2015: My Person of the Year

As I write my last post of the calendar year, I am stunned to think back at all of the change we experienced in 2015, both locally in Turkey (2 elections!) and globally (HP split! so did Ben Affleck and Jen Garner!). With regional tensions, a shaky lira, and polarized electorate, there are many potential obstacles that may greet Turkey in the new year. However, these challenges provide a unique opportunity to entrepreneurs in that times of confusion and/or resource scarcity require the discipline of laser-like focus on mission, product, and capital allocation that can, counter intuitively, help adept entrepreneurs be poised for unique success in a time of uncertainty.

Much of “water cooler” conversation in Turkey focuses on challenges. But it’s the visionaries of the world that see the potential doors opening and silently claw toward their vision over weeks, months, and years. That’s why, rather than recapping the problems we face – or worst yet, ignoring them – I wanted to focus on a real-life example. My vote (for my own first annual Person of the Year award), goes to Aziz Sancar.

Now in many ways it pains me to write that sentence – I am a diehard, loyal Duke University Blue Devil, and the fact that that Professor Sancar is affiliated with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill – opponents in arguably the greatest sports rivalry in the US (read about it  here, here, and here) – is one that admittedly took some time to fully accept. However I believe his accomplishments in 2015 for science, for Turkey, and yes even for entrepreneurship trump my personal bias. To that end, I interviewed the voting panel (myself) to learn more about what could have overcome this chasm to make him be person of the year?

Who is Aziz Sancar? Aziz Sancar, originally from Mardin, Turkey, is a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine. This past week, on December 10, 2015 he received his Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for work his team did (happily, his co-author is a Duke Professor) for mapping and explaining how cells can repair their own DNA. They were able to identify how cells are able to protect our genetic information from damage – which can potentially have massive implications for life-saving treatments in the future.

Why is he your “Person of 2015”? (What does he have to do with entrepreneurship?) Yes, he won the Nobel Prize, but the lessons he embodies reach beyond the award itself; he is a (sorely needed) role model of what is right with Turkey and entrepreneurship:

  • Not letting geography define your potential. After growing up in rural Savur, 7th of 8 children, he went on to earn his MD at Istanbul University, and subsequently worked in the Turkish countryside. His parents were illiterate, but placed great importance on Sancar’s education; he ultimately left the country to pursue biochemistry as a discipline, receiving his at the University of Texas at Dallas.
  • Embracing and pursuing intellectual curiosity – While working in Turkey, he became fascinated with how bacteria were able to suddenly recover from radiation when exposed to a visible blue light, and decided to pursue biochemistry (One journalist wonders if this is as a result of observations from his time in Mardin). Thus he was able to hone in on a singular vision.
  • Being persistent. Sancar has dedicated over 20 years to his award winning-topic, with almost half of that being spent in the lab itself, peering through the microscope. His relentless pursuit of trial, error, testing, and hands-on experience that are necessary for truly successful entrepreneurs – the execution on top of the vision.
  • Supporting your peers. Rather than seeing those in his field as threats or competitors, he supported them, seeing that in emerging sciences wisdom and experience is best shared, not siloed. Indeed, for the past 10 years he was secretly nominating his Duke-based (!) colleague for a Nobel Prize at every turn.
  • Giving back to the ecosystem. Through both his academic as well as personal statements Sancar is keen to support education and cooperation among Turks. Indeed, he and his wife founded Carolina Turk Evi, a housing and working space for Turkish researchers and visiting scholars.
  • Showing gratitude. One of the traits common in all successful entrepreneurs is deliberately taking the time to feel and show gratitude. Sancar sees his success as a product of his institutions as well as his country.

Despite having lived in the United States for the past few decades, Professor Sancar continues to drive collaboration with, and attention to, Turkey and its potential. This week, Professor Sancar dedicated his Nobel Prize to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, citing the Turkish Republic’s founder as the reason he was able to win the award. I applaud Professor Sancar’s for the importance he places on youth, education, science, and the free exchange of ideas – all of which are critical ingredients to develop a new dynamic generation of entrepreneurs.

Wishing everyone a happy, safe, and healthy New Year! go Duke 🙂

─ December 15, 2015