A big mansion, a fancy car, and earning lots of money… These were the life goals that Okan McAllister was drawn to when he was in his early twenties, but as a child, he would not even imagine that one day he would afford a car. And he did not have any clue that one day a more grown-up Okan would also regard these dreams as “small.”
It was not the ideal childhood. Okan was seven years old when his father passed away. They lived in Çeliktepe – a district in Istanbul where lower-income neighborhoods are a stone’s throw from the skyscrapers of the famous business district. He does not shy away from admitting that he and his family were barely making ends meet. But there was one upside: His half-orphan status opened the door to Darüşaffaka – a well-established school in Turkey that provides orphans with a quality education.
Even then, there were a few things that already defined him: a passion for justice, a love for music, and an entrepreneurial spirit. When he was 14, he collected unreleased songs of talented musicians from across Turkey who couldn’t get the attention of the big labels, pressed and distributed compilation CDs to help them get their music heard. Before the days of digital platforms, it opened up important new doors.
Later on, through his stepfather – a Briton who was teaching in private schools in Turkey – Okan ended up at a private Austrian high school when he was 16. He studied further in Vienna, including a master’s degree in banking and finance, but not before going to Canada and studying film theory. There he also started up his first business – a marketing company.
It had all moved so much faster than he had expected – he had even built a gadget-filled home studio for his music – achieving goals that had seemed so far off when he was a kid. With big things so real so early, Okan started rethinking his purpose. What did he want to work on for the rest of his life?
Making a Difference
It took him just eight weeks to leave everything, and return to Vienna, where he started to educate himself further. His not-so-affluent roots had left a chip on his shoulder; he wanted to make a difference in lives like his. But not handouts, not charity.
He began to form the building blocks of a new type of enterprise. It was a transformation – a new Okan came out, he was ready to become a “social entrepreneur,” which he first heard about when he was 25. There was a way he could combine both entrepreneurial drive and social impact, align business purpose with a positive impact. Far from “charity work,” social enterprises bring lasting, systemic change, “social impact,” into the center of their business mission and the structures to make it sustainable.
The chip on Okan’s shoulder now looked for contributing to what would solve the world’s problems, even if little by little. Okan turned his focus on youth empowerment, founding PRIME MOVERS in Austria, a leadership program for young people who are passionate about social and environmental change.
In it, young people, mostly students, participate in the specially designed hands-on leadership program for a year; in exchange, they volunteer 5-10 hours a week in the portfolio of social enterprises working in waste, food waste, gender inequality, and responsible digitalization. A smart design, where youngsters learn through a series of essential workshops on diverse topics such as leadership, social and environmental change, system thinking, and apply their knowledge to social businesses.
Pioneering Social Change
Okran’s portfolio includes several pioneering social businesses – kindby has become Austria’s first online store for renting high-quality, reusable, recyclable, ethically produced baby clothing creating a perfect example of a circular economy, reducing waste and emissions. Another initiative, “ONE DAY” is an annual conference and community – bringing academia, practitioners, NGOs, and students together – to explore possibilities for systems change that can solve complex social problems. Another initiative is Mission Liftoff, helping teachers integrate the education of social and environmental issues into classrooms through well-designed lesson plans covering sustainability, gender equality and responsible digitalization.
A gifted speaker, Okan has appeared on international stages from the United Nations to European Forum Alpbach, talking about social entrepreneurship, societal transformation and systems change, while also guest lecturing at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU). He also advises corporations on how they can become more sustainable and mentors social startups focusing on solutions to the world’s complex challenges.
With time Okan’s dreams have been redirected, but even his teenage compilation album shows his drive to make things socially right. All he needed was an environment that encouraged him to merge his motivation for social change with his entrepreneurial spirit. This is something I understand: After moving from Istanbul to Vienna in 2019 following a decade of corporate jobs, I, too felt the pull of social impact, and crossed paths with Okran at the Impact Hub.
So today, I am supporting the Jamba Career for All, building fair access to people with disabilities in the field of ICT/AI. As a core international team of four women and one man, we are now in the research and development phase of our project.
Is it Vienna that gives the inspiration to so many of us to look for ways to align social purposes with our work? Who knows? But here we are. And it is happening.