In August of 1999, Nezih Altay had everything he wanted. He was
in Istanbul, about to marry the woman of his dreams. He was getting his PhD in
operations management from a major American university. And up until 3 a.m. on
Aug. 17, Altay says he had not witnessed a single day of suffering.
Then in 37 seconds his life changed forever.
A 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit an area just outside of
Turkey’s capital of Istanbul. It lasted less than a minute, yet more than
17,000 people died, half a million were left homeless and it caused $6.5
billion in damage. Entire neighborhoods were instantly erased as buildings
collapsed. Hospitals were overrun with the injured. The country was paralyzed
by the quake and the ensuing aftershocks.
Altay and his family escaped to a nearby park. They
lived there for days as the country struggled with the disaster’s aftermath.
“If there was a distribution scale of lucky to unlucky, I
was firmly on the lucky side on that day,” Altay says. “But it still leaves a
scar. Until that moment I had never been afraid for my life. But the earthquake
Learning About the Humanitarian
After the tragedy, Altay tried to return to a normal life.
He and his wife had a simple, wedding ceremony and went back to the United
States. He raised money for the earthquake victims while earning his PhD in
operations management at the University of Texas A&M. He returned to his
research focusing on spare parts management. He began teaching courses on
operations management. He became a business consultant.
Eventually, Altay went to the University of Richmond to teach
future business executives how to manage their supply chain operations.
Yet, the nightmare of Turkey’s earthquake and its ensuing
disaster response lingered in his memory.
A perpetual learner, Altay began studying the world of
disaster relief and humanitarian supply chains. He read about refugee camps and
medical supply deliveries after earthquakes, war outbreaks and other
devastating disasters. He noticed that concepts in disaster relief supply chain
management could be applied to shore up weaknesses in commercial supply chain
“When commercial supply chains are hit by a major
disruption, they tend to not know what to do with it,” Altay says. “One of your
suppliers is hit by a major disaster, or
dock workers go on strike, so none of your supply ships are leaving the
port…these scenarios can send corporations into panic mode.”
Humanitarian Experience Informs Business Solutions
Methods ubiquitous in humanitarian supply chain management,
such as triage and prioritization, could be used to help commercial operations
managers better cope with disruption, Altay theorized. This revelation changed
the way he wanted to teach business students about supply chain operations.
“If you solve the problem of a disaster supply chain, you
can apply it to commercial logistics, which is easier,” Altay says.
Altay struggled to find a university that saw the value of
teaching nonprofit humanitarian supply chain lessons to business students. Then,
in 2009, he came to DePaul’s Driehaus College of Business.
“At DePaul, we’re very entrepreneurial,” says Altay. “My
department chair was supportive and said let’s try it and see what happens.” This was how Altay's “Managing Humanitarian Supply
Chains” course was created.
Eight years later, DePaul undergraduate and graduate
business students are watching documentaries on Haiti emergency relief and
disaster recovery. They’re designing their own mock refugee camps and mapping out
ways to supply them. They’re traveling to Turkey to witness how that country
handles supply chain operations. And, of course, listening to Altay relate his
personal experience having survived an earthquake.
“One way of learning is to see a problem in different ways,
from different angles. If I wanted to teach you something one way, the solution
is easy—memorization,” says Altay. “This class allows them to see problems
differently and come up with innovative solutions.”
Altay’s course is now part of the curriculum for DePaul’s
new MS in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. The degree program is a cross-disciplinary collaboration among the business college, College of Liberal Arts
and Social Sciences and the College of Law. (Learn
more about the degree program.)
Injecting Humanitaruan Concepts into
Supply Chain Lessons
With DePaul’s support, Altay has parlayed his personal
interest in humanitarian supply chain operations into a growing professional
reputation in the field. He’s now a renowned expert in disaster relief supply chain
logistics, having authored several research papers and headlined panel discusions
on the subject.
While his research has given him name recognition, it’s his
classroom experience that he values the most.
“I love teaching,” Altay says. “I can walk into a classroom
on any day, and I may be struggling with a cold and not feeling well, but as
soon as I walk into that classroom I’m instantly better. I just love teaching
students and interacting with them.”