Interview with Pinar Akiskalioglu, the founder of TAKK

Pinar Akiskalioglu is an entrepreneur who wants to make the business and beauty worlds more ethical. After a decade in the beauty industry she founded TAKK, a personal care brand which sells a stripped-back collection of beauty essentials.

More recently, she founded Punk Business School, a new type of business education aimed at creating more empathetic and intuitive business leaders.

What’s your career background?

While I was studying econometrics at university, I began working for an NGO – a youth organisation called AIESEC. The moment I stepped into the AIESEC office, I was amazed by this group of young people who believed they could change the world, and ended up spending seven years there. I was ultimately elected to be director of global strategy.

After returning to Istanbul to finish my degree, I entered the world of corporate beauty at Henkel, one of the big personal care superbrands, where I climbed the ladder to become head of marketing. When I no longer felt like I was in the right place, I decided to take my career in a new direction and set an example to the beauty world on how things could be done differently.

I founded TAKK, an ethical beauty care business which fights beauty hype, false promises and big brands’ focus on excessive consumerism. At TAKK we offer the consumer a stripped-back range of personal care products that are gender free so suitable for men and women – one shampoo, one soap, one razor etc. 

More recently, I founded Punk Business School. I divide my time between my two businesses, and am a board member of a Ricoti, a renewable energy business. I’m also a consultant at Oxford Garage, a mentor hub for new startups. Over the course of my career I have studied leadership at Harvard and business at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford.

How did your career change after having children?

Firstly, I became much more focused and energised. I previously hadn’t been an early morning person, often starting work at 11am and working until late. Now, to be able to spend time with my boy, I always start early, feeling energetic and positive because he usually starts the day in a very positive mood – this cheers me up and I feel like I can do more. I work very efficiently and don’t take many breaks during the day so I can go home and spend time with him.

The way my child has influenced my work goes beyond that though. I have also become more interested in building an organisation that creates social value. This is going to be his world, so that makes me feel even more strongly about bringing positive value to society.

A third eye-opening thing came from reading about childcare. I read a lot of very selective books on the subject, including one about how to raise an anti-racist child. There was a sentence in that book that really stood out: ‘For any impactful change you have to involve younger generations in the conversation.’

I realised that for all the big conversations I have in my line of work around circular economies and the planet’s future, there are too few platforms available for younger people to share their opinions. Somebody should be listening to them, so I’ve become more encouraged to talk to younger people and understand their perspectives on the future. I’ve become more age-inclusive as a business leader.

One final thing: it’s important to note that as a woman I don’t see childcare as only my responsibility. I always correct people who tell me my husband is helping me. Help is not the word, it is a shared responsibility. We are a team – and the meaning of teamwork really makes sense to me now.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

A major moment for me was during my time at Henkel when I stumbled across US psychologist Barry Schwartz’s Ted Talk ‘Paradox of Choice’, in which he talks about how choice can be paralysing. It was an eye opening moment for me, forcing me to question whether my job providing personal care was actually making people happy, as I’d always told myself, and whether it was worthwhile to society.

I realised my job as head of marketing was simply to create more sales and I started to question whether it made sense to sell 50 different shampoos for different hair types.

The choice paradox created across so many industries makes people powerless to choose, paralysing decision-making and making people unhappy as a result. Also, since I started my journey with TAKK, I’ve realised how much we are pushed to consume more than we need, especially in the beauty industry.

What I set out to do with TAKK was give the power of decision-making back to people and our promise is to never push people to buy something they don’t need. It creates a better situation for them and for the future of our planet.

How did you move from idea to actual business?

I was studying at Saïd Business School and pitched the idea to a couple of colleagues from the Executive MBA programme. They also got excited, so it became one of the entrepreneurial projects at the school.

For more than a year I had a team of four to work on it, very senior experienced people from different backgrounds. We had advisors and investors giving us feedback, so by the time I graduated I already had a business plan which made sense to me. That gave me the confidence and courage to give it a try. I then managed to put together a very good team, and have never looked back.

Many people assume because you’re a start up and don’t have much funding, it’s harder to bring talent on board, but something I’ve learned is when you’ve got an idea that’s appealing to people, they want to be part of it. I was never short of talent so that gave me the second boost I needed to bring it alive.

What’s your USP?

Our promise is to make our customers’ choices matter. We do this by valuing everyone throughout our supply chain, from animals to suppliers to factory workers. We have complete respect for everyone involved: we really care about our environmental impact, we are a nice group of people, showing each other respect and listening to each other, and we always do our best.

When a customer makes the choice to buy from TAKK it really matters. It’s different from buying from a giant corporation where a customer is just one number out of millions.

Who’s your target audience?

I would describe our target audience as ‘independent thinkers’. We target people who care, who understand when you buy a product you’re not just buying a product – the company you buy from makes a difference, the number of things you buy makes a difference, your consumption habits make a difference.

We target people who understand what we are doing and have the mental space to consider the things we are saying – who want to minimise their consumption and see transparency on environmental impact.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

We always want to talk about our philosophy but the way advertising works is so inhuman – algorithms that create ads for you, winning formulas that promote products and target the consumer however many times. That doesn’t fit in with the way we want to do things. We are still working out how to find people who want to buy from meaningful companies – it’s an exploration. 

We also do some traditional digital marketing initiatives – if people like us for a certain product, we want to engage with them and tell the story behind that product. This is also quite an effective way of spreading the word. Often people come in for face cream but stay for the philosophy.

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

When we have time to have a longer, more intellectual conversation with people, that’s when we make a difference. Not just ‘buy this shampoo, it will give your hair volume’, but a conversation that has meaning – about having a positive environmental impact, stopping excess consumption and choice overloads, about how our decision-making is paralysed and retailers manipulate what we should be buying. 

We recently opened a small shop in Istanbul where the aim is not to be super efficient and sell hundreds of products every day, but to have these longer, more meaningful conversations with people. It’s a space where we can talk to people about their consumption habits, discuss the truth about the beauty industry and reveal the reality of the products they are buying.

We have a few colleagues working in the store and it is something that we are also involved in. So sometimes they Facetime us and we talk to people who are interested. This is our most effective marketing strategy: having face-to-face conversations with people. 

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Until recently I never felt that being a business leader and activist who is female was an obstacle to me. However, obstacles appeared and my world changed after I started a family.

In investor meetings, I was asked by men, ‘what if you decide to have a second baby or have a career break, what happens to our money’. I was obviously aware this might happen, but I had still thought, as a woman, if I created my own environment, I would be protected. But we are never fully protected. 

I see myself as an activist, always speaking up when I see something that is not right. But when this was done to me I was speechless. I didn’t know what to say or how to react. And there was nobody else to speak up for me. It made me scared that being a woman could be an obstacle to me.

Then that fear itself became an obstacle, putting doubt in my head. We need more people to speak up for oppressed groups in situations like this – which are sadly all too common and continue to hold women back. 

And your proudest moment so far?

I recently gave a speech to high school students about entrepreneurship. I was talking to them about a range of things, from leadership to inequality. When I was finished I was worried that I had struggled to get through to them – they were only 16 years old and I feared that the last thing they wanted to hear about was the human economy and building bridges.

Later on, my colleague sent me a couple of reflection papers written by the students and I was so proud. I realised these are the stories they want to hear: about the environment, equality, genderless products.

There were many elements of my speech that they highlighted and they said they felt very close to the company I am building. This makes me prouder than winning any venture capital or equity fund or investment. I was really positively surprised, and very proud.

Why is work so important to you?

Bertrand Russell, in his book The Conquest of Happiness, talks about how the only way to be happy in life is to contribute to society. I believe that. There are many ways of contributing to society: it could be through your work or by being a great neighbour or a powerful parent.

Work is important to me because I am able to use it to enlarge my impact. I want to help society by making best use of my talents, and I always liked business. Even when I was small I was always buying and selling things – it’s not for everyone but that’s my passion and that’s where I believe my skills lie so through that I’ve found a way to contribute.

Who inspires you?

I am inspired by young climate activists. I don’t know why people say that generation doesn’t care about anything. Those activists are out in the street for so long, standing up for something they believe in, and I find it inspiring.

I also find people who work for NGOs very inspiring. I plant trees for my family as their New Year presents, and the NGO I use sent me an email thanking me. But it’s me who should be thanking them. They’re the ones who have selflessly made it possible.

Also young business people – the new workforce choosing to work for purposeful companies over large organisations. They’d rather work for a startup where you don’t know what’s going to happen three months down the line than work for JP Morgan. I love that braveness. 

How do you balance your work with your family?

I always prioritise the important milestones for my baby. Whether it’s him starting nursery or eating solid foods, that is my pure focus. But equally I never feel guilty if I need to be away through work, on a business trip for example.

I don’t get too emotional. I’m the daughter of a working mum and dad and I feel proud of them. Seeing them have their own lives has always given me a different type of comfort – they didn’t sacrifice their lives for me.

I want my son to have the same feeling and I want him to see his parents enjoying our lives and work. So I don’t worry about spending ‘society standard’ time with him, about finding that balance between home and family too much. I’m there whenever I’m needed and he knows that, but other than that I try to do my own thing. 

That said, I do feel overwhelmed sometimes, like it’s too many things to fit it, but this is a phase and I’ve learned that you can’t always have a balance in your life. I think having a balanced life all the time is overemphasised, sometimes having discipline helps you but there are times in life when you’re just working harder, and times you take it easier.

I look at it from a longer-term perspective. I will take it easier at some point in the future to compensate for these years of working hard.

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

1) Work with the right people

Work with good people in a positive environment with the right culture. By always listening to each other, trusting each other, feeling responsible for each other you make things much simpler and easier.

Because of this, a small team can achieve something which huge teams are required to achieve in bigger companies. When you are building something from scratch this makes things much easier. Make things the right way, build the company that you want to work for.

2) Give yourself time

Delivering results is very tempting – you are sometimes cashless, you might have investors – but give yourself some time. Flexible thinking while remaining true to your core values is not easy to do, but financially plan in a way where you have more time to really build something good enough to sustain itself in the future.

After all, what’s the rush? Everything is about fast results in entrepreneurship because the only known entrepreneurship is American-style – you’re there, you’re flashy, you’re fast-moving, and that doesn’t necessarily need to be the way.

3) Grow your values

People always launch companies with good intentions but that doesn’t necessarily end up being the final result. Once you’re up and running, it’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and lose sight of what you stand for. So be aware of this and allow yourself space to grow your values. 

Find out more about TAKK.