Interview: Murat Vargi

We speak to Monaco resident Murat Vargi, founding member of Turkcell and the Mind Your Waste Foundation, entrepreneur, yogi, philanthropist, avid sailor and last year’s winner of the YCM Explorer Awards La Belle Classe for Adventure, Ethics and Environment.
This interview felt like one brushstroke on a canvas, full of verve and life, a paragraph to a novel the length of War and Peace. I was in awe of his larger than life persona, his passion for ethical and modern philanthropical causes in the world of finance in an era when much of this was unheard of. Today, Murat Vargi champions education, equality and the urgent need to protect our planet through behavioural change.
Monaco life: You’ve worked relentlessly since early childhood and achieved many outstanding goals in your life. But what has been your proudest moment? 
Murat Vargi: After 12 years of complete immersion in running and developing Turkcell, the high point was becoming the first Turkish company to IPO on the New York Stock Exchange.
But my proudest moments are lived daily in my two daughters who are the source of my happiness. Remarkably, they share the same passion for philanthropy and my business. My eldest daughter is the president of MV Holdings and she now understands my journey. I don’t advise her but let her make her own mark on the company; I want her to have full responsibility. Now she understands some of the challenges and hardships involved in running a company. It is wonderful because it gives me more time to pursue my hobbies. My youngest daughter recently spent time in Gambia and Senegal where we made wells for the villages.
How did you develop such a strong work ethic? 
My work ethic was born out of love for my family and the loss of my father who passed away at the age of 42. I am forever grateful to my mother who was always encouraging. If I came home with a terrible grade, I was never scolded but encouraged to try better. Even when I had 4/10 on a test, she would be positive and gently ask me to try and do a little better. I don’t remember ever being punished by her.
I always worked from an early age. At 13, I was a clerk’s assistant and I would always spend my money on things for our household. If I made $50, I would spend $20 on something for my mother. It formed me.
Well it must have served you well, considering you went on to establish Turkcell, Turkey’s largest mobile provider. How did that come about?
It was a combination of synchronous events including government regulation and an interview I gave to the Financial Times, which led to me forming a partnership with Swedish company Torsten Press of Comviq. In 1988, the European Union decided to have one cellular system that was GSM, so all pan European countries agreed to this one system, including Turkey, although not fully a part of Europe. This started the process: cell phones were state owned and monopolised, and I took part in the process of dismantling this monopoly.
What then motivated you to set up the Mind Your Waste Foundation?
I have always balanced business and nature. Long walks in nature is a must for me. However, whilst walking in Turkey I was deeply saddened and disturbed by the build-up of plastic bags and litter in the forests and on the beaches.
I felt the best way to tackle this alarming unawareness about the damage of waste on our planet was through creating Mind Your Waste Foundation. We developed a series of campaigns that were aired on Turkish television and radio – 30 second short films made by my brother who is a film maker, and songs with a variety of rap and classic popular music specifically targeting the key market segments. After five years, our market studies showed a marked improvement in behavioural patterns towards litter.
Ultimately, our biggest achievement was reducing plastic bag consumption from 100% to 20% and initiating a system for people to get money back for returning plastic bottles.
Informing people of their behaviour is a powerful form of creating change and that is the underlying motivation of my philanthropy.
Similarly, we educated 10,000 girls by giving them scholarships as a means of reducing teenage marriages brought about by poverty.
Marcel Proust always asked: “What do you eat for breakfast?”. What is your daily routine in Monaco? 
For Turks, breakfast is a much-loved tradition based on our love of the Mediterranean’s olive trees and olive oil. So, I have olives with white cheese and honey, sometimes eggs, parsley, tomatoes and peppers. When dieting I have muesli and tea and no coffee.

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks

For a man gifted in always seeing the bigger picture, who is your favourite artist?
Presently, I would say that Edward Hopper is my favourite artist and in a way his paintings perfectly capture this era of confinement and isolation that we are living in. They are the best example of how to follow social distancing guidelines! Nighthawks (1942) is very special to me, as in all his works there is a sense of solitude and silence. He is absorbing on so many levels, especially the unspoken narrative, that mutable tone that exists in couples that he paints so brilliantly.
What inspired you to build an art collection? 
By chance I came across an auction catalogue and couldn’t believe that there were Renoir’s for sale. My father had a book on the Impressionists and loved Renoir, and that nostalgia is what got me started on building a collection with my daughter.
Have you ticked everything off the list of your childhood dreams? 
(Laughing) Actually, yes I have. My belief is that dreams come true. You’ve got to dream – everything starts with a dream.
What makes you happy now?
Music makes me happy and beautiful friends… anyone with a story, from whom I can learn something. I like positive people.
What line from literature or film resonates with you? 
“It is nothing to die, but it is frightful not to have lived” by Victor Hugo.
What is your favourite film?
With regards to Turkish films, my brother Ömer Vargi’s films are incredible, especially Eskiya. I also laugh so much at French comedy starring Dany Boon or Benoît Poelvoorde.
What is the best present you have ever given? 
Organising a birthday party for my wife and the surprise was having Julio Iglesias come and sing for her in our home amongst our friends.
What are your favourite restaurants?
I think it was the thing I looked forward to the most after lockdown – eating in restaurants. My favourites are Paloma, Anjuna, Maya Bay and Cipriani’s.
I like that you are constantly learning and enjoying life, is this important to you?
It is an honour to support and help wherever I can, and Mind Your Waste and creating equality in the world will always be at the fore of what I do. I have worked relentlessly throughout my life, even today I dedicate 30% of my time to our foundation, to scholarships and the arts.
Life is valuable – one feels this more and more the older you get – and time is precious. As Deepak Chopra says, “You can’t be spiritual if you are not having fun.”
Photo: Prince Albert presenting the YCM La Belle Classe Explorer Awards for Adventure, Ethics and Environment to Murat Vargi.