Three Ways to Cultivate Talents like David Yenicelik

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David Yenicelik (Photograph: Florian Bachmann / ETH Zurich)

David Yenicelik (Photograph: Florian Bachmann / ETH Zurich)

Universities play an increasingly important role in society creating an environment where talents, like graduate student David Yenicelik, thrive. A co-founder of Skilllab, Yenicelik develops artificial intelligence to uncover roadmaps that guide refugees on how to integrate into local labour markets.

New languages, cultural norms, and legal regulations present a challenge for even the most seasoned traveller making a home in a new country. For refugees fleeing violence or persecution, these challenges can often seem insurmountable. In 2015, when more than a million migrants and asylum seekers flooded the borders of European Union countries, David Yenicelik vowed to solve, at least in part, the migration crisis by helping immigrants navigate local infrastructures. Both German and Turkish, Yenicelik grew up in Ankara, Turkey immigrating to Munich, Germany at the age of sixteen and starting university in Switzerland at seventeen. While he has never had to flee tyranny, he understands and empathises with the often underestimated challenges that refugees face assimilating into a new country.

Now, at just twenty-one years of age and still a graduate student, Yenicelik works as a lead data scientist for Skilllab - a company that he co-founded with Ulrich Scharf and seven other young, motivated talents. Google recently announced Skilllab among the winners of the Google AI Impact Challenge. As one of 20 organisations (out of 2600), Skilllab will share a 25 million dollar grant to address societal challenges. Leveraging his knowledge of artificial intelligence, Yenicelik leads the design and implementation of Skilllab’s machine learning algorithms which the company uses to help refugees better integrate into local labour markets - an endeavour that speaks to his core values.

Yenicelik attributes his early success, at least in part, to three ways in which the learning ecosystem at ETH Zurich motivates, mentors, and facilitates a network that has enabled him to thrive. "I absolutely love this place!" he says.

Motivate Talents

Inherently talented and intrinsically motivated students like David Yenicelik achieve lot on their own, but young talents go much further with resources and support. As a teenager, Yenicelik spent time with his friends, played the guitar, and dabbled in the martial arts, but he was also a math whiz - obsessed with Linear Algebra. This obsession inspired his eventual studies in computer and data sciences. While his school years in Turkey allowed him to explore his passion for mathematics, it was the opportunities and resources that ETH Zurich offered that enabled him to cultivate his passion. "Imagine as a student, being able to access and even improve upon state-of-the-art medical AI algorithms. I felt empowered," he says.

At ETH Zurich, he found himself surrounded by likeminded students and researchers - even a few who were head-hunted by major corporations like Google, Sony, and Microsoft. Quickly realizing that the world really is the "oyster" of his generation, he enrolled in a number of extra-curricular courses - a privilege few other institutions afford its students. It was a dream come true for the knowledge thirsty Yenicelik who frequently accesses the Internet to learn new things. As part of his course exploration, he came across Professor Bart Clarysse, who heads up ETH Entrepreneurship.

Clarysse helped Yenicelik refine some of his broad ideas for solving the challenges of immigration and hone in on those ideas that could be feasibly deployed. Through ETH, he has also been exposed to major figures in the field of AI, including Professors Thomas Hofmann and Andreas Krause, both of whom taught and inspired him to apply the advanced techniques in Machine Learning towards social good. "Krause’s principled and caring approach towards his students inspired a deeper understanding of the subject matter," says Yenicelik.

Mentor and support

Supportive professors like Krause and Clarysse motivated Yenicelik to reach beyond the status quo. Professor Roland Siegwart also opened his door to Yenicelik and a few of his peers allowing them to pitch their idea for the first iteration of the Swissloop Association - a student-led team that creates and races a hyperloop mobility pod through near-vacuum tubes at speeds of up to 450 kilometres per hour. Siegwart, Frank Gürkaynak - a Senior Scientist at ETH, and many others mentored the team providing resources like an empty hangar space in a former military airfield / innovation park.

Together with Carl Friess - who ended up working for Elon Musk’s, The Boring Company, Dore de Mosier, and others, Yenicelik formalised the first legal entity of Swissloop and built the team from just a handful of engineers to a group of about sixty. Later the association was integrated as a student focus project in the university’s Mechanical and Process Engineering department. Since then, Swissloop has participated three times in Elon Musk’s SpaceX Hyperloop competition in California placing twice among the top three.

Mentorship is not limited to professors. Staff members like Romana Mayer, who manages projects for ETH Zurich’s international office involved Yenicelik with the Clinton Global Initiative for Universities (CGIU). The non-profit organization motivates and mentors social entrepreneurship that makes a positive impact on the world. Yenicelik partnered with Michael Yared, a fellow computer science student from Lebanon. Together, they competed among seven students for funding to travel to CGIU’s Annual meeting in Boston where they conceptualized "Project Spark." Project Spark was a venture that envisioned a new education system that takes advantage of technology and modern research to enable some of the poorest countries in the world to teach more students, more effectively, and at a minimal cost.

Create networks

Universities play an increasingly important role in society cultivating talents including facilitating access to platforms like CGIU, as well as, formal and informal student networks, and accessible mentors with whom students can establish positive and professional working relationships. Ulrich Scharf and some of Skilllab’s current co-founders encountered David Yenicelik through his work on a social initiative focused on refugee integration in Zurich. "Impressed by his engagement, as well as his commitment to great engineering, David quickly became an integral part of our team and a co-founder, despite his young age. Today, he leads Skilllab’s data engineering focusing specifically on artificial intelligence components," says Scharf.

In Yenicelik’s point of view, networks, especially in the field of social entrepreneurship, involve engaging talent and setting a uniform direction and "bundling talent toward a common vision." For him, life is not about making money, but rather, making "music with friends." Perhaps, somewhat altruistic, David Yenicelik manifests his values through projects, working from his own philosophy and principles in life. He chose to work with refugees because it is where he could make the most impact on a social issue that receives little positive attention and baffles world leaders. According to Yenicelik, opportunities in Switzerland are immense compared with other countries. "Talent defines how a country or state develops," he says "and I want to make my contribution in both Turkey and here in Europe."

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From the editors