Neri Karra (PhD in Management Studies, 2005) built her luxury leather goods business up from nothing but ambition, family and an insatiable desire to learn.
Neri Karra was just 11 when she became one of the estimated 360,000 Turkish people who experienced forced migration from Bulgaria in 1989, in the dying days of Communism. Her family arrived in Istanbul with nothing but a few suitcases.
The experience made her determined to succeed – and she did. 25 years later, she’s the CEO and creative director of her eponymous business, selling luxury leather goods. She holds a PhD in Management Studies from CJBS (her thesis, on family businesses and entrepreneurship, was shortlisted for the William H. Newman award) and is a visiting lecturer at the Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design. But she’s never forgotten the lessons of her childhood.
“When we moved into the ghetto in Istanbul, we didn’t even have money for bread,” she remembers. “We found an old phone which my brother, who was nine at the time, took and exchanged for groceries. There was confusion and poverty all around me. I realised that the only way out for me was education.”
At the age of seven, Karra had asked her parents for English classes, and they were happy to encourage her. “I just had a great desire to learn,” she says. “In fact, the first time I came across Cambridge was in those English books, and it became my dream to study there some day.”
She used her language skills to translate Russian, Bulgarian, Turkish and English for tourists, as well as budding entrepreneurs who came to the leather goods quarter of Istanbul where her family found jobs. She won a scholarship to the University of Miami and was inspired by the American can-do, entrepreneurial attitude. In 2000, she started Neri Karra on a shoestring.
“I knew all the best Italian suppliers of leather from my days as a translator,” she says. “We didn’t have much capital but I would go to the suppliers and ask them for skins that they were no longer using, but which I knew were still of very high quality. We created our first collection of mobile phone cases just as they were starting to come into fashion.”
Initially, Neri Karra sold just to the Russian market. Now, the brand is in 14 countries and is a regular feature in top fashion magazines. The company owns its own factory in Istanbul, and also produces leather goods for several top Italian fashion brands. Karra is now looking to expand further into the UK and, for the first time, is investigating investment and private equity companies – thus far, the company is completely self-financed.
What’s the secret of her success? Resilience, she says, but also family. Karra’s mother, father and brother all work at the company, and their shared experiences have always helped them through the toughest of times.
“When I feel like giving up, I can call my brother and he almost always finds a solution or helps me out,” says Karra. “Sometimes we are frustrated with each other but at the same time there is an incredible bond. During challenging times, it becomes even stronger. Sometimes, we were not even able to buy food. We had to stick together, and we still do.”
Neri is interested in meeting…
…private equity advisers, those who can advise on external financing and those who are interested in opening franchises and stores. I’m also interested in giving more inspirational talks and seminars, and I’m looking for an organiser and promoter to help with this part of my venture.