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Leadership Stories: Change.org’s Dr. Uygar Özesmi

Change.org
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Dr. Uygar ÖzesmiDr. Uygar Özesmi, a social and environmental entrepreneur, started early on with ecology and environmental science, was a professor, UN Bureaucrat and leader of Civil Society Organisations. He constantly founded, invigorated and led organisations; ranging from the TEMA Foundation and BirdLife Partner Doğa Derneği, to the first Nature Conservation Federation and the first crowd-sourcing site in Turkey. Finally after Greenpeace Mediterranean, he is now with Change.org.

 

Dr. Uygar Özesmi, you joined Change.org just over a year ago from Greenpeace – why did you make the change?

We did incredibly well during the 5 years I was at Greenpeace. We quintupled income, quintupled supporters and quintupled the visibility of the organisation. Perhaps the biggest achievement during my time was the creation of our online campaigning team – the only one of its kind in Turkey and Israel at the time – which we also started to expand out to Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan. Given those developments, I felt like I had accomplished what I went to Greenpeace to do.

I also know that there needs to be constant regeneration in an organisation and I think, for a CEO, 5-7 years is the maximum term. With Greenpeace, the organisation doubled its staff whilst I was there, most of which I hired or promoted. I had a lot of control in the organisation through those relationships, but that control can lead to “organisational blindness”. So it was time for a new vision for Greenpeace from a new leader.

I started to look for my next opportunity and Change.org, as an online campaign platform, was the best fit for my skills, experiences and desire to make an impact.

Why do you think Change.org picked you as a leader?

I think there’s a few key reasons. First, I have a vast network in activism and the civil society. Locally I have connections with all sorts of rights movements relevant to Change.org, since I was one of the founders of the Civil Society Development Centre in Turkey. Internationally I am a CIVICUS board member already in my second-term, which is the Alliance for Citizen Participation, essentially the umbrella organisation of civil societies in the world.

My knowledge of online campaigning, campaigning tactics and the “online world” gained from creating Greenpeace’s online campaigns team was highly relevant. My managerial experience at Greenpeace suited the role at Change.org too, where I oversee the organisation’s regional activity across Eastern Europe and West Asia, as well as feeding into international strategy.

But – like any organisation – culture is important. My approach to management In terms of openness, empowering staff, being data driven, growing creativity & innovation and operating across knowledge networks (rather than hierarchies) fit with Change.org’s organisational culture.

How is Change.org progressing in Turkey?

We started at 80,000 users. Back in May, we had around 650,000 users. Now, we’ve hit 1.2 million! Everyday ordinary people and organisations are starting more than 10 successful campaigns, every week one campaign succeeds in getting their demands. Some of these were highly influential at the national policy level, others convinced companies to change their practices, or municipalities to expand their services and correct their practices. What else can I want? I get to provide a fantastic tool for change and help people in creating the change they want.

What are the opportunities to expand the Change.org business model?

I think the model is already very powerful at creating change through individuals and organisations via online campaigns – and we’re nowhere near to any kind of saturation. There’s plenty of room to grow, even in countries like the US, UK, Australia and Spain where our user base is already very high. What we really want to see is for Change.org to become ubiquitous – the platform that everyone turns to in order to feel empowered, and make the changes they want to see in the world.

We’ve also started to set up interactions between petitioners and decision makers, which is helping to make the platform much more about coming together and making changes rather than only confrontation.

How can Change.org help major corporations who are developing products/services the world needs more of?

The key thing here is that, in order for a petition to succeed, it has to appeal to the Change.org user base and beyond. Major corporations can effectively use change.org’s decision makers tool to see all the petitions that demand something from them. They can then respond and get into a dialogue with petitioners, or even invite petitions in specific areas in order to gain public support for decisions they would like to take. They can start seeing their customers as “pro-sumers” and not as consumers.

We’re an open platform, so anyone can launch a campaign. Perhaps if they can come up with a really creative petition that would result in positive change for everyone, they might succeed! At the end of the day, success at Change.org is about being compelling.

It appears that some major corporations are starting to become sensitive to their social impact on the world, how do you think this will progress?

You might be surprised, but I’m not at all cynical about any large corporation’s ambitions to become fully socially and environmentally responsible. The planet demands it, and people demand it. We know that if there is demand, there is supply.

Socially networked society is far more critical and far more aware of social behaviour. The internet revolution has started to create a global consciousness which is increasingly aware of the limits of our planet, and the potential of our society to do good. I think it’s comparable to the industrial revolution and, sooner or later, it’s going to change the way we behave.

Which corporations are the early-adopters of positive social impact?

I’m not really following corporations that closely, but through my personal networks I’ve learned of the work of Stonyfield Farm Yoghurts. Not only are they amazing in walking the talk and being ecologically and socially sustainable, they’re projecting their model as an example to other corporations. I hear a lot about Patagonia, too.

But these are brands, we don’t see the same story from the huge corporate conglomerates. Unilever are making lots of noise, but I worry that this is only because of the leadership of Paul Polman and may not involve complete engagement of the workforce and supply chain. I want to see visionary leadership in every company, but the logic and talk of these leaders needs to become the walk of everyone in the organisation.

If you were us, who would you interview about making positive, social change?

I wouldn’t talk to any of today’s leaders. I would interview young people who are about to start their careers. I want to understand how young people are thinking about bringing meaning into their lives, as I don’t get why anyone would want to start a career in a profit maximising organisation – that’s really alien to me. If it’s a lack of options, then why aren’t they creating more options? I want to see more people jumping into the cold water and starting up new social change organisations.

Do you think the next generation of leaders will create “The Right Kind of Growth”?

Yes.

I think materialism is becoming less important to people, and that having meaning in your life is stepping to the forefront of priorities. The new generation of leaders will be more and more driven to a life of meaning and social change – development of humanity rather than economic development. Finally we’re starting to realise that ecology and economy come from the same root.

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Ross Nicholson

I co-founded Six Degree People in order to build a global community of leaders and organisations which have a broad, shared vision to pursue the most game-changing sustainable and socially-impactful agenda’s. I’m proud to lead a team that makes so many powerful connections across our global community. I get up every morning excited to see what a difference those connections make in turning brave strategic vision into action. Genuinely seeing how our actions are changing the world for good, is about as rewarding as it gets.

 

Within the business, I’m passionate about continuing to develop a model that is just as innovative and disruptive as those organisations we partner with. I believe in hiring people better than you. That’s not difficult given the global community we’re part of, but we set our bar just as high as our clients do.

 

It’s impossible not to get excited about every piece of work complete but given my passion for architecture and design, I love any project focussed on cities of the future and sustainable communities.

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