September 13, 2018 | Feature
a summer with young gurus
a study of a selfless corporate culture
article by ava rosenbaum
Last semester I was fervently searching for internships, looking everywhere from media outlets in New York to law firms in Raleigh. Nothing was falling into place. My Turkish friend kept telling me, “Check out Young Guru Academy. It would be perfect for you.” After a few weeks and a few more rejection letters, I finally decided to follow her advice. Little did I know that this would be one of the best decisions I would ever make.
At the time, all I knew about Young Guru Academy (YGA) was that it was an international nonprofit based in Turkey. I had visited Turkey once before on vacation, but I had never thought of living there. Nonetheless, an interview and a few months later, I found myself on a plane to Istanbul for my month-long internship.
Before arriving, the international coordinator told me that YGA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating selfless leaders. YGA achieves this goal through a multifaceted approach: they host a summer camp for middleschool students and run a three-year program for selected highschool students. They believe in hands-on learning, allowing the students develop their own products and work with distinguished leaders in various business, scientific and, technological fields. In this way, students become what YGA calls “double-winged” leaders who practice both competence and conscience.
The first Monday morning of my internship I met with two other Brown students. Yuta and Ruban were both computer science concentrators who had just graduated from Brown. During their senior year at Brown, they had taken a computer science class called Tech for Social Good. In that course, they had coded a social media application to complement the science kits that YGA produces. They were there to present and share the app as well as to receive insights on how to improve it.
We walked into YGA’s office, housed in Istanbul’s Ozyegin University. The office felt like a Google workplace, complete with petrified seaweed decorations, one large table, beanbag chairs, and the company’s motto—“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”—on the wall. People sipped on Turkish coffee or tea while they chatted in corners or typed on their computers.
We were led into a glass-walled conference room where we met with two sisters: Sezin Aydin, the Head of International Programs, and Melike Aydin, the Head of Marketing. They told us that Melike had left her job as an executive for Nestlé, where she had begun to feel purposeless and stagnant. But now, she has found a sense of fulfillment in her job at YGA.
They gave us a presentation about YGA’s high-trust culture, where everyone worked and lived selflessly. They told us that YGA focuses on the symbiotic relationship between personal and community growth, on the process rather than the result. They told us that everyone shared their introspections and vulnerabilities in weekly “feedforward” sessions.
Later that week, we met with Sinan Yaman, the founder of YGA. Before the meeting, Sezin told us that he was extremely excited to meet us. This surprised me—I had previously worked in companies where only my supervisor knew my name. In contrast, Sinan knew all of our names, as well as what we had been working on. He even asked us for our feedback on his performance. He further explained YGA’s philosophy of high trust and selflessness, and he told us he was moved to tears every week seeing the YGA employees truly practicing these values. We realized YGA was not just an organization—it was a mindset.
Ruban, Yuta, and I thought YGA’s mindset of intrinsic motivation, selflessness, and growth aligned harmoniously with Brown’s culture. Sezin agreed—although YGA had partnered with students from Harvard, Berkeley, and Columbia, Brown students were the quickest to understand the organization’s values. Based on the average Brown student’s drive for growth and self-actualization, I would guess that both Brown and YGA attract a specific kind of person. Both are places full of passion, growth, and a sense of social responsibility. Both embrace big-picture thinking and cross-disciplinary innovation.
However, this mindset contrasts today’s typical corporate culture. This culture often focuses on external, quantifiable measures of success: the name on the degree, the number on the paycheck, the title on the door. It is easy to see why this is the case—these tangible figures are comprehensible, comparable, and concrete. And this feedback happens quickly—every three months, a person’s merit changes depending on their revenue or sales. It is common for leaders to derive their self-worth and motivation from external measures, to constantly strive for a quantifiable success. But this success is often elusive.
People at YGA often came from high-powered positions in multinational corporations like Microsoft, Unilever and Nestlé. They told me that they felt like they were on a climb for elusive success in those companies. Just as they reached one goal, one number, one benchmark, there is another one just out of reach. So, they continued to climb and climb, lone hikers on an upward trek. Nevertheless, when they reached the top of the mountain and looked around, instead of feeling content in their accomplishment, they felt hollow. They felt like something was missing.
For them, YGA had that missing piece: selflessness. This deep belief in selflessness drives every aspect of YGA: it shapes its workplace culture, it fosters innovation, and it cultivates leadership. At YGA, selflessness does not mean a lack of a sense of self—it means going beyond yourself. A selfless mindset allows people to prioritize shared values and goals above individual desires. Selflessness promotes collaboration but not competition. Selflessness fosters confidence but not cockiness, self-reliance but not self-importance. A selfless mindset engenders growth and unconditional appreciation.
It is like if you were trying to plant a garden—even with all of the right seeds, they will not grow if the soil is contaminated. The mindset is the soil; with a selfish mindset, the seeds—challenge, evaluation, and appreciation—will die. In a selfish mindset, challenges become obstacles, evaluations become criticism, and appreciation becomes flattery. However, with a selfless mindset, these same seeds can flourish. Challenges become essential, evaluations become constructive, and appreciation becomes genuine. This one change—from selfish to selfless—entirely transforms the culture of an organization.
This may seem unbelievable, idealistic, only theoretical. Yes, it seems good on paper, but how can people actually practice this? Can a company be selfless and successful?
That is the key: YGA is successful because it is selfless. It may seem counterintuitive at first. Nonetheless, YGA and its members have won numerous accolades, including Best Place to Work, Forbes 30 Under 30, MIT Innovators Under 35, and an Edison Award. This is because when employees are intrinsically motivated, they take on greater challenges, and they work harder for the shared goals. For example, two days before YGA was going to host its week-long summer camp for over 200 students, the lead coordinator called and said that she was not going to attend the camp for personal reasons. Instead of getting angry, people at YGA were calm and understanding. Her absence meant that two other employees suddenly had the enormous task of running the camp, something they had not prepared for. They worked over 100 hours that week to make sure that the camp ran smoothly. At the end of the camp, they sent the woman a video thanking her for all of her hard work in the previous months. They told her that it was because of her prior work that the camp ran so smoothly.
Instances like these are common at YGA. YGA employees are not concerned with personal gains or losses, superiority or inferiority, accolades or aspirations. No one ever demands credit for their ideas—instead, they work to make sure that others receive the recognition and appreciation they deserve. In no other company did I feel as though people valued my ideas just as much as those of the founder. Because the focus was not on personal gain, my coworkers did not feel threatened by interns working alongside leaders in the company. Instead, they embraced and encouraged our contributions, realizing that the organization’s mission came above all else.
Yuta and Ruban only stayed for the week of the summer camp, but I stayed on for three more. Although the summer camp was over, the spirit and the energy did not fade. I worked with the founder on further developing YGA’s philosophy. YGA had the pieces—high-trust, introspection, role models—but they didn’t have a concrete way to explain them to the public. Sinan is a very conceptual thinker, and his ideas often flow out in a disjointed and tangential stream. We would talk through these concepts of selflessness and appreciation, and I would help organize and clarify them. I drew diagrams and made models of what he said, and we examined how the pieces fit together. I realized how much my political science studies helped me through this design process, as political science often deals with the connections between seemingly unrelated events—for example, how one event in one country can give rise to a movement in another. This big-picture thinking and ability to maneuver conceptual ideas proved very useful in helping hone YGA’s cultural model.
Through our work, we designed YGA’s unique cultural model for social innovation. YGA’s cultural model naturally gives rise to social innovations and leaders with conscience. This cyclical model consists of four elements: role models, introspection, high-trust culture, and social innovation. Each element leads to the other, in an iterative and sustainable process. YGA’s socially conscious role models promote introspection in others. When people share this selfless mindset, a high-trust culture develops. This environment fosters fearlessness, which naturally produces social innovations. These social innovations transform the culture of a country, and in turn, produce more role models.
When my internship came to an end, I was shocked by how deeply I was going to miss the environment and the people. I have plans to continue working with YGA, and I strongly encourage other Brown students to do the same. I had never before been in a working environment so invigorating and purposeful. This experience made me rethink what meaningful work really is and what kind of people I want to surround myself with. I realized that YGA’s model is not only one for an office but also one for life.