Iowa State student empowers Turkish women using technology

A doctoral student in the Iowa State University School of Education is assisting women in developing countries who earn money to help their families.

Pinar Arpaci is the founder of Prodigy Stream, a program created to help women in Istanbul, Turkey open an online store and sell their handcrafted goods through the online site, Etsy.

“Prodigy Stream aims to help women to see the value of what they are doing the best and turn that into an income source,” Arpaci said. “While doing this, participants also learn about digital literacy and technology tools that can help them to become entrepreneurs and mentors.”

Most of the women who participate in the program are stay-at-home moms with young children who didn’t finish high school or college. Prodigy Stream helps them profit from the creativity and talents they already use in their homes every day. The women’s skills run from knitting to glass blowing and making jewelry and dolls.

Helping women reach their full potential

Ana-Paula Correia, an associate professor in the School of Education, worked with Arpaci to write a paper about the program detailing its success. They presented that paper at the European Conference on Educational Research 2013 in Istanbul.

“When I first met Pinar, I immediately became interested in Prodigy Stream,” Correia said. “It had behind it a simple, but powerful idea: empowering women through the use of artistic skills. And the impact was impressive. It gave the ability to these women to reach out directly to consumers around the world through technology and education.”

The project started when Arpaci was doing research as a graduate student in economics. While writing her master’s thesis, she found that women in developing countries contribute to a country’s economy more than men do.

“Women are so talented, so dedicated to provide for their families and themselves,” Arpaci said. “Unfortunately, certain specific circumstances do not allow them to reveal their full potential. I wanted to design another component and integrate it into my own study to prove these results in a short period of time. This is how Prodigy Stream was born.”

Sally Shaver DuBois, a lecturer in kinesiology and education and motivational speaker, learned about Arpaci’s program while teaching an advanced instructional design class this semester in the School of Education. She was immediately impressed.

“In this course, we discuss the possibility of entrepreneurship in education (owning a small business) which is what I do when I am not teaching at ISU,” DuBois said. “It turns out one my graduate students, Pinar Arpaci, has already started a business with her mother from Turkey helping women utilize technology to sell their homemade items on Etsy. I thought this sounded like a great thing.”  

Expanding internationally

Arpaci founded the self-sustaining, non-profit project in collaboration with a jewelry designer in Istanbul and an economist in the United States. Although initially developed for residents of Istanbul, the project has grown to reach an international audience.

Since 2011, Prodigy Stream has spread to multiple cities and countries in Europe and the United States and has grown from 28 to more than 70 women who participate in the program. Overall, it has generated more than $720,000 in revenue. On average, women using the program are able to earn $488 per month, which they typically use on education for themselves and their children.

Arpaci says that she can’t take all the credit for the impact of Prodigy Stream — she insists that it’s a family project. Her mom, dad, and brother have all contributed to its success. Arpaci said her mother, Nazo Arpaci, who lives in Istanbul, plays the most significant role.

“For Prodigy Stream, she is the first contact person in the field for the participants,” Arpaci said. “She recruits them and teaches them as well as learns from them. She teaches how to design jewelry pieces, how to use technology to sell their products, how to and where to look for information.”  

Because of Prodigy Stream, Correia and Arpaci are now working on another project proposal focused on entrepreneurship and learning technologies to educate unemployed young adults in developing countries. Correia said they are focusing on West African countries that were weakened by the Ebola outbreak.