violence. As Syrian refugees began arriving in Istanbul, he saw the changing demographics and attitudes in his home city and wanted to do something.

Selim and I travelled around Istanbul and to the southern city of Sanilurfa to meet with young Syrians, local businesses, and other stakeholders to understand the role that business could play in supporting the social and economic integration of refugees in Turkey. It was a pivotal moment. With the support of Unilever Turkey, Xynteo and the Future is Brighter Youth Platform (Gelecek Daha Net), we launched a pilot initiative called Embark, a reverse-mentoring programme in which refugees educate business leaders about their experiences and how better to engage refugee communities and business leaders coach refugees on employability.

Since then, driven by Embark team with support from Unilever Turkey, the programme has delivered four cohorts, supported 100 mentor pairings, brought on new partners, including Mastercard Turkey, the EBRD and Mikado Consulting and is now expanding its activities to reach other young migrants with employability training and social entrepreneurship programme. With Unilever support, it is now launching in Europe. Three years on, I caught up with Selim on how it all began.


Take us back to 2017 – what made you think we needed to focus on the Syrian community arriving in Istanbul?

First, there was a significant negative perception of the Syrian community building that needed to be addressed – people would say that Syrian’s created more burglaries or brought new illnesses. Second, Syrians were being kept in camps away from society, but you can’t keep 3 million people in tents and pretend they don’t exist. Everything was negative, and I felt that if you want something to change, you have to do something about it rather than just complain.

What did you learn on that first trip we took together?

Meeting with young Syrians was a really pivotal moment for me. I see myself as quite open minded, but our trip made me confront my own unconscious biases. If I’m honest, I had never realised that there were such extremely talented and qualified people who were refugees - double majors in engineering, speaking perfect English – and some were more qualified than me. The only “mistake” these people had was being born in Syria.

What was the system level challenge you saw?

The Leadership Vanguard helped us understand the wider system context and go directly to the people at the centre of the problem. We saw that the real problem was one of inclusion. The Syrian refugees had many skills to offer but they were being kept at arms distance from the rest of society. But if we started helping them to apply their skills, then they could also start helping in their own communities and there would be a snowball effect.

Where does Embark come in?

Embark is all about creating a perception change. Embark helps people to build meaningful connections together, so that we can create a fairer, more empowered, and inclusive society. It puts refugees in direct contact with business leaders and supports them to build a meaningful relationship. Refugees participating in the programme then go on to support others in their community too.

Embark now runs two projects. One in collaboration with the financial and technical support of the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development, and the other financed by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in cooperation with Gelecek Daha Net in Turkey.

Why should a business like Unilever care about this?

Leaving large groups of people in isolation creates social problems which fuel unrest. There is a cost to business of not doing something. But also, as refugee populations remain and grow, they become significant economic consumers and potential customers.

What impact has Embark had on you and other leaders in Unilever?

This year I’m participating as a mentee and learning so much from the reverse mentoring experience with my mentor, Rama Abduldayem. It’s extremely enriching to have an opportunity to listen to my mentor’s journey, experiences and perspectives. I learn a lot through our conversations, and it gives me a deep appreciation for the different kinds of experiences and opportunities that shape us as individuals. It’s offering a way for me to reflect on and confront my own biases, both as a person and business leader. I hope I am being as helpful to her as she is being for me.

What’s next for Embark?

Embark is continuing to grow and expand its reverse mentoring programme and is setting its sights on a European chapter in 2021. We would like to increase our impact and engagement with businesses across sectors.

What’s your hope for how businesses engage with Embark?

Diversity and inclusion are a leadership and talent issue. This is not just about having people of different gender, race and sexuality on the team – it’s about having differences of opinion, different ways of thinking, different skills, new ideas and innovation. Embark plays into this. We’re now bringing in a 40-year-old African migrant in his third year of university as an intern. If it wasn’t for Embark, I wouldn’t have thought about him (we would have looked for a 20-year old) but I have a totally different perception now about his potential and talent.

To learn more about Embark, you can connect with Co-founder and Programme Director Nuha Boğa Çam here or to apply to be a mentee here.