Working in Turkey two years ago, husband and wife Josh and Anca Burke, both 2008 MBA graduates, saw Syrian refugees coursing through the streets every day, trying to piece together new lives.
The couple was stationed there for Josh’s job as a commercial attaché with the U.S. Commerce Department. And while the Burkes participated when the American embassy held refugee food and clothing drives, they felt called to contribute more of their skills. “Because of time spent at Notre Dame and doing business advisory work, we thought there might be a way to give back that was even bigger,” Josh says.
A year later, Josh has co-founded a social benefit corporation, the Anka Cooperative, that employs refugees living in Turkish camps to weave high-end rugs in rich colors and ornate patterns, with some antique and traditional motifs and other more modernized styles (like popular ones featuring fish). The venture has raised an initial $100,000 through a runaway-successful Kickstarter campaign. Now hundreds of refugees are being trained to weave, and Anka is selling the rugs they produce through its online store at ankacoop.org.
The idea began when Josh learned of a Turkish-American producer, Neslihan Jevremovic, who had been employing women in the country for decades to make museum-quality rugs. He contacted Jevremovic, asking, “Have you thought about hiring people in the camps?”
“We have a lot to talk about,” she replied. Jevremovic’s company, Woven Legends, was already training weavers in the camps, but hadn’t thought to publicize it.
The Burkes wanted to spread the word about that vital work. Josh became volunteer co-founder of the new project, the Anka Cooperative. Anca, who works as global partner at Executive Consultants United, provided expertise with strategy and web development. “We helped focus on the marketing and branding of Anka so people understand they’re not just buying a rug — this is a rug that has touched the lives of women who have fled war and are putting their heart and soul into it,” she says. (The company’s name comes from the Arabic word for “phoenix,” the mythical bird that obtains new life by arising from its predecessor’s ashes.)
Although the Burkes are now stationed in Romania, they continue to help lead Anka’s work in Turkey. They are overseeing the purchase of more looms from the Kickstarter proceeds, and marketing the company’s existing rugs and smaller items such as Christmas stockings and coasters. Anka currently employs about 200 women; the Burkes hope to reach 20,000. Weavers not only learn a skill and make a wage commensurate with Turkish weavers, but also gain the opportunity to integrate into the culture and learn the language.
The Burkes often receive pro bono help from Notre Dame business students and alumni, and they say the approach they absorbed at the University continues to guide them. “The tagline is ‘Ask More of Business,’ and I appreciate that. There’s this myth out there that businesses are there to make money and nonprofits are there to just serve,” Josh says. “The MBA program, the University, the alumni, and the community as a whole reinforce the spirit of volunteerism, social support, and finding ways to give back to a better world.”
Editor's Note: The recent cancellation of visas for U.S. citizens to Turkey, combined with other actions by Turkey’s government, likely will have an impact on Anka’s mission, says Josh Burke. “Our team is closely monitoring the situation and hopes to continue operations in the coming months.”