Bringing people together for meaningful connections and shared experiences
Photography by Sonshine Portrait Design
I was born in Istanbul, Turkey in 1971. My father was an officer in the Turkish Air Force and my mother was an elementary school teacher. My older brother and I are four years apart. Memories of my childhood include a humble life, hard-working parents and lots of time invested in others. Both of my parents deeply valued education. Through the years, they sacrificed so that my brother and I could both have the best education possible in Turkey at the time.
My early influences were definitely my parents. Reflecting on my childhood, it is so evident now that the values my parents lived out each day shaped who I am today.
My mother was a natural leader. She was bold and fearless. At a time when her generation of females stayed at home, she pursued a career in teaching and mentored many young women. She believed equality for all was achievable and worked tirelessly to influence her sphere to accept this truth.
My father was a strong leader as well. Intellectual, methodical and logical in his approach, he never shied from doing the hard work. He believed in challenging the status quo, speaking up against injustice and being a voice for the voiceless. He led with integrity and passion.
Together, they simply loved people—of all walks of life, all beliefs, all ages. They were intentional about being inclusive of those with differing opinions, and always respected everyone’s choices. And they were always generous with their time, talents and treasures.
Tell us more about your college years and early career path. Did you anticipate a corporate career?
At the time I started college, the technology field was starting to boom. So I chose to pursue my undergraduate studies in business with a technical focus. I knew I wanted a career where I could continue to learn and grow. I attended several colleges, and graduated from the State University of New York.
My corporate career started in Wichita, Kansas, at the second-largest privately-held company in the U.S. in 1993. I worked for an oil and gas company, managing property ownership processes. It was a great introduction to working in a large enterprise. I moved up fairly quickly in that organization and was soon assigned a leadership role in its first e-commerce department.
A major shift in my career happened when I moved to Peoria in 1997. I joined a midsized consulting firm based out of Chicago, and at a young age of 26, became its director of operations for the Peoria branch. As a recent MBA graduate, it was the perfect opportunity to apply everything I had learned in my studies. This role still remains as the most memorable in my career—not only because of the challenge, but especially because of the team I got to work with every day. It was truly a dream team!
After a few more years in consulting at a couple of other local firms, I jumped back into the corporate world by joining Caterpillar. In my 10-year tenure there, I held several leadership roles, with responsibility for managing global teams.
What lessons did you take from your time in the corporate world?
I’ve learned several lessons throughout my career in corporate positions:
- You own your career path. It is your responsibility to not only work hard, but advocate for yourself.
- No matter the size of the firm, your direct leader defines the culture in which you work. So as a leader, always be aware you have the greatest impact on your team’s experience in that company.
- The company does not owe you professional development, but the opportunities are always there if you look. Raise your hand for that challenging assignment, surround yourself with motivated people, and spend time investing in your own development.
- Do not lose sight of the fact that there is nothing more important than family. If you died today, your job will be filled by the next person. But for your family, you’re irreplaceable.
What inspired you and your husband’s entrepreneurial journey, and what were some of your early challenges? What, if anything, would you do differently?
Losing Mike’s mom was a pivotal point for us. It challenged us to pause and take inventory of our own lives; critically evaluate where we spend our time, energy and finances; and determine what we wanted our legacy to be for our children. With both of our thriving careers, we knew we had the resources to make a meaningful impact on the lives of others.
At that time, we had been down the path of simplifying our lives, downsizing our home and lifestyle, and really managing our budget to become debt-free. This journey had led us to buying our own espresso machine, and roasting at home to save on our Starbucks expenses. As we took a step back to decide how we could make a difference in the world, we realized we had learned a lot about coffee; and by bringing that knowledge and our passion for people together, we could start something new. So we did!
We launched Zion in December 2013 out of our home, with a mission to advance the lives of small coffee farmers and their surrounding communities. Our three-year journey from working in our basement to expanding our business to brick-and-mortar and opening our first coffee bar in February 2017 was very demanding, but also so meaningful. Our biggest challenge was juggling our priorities between our family, our day jobs and building a new business.
We made a lot of mistakes in the past few years—some big, some small. I’m not sure we would do anything differently, because we’ve learned and grown so much through those mistakes.
How difficult was it to leave your day job and plunge into Zion full-time?
To be honest, I don’t think I was ever part-time at Zion. Mike and I are both “all-in” kind of people. Even though I had a full-time corporate job, I was just as dedicated to making Zion successful, because I felt a strong sense of responsibility toward the farmers we support as well as our employees. For us, this was never just about the coffee. It has always been about the people. And we take that responsibility very seriously.
Leaving my corporate job was truly not a difficult decision, because it had been our goal to do so. By choosing to live simply, we had achieved the financial freedom to step away from my salary. Being able to dedicate more time to Zion has been very fulfilling.
What was your original vision for Zion? Has it changed or evolved over time?
I would say our original vision for Zion was very altruistic, focused on creating economic opportunities for coffee farmers in developing countries. We believed our impact would be global. But after opening Zion Coffee Bar, we now realize our impact locally is just as important. We work equally as hard for Peoria by creating jobs, fostering a welcoming space for community, and even supporting area farmers by serving locally-sourced foods.
What accomplishments are you most proud of in your career, as well as personally?
Professionally, I’m most proud of initiating and leading the charge for Caterpillar’s first-ever global celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD) in 2017. It was a significant undertaking, but our strong team of driven and passionate women rose to the occasion and executed flawlessly. Since leaving Caterpillar, I was proud to hear that the IWD celebrations continued in 2018.
What is one goal you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?
For those who know me to say “she lived a full life and loved well” when I die.
As a child, what did you aspire to be when you grew up?
I had many career aspirations as a child. For the longest time, I wanted to be hair stylist, and then a flight attendant.
Then I decided I wanted to be a butcher.
How do you unwind after a long day of work?
After the day winds down and the house is quiet, I love enjoying a cup of coffee by myself. It’s a perfect time to reflect on the day and be present with myself.
What inspires you?
Watching others set goals and crush them.
What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Driven, bold, strong.
If you hit the jackpot tomorrow, what would you do first?
Personally, I’m most proud of watching our five children finding their own paths in life, as some are already transitioning into young adulthood. I can’t wait to see all of them become contributing members of society. I’m also proud to have a partner like Mike in my life. We truly make a great team. Together, I feel like we can accomplish anything.
What causes are near and dear to you? What are your passions?
Now in my late 40s, I’m more aware than ever that what truly matters is people. I’m most passionate about bringing people together for meaningful connections, shared experiences, learning, growth and encouragement. I’m especially excited to help other women achieve their highest potential. I’m currently working on a new passion project named onward.co, focused on women entrepreneurs in the Peoria area. My goal is to connect, inspire and move onward, together.
What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve had to learn?
Losing both of my parents recently within six months of each other has been extremely difficult, but it has taught me that life truly is short. Each season brings its own joys and challenges. Breathe it all in. Be present in today and don’t miss this moment. And be ready for change tomorrow.
What is your leadership style or philosophy?
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, take others with you.
What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your work and personal life?
The idea of work-life balance is elusive, if by balance, we mean equal balance. There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all balance.
I personally struggle with the work-life balance concept, because to me there is just life. Work can be a part of that, so can family and fun and learning and adventure. For me, my life has looked different throughout the years. Some seasons demanded more of my time focused on my young kids or my aging parents, and other seasons, I spent more time investing in my career and my personal passions.
I believe balance is different for each of us because we all have different priorities and different lives. And we each get to choose how we spend our life.
What advice would you give to a young, up-and-coming female professional?
My advice for any young professional is simple: be kind and work hard. iBi