Financial Times
Published: August 16 2008

‘People look into your eyes more’

As told to Mark Ellwood




Nuri Yurt
Age: 39

Occupation: Owner of Toka hair salons in New York and stylist to Laura Bush, the US First Lady

Born in: Istanbul, Turkey

Now living in: Great Falls, Virginia, and Manhattan, New York, US

I was 10 years old when I got involved in this industry, in Turkey. Then I came here 18 years ago to study English and didn’t leave. The plan was to stay for six months.

I did not intend to live in America. I worked with a lot of international models and my focus was on how to improve my English. Then I changed my mind because of how settled and easy the lifestyle was.

I met a couple of friends here in the same industry. I was showing them, teaching them about some new technique. They loved it and said “Why not stay here?” One of the Turkish guys had the salon at the Four Seasons in Washington, DC. It was a start. I was not even part time – I was just helping them – but afterwards he offered me a job and I decided to stay and go full time.

My American customers weren’t different from those in Turkey. Human is human. It doesn’t matter where you are: Africa, America, Europe. It’s not the customers who are different; it’s the opportunities. There are more here. Washington, DC, is the capital – the right address to meet powerful people. That was my opportunity.

If you’re big in America, I believe you’re big globally. If a product is “Made in USA”, it’s a better sticker than “Made in Turkey” or “Made in China”. That’s how I see it. Every nation has a diplomat in Washington. I see that as a huge opportunity.

I don’t feel foreign here. I’ve developed here. I don’t think human beings realize what we have until we are 15 years old and I came here at such a young age.

I feel both Turkish and American. My wife is American. At my foundation I am a Turk but at the same time don’t feel foreign here. I am a dual citizen; I have my American passport. All my business is also from here so they don’t treat you like you’re a foreigner.

There’s a very powerful Turkish community in Washington. And lots of smart  Turkish kids are studying at George Washington University.

Comparing DC and Istanbul? Well, Istanbul is bigger than Washington in terms of population but Ankara is the capital of Turkey. Istanbul is more like New York. The lifestyle is more stable in Washington. We work by appointment here. Lots of smart people – politicians, lawyers, high-end doctors – are based in Washington so we work by a schedule. It’s simple and easy and I like the organised lifestyle. In my time in Istanbul you didn’t have appointments. It didn’t matter how much business you had, people would just walk in.

Until October 2006 I went back home every two months because my father was very ill. I lost him and the plan now is to go once a year; we have a property there that my wife loves.

Istanbul is very diverse, the people are really warm and friendly and the cuisine is the best in the world. And most of the Turks I’ve met and been around, both male and female, are very wise business people. The entrepreneurial spirit is in their blood.

Every time I go back to Istanbul, I think it’s grown. The last couple of years? So much construction. It’s getting more organised and the educational level has improved so much.

I’m 100 per cent satisfied in America but what I miss about Turkey is how very welcoming it is. And everyone should know it has the best beaches on earth. Check out Bodrum: it’s beautiful. The first time my wife came to Turkey she couldn’t stop staring at the water.

Members of every ethnic group naturally cluster together – like a magnet. Of course I have Turkish employees – tons of them – among my 40-50 staff. They’re very talented and they work hard. I love my people; I’m very proud to be Turkish. We shouldn’t forget our foundations.

It’s been a long time since I felt foreign here, except when we go on little trips to the countryside. I’ve never lost my accent but what I like about it is that you’re different from people so you get attention and people look into your eyes more.

Georgetown is my favorite area of DC for sure. I like it because it’s very historical; it’s not built from concrete. I like the gardens and small houses. I like the water, the river there – everything about it.

I have one son. He’s almost six. He understands Turkish right now – about 80 per cent. We’d like to have a live-in tutor or nanny. I travel a lot and work long hours so we’d like him to have a Turkish person to live with.

What was strange, when I arrived in America, was that there were not a lot of good stylists here. In fact, my next step is to open an academy and train people.

Most of our clientele are in politics. They want an easy-to-maintain, respectable-looking cut with a clean line. As a professional businesswoman or businessman, on television or in politics, you don’t want your hair to draw more attention than your brain. In Istanbul the difference is that they want their hair as edgy as possible – even the politicians. To me, if I’m in politics, my look should be more professional.

Turks love Americans. I don’t know any one single person who has the opposite feeling. Turkey is a Muslim country and we can show the world how westernised and open-minded – and not fanatical – a Muslim country can be.

In Washington, if you have talent nothing can stop you. There’s a huge opportunity to make it in America. If you’re honest, humble and work hard, I don’t think anything can stop you. You will succeed.

I have no plans to go back to Turkey full time but you never know. Maybe if I make it to 80. I am so happy here.

                                       -- Mark Ellwood --

Toka Salon
3251 Prospect St., NW