UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Winter 2003
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Ahmet ("Matt") Yildizlar

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The Turkish Connection
Matt Yildizlar, B.S. ’87, creates valuable educational opportunities for Turkish students attending UB

Story by Clare O’Shea, M.A. ’87 & B.A. ’84
Photo by Richard Freeda

One day last Year, Matt Yildizlar, B.S. ’87, found himself sitting in a room in Istanbul interviewing a very nervous teenager. If he did well, Emrah Keles could win a full scholarship to UB, courtesy of the Yildizlar Education Fund. He had made it to the final round and had aced the written test. But now that he had to speak in English in front of a panel of UB and Turkish officials, he was blowing it.

Yildizlar was intrigued. Keles had overcome incredible odds to get this far. He was from Duzce, which had been devastated by a 1999 earthquake. How had he learned to write English when he could hardly speak it? Yildizlar switched to Turkish. Soon he learned that after Keles’s school had been demolished, he got himself online at the library and spent the next couple of years meeting people in English-language chat rooms.

“I said, ‘Here’s a kid from a small town, with so much drive—we’ve got to give him a chance,’” Yildizlar recounts. The panel agreed, on the condition that he first earn good grades in UB’s English Language Institute. Keles was one of two students who won scholarships that day, and, Yildizlar says with delight, “He’s done fabulously and started his first semester at UB in January.”

This is just the sort of story that energizes Yildizlar. In Keles, he was able to see a hidden opportunity—which exercised his entrepreneurial mind—and help a fellow Turk. What’s more, he could give back to UB.

Now an American citizen, Ahmet “Matt” H. Yildizlar, 39, is managing partner of Star Venture Group (www.starvg.com), a successful financial and consulting services company. On a leisurely afternoon at his home in Greenwich, CT, he talked about his career, his time at UB, and the near-death experience that turned his life around.

Born in Istanbul, Yildizlar grew up in Turkey and London, then moved to Buffalo at 18. At UB, he played varsity soccer and took business courses while he tried to figure out what he wanted to do. “I had this entrepreneurial side to me,” says Yildizlar, who used to sell books on the street when he was a boy. “I was a bit of a dreamer.”

A marketing class taught by Professor Paul Sauer kindled the fire. Sauer asked his students to come up with an idea and sell it to the rest of the class. Drive-through grocery shopping was Yildizlar’s first idea; he and some classmates also tried to market a filmless camera. “Back then it was a great idea,” Yildizlar says with a laugh. “In later years, the four of us joked that we were pioneers.”

This kind of innovation thrilled Yildizlar, but he was also a realist. His father, who made a mark as chair of Unilever-Turkey, urged him to try the corporate world, so after graduation Matt went off to Istanbul to work for a Unilever subsidiary. He was 25, had just proposed to his girlfriend, Melanie, and was working and playing hard. Then, one winter morning in 1988, he was driving down a country road when he was blindsided by another car. By the time the doctors finished taking X rays, they’d counted 47 broken bones. “I was paralyzed for a year on my left side,” Yildizlar says. It took seven years and 14 operations before he could walk without aid.

Weeks in a hospital bed gave him time to think about his life. “When you get so close to death, you realize you have to live every day as if it’s your last,” Yildizlar says. “That accident was the worst thing that happened to me, but it changed my life for the better. It toughened me. I became a bit more selfish—in appreciating life and wanting to do the things I really wanted to do.”

Yildizlar tells this dramatic story in his quiet, sunny family room. He looks neither like a zealot who’s had a brush with death nor like one of those supremely confident young entrepreneurs. He’s relaxed and friendly. His children, Alara, 8, and Andrew, 4, come running in to visit. His wife—yes, Melanie—every bit as down to earth as he is, drops in to say hello. Yet even on a weekend, casually dressed, surrounded by his family, Yildizlar has a seriousness about him, a focus and drive that have not only helped him through a long physical recuperation but have defined his career, as well.

One decision he made after the accident was to strike out on his own professionally. In 1992, he moved to New York and set to work researching the idea of a food-delivery business; $30,000 and several focus groups later, he and his partner realized this was an idea too far ahead of its time and gave up the project. The experience gave Yildizlar a hint of what it would be like to work for himself, and he was hooked. Next he helped start a phone service company, which he and his partners later sold at a small profit.

His father’s death in 1994 led Yildizlar back to Turkey. As he took over some of his father’s investments, Yildizlar started to see the opportunities his homeland offered.

“My dad used to tell me: ‘Do what you know best and deal with people you know best.’” In 1996, Yildizlar finally took that advice to heart; he decided to make a business out of investing in Turkey. Star Venture Group was born. The venture capital company, named for its founder (“Yildizlar” means “stars” in Turkish), has evolved into a service-oriented company. “We hold a company’s hand that wants to do business either investing in Turkey or selling products from Turkey,” Yildizlar explains.

With his company off the ground and his professional roots in Turkey established, Yildizlar, already a member of the UB Alumni Association board of directors, started thinking about how he could contribute to his alma mater. Once again his father’s legacy guided him. “My father was very much invested in people and in education,” he says. “He always told me that was the number one thing in life. I wanted to do something that my family could continue after I’d gone.”

He contacted Stephen Dunnett, vice provost of international education, and laid out his ideas for bringing Turkish students to UB—and beyond that, for building an educational bridge between the two countries. He fostered a relationship with the Turkish foundation TEGV, which now selects about 15 students each year to test for scholarships from the Yildizlar Education Fund (www.yef.us), which Yildizlar established with $50,000 of his own money. Up to four undergraduates can attend UB at one time.

After Yildizlar set up his fund, UB president William Greiner flew to New York to meet, in Yildizlar’s words, “this crazy Turk who wanted to do all this stuff for UB. I said, ‘There’s so much out there that’s still untouched.’ The typical university goes after Europe or the Far East. But this is an untouched place.” A month later, he took Greiner and other UB officials to Turkey to meet with officials from three universities. The result is an innovative program that allows students to attend Istanbul Technical University for two years, then UB for two years, and earn a dual degree.

As sincere as he is about giving back to UB, Yildizlar is at heart an entrepreneur. “Not only do I believe in education, but I believe in that part of the world. It helps my business,” he admits. “There are over 300 U.S. companies doing business in Turkey, and this is a great way of offering them qualified people.” And that’s just the beginning, Yildizlar thinks; he has an eye on the rest of the “new” Europe—future European Community countries like Bulgaria and Romania.

“That’s what I offered UB,” Yildizlar explains. “I said, ‘This is the big picture: You’re doing me a favor with my education fund, but I’m going to pay you back ten times more—I’m going to open the doors for you.’”

Clare O’Shea, M.A. ’87 & B.A. ’84, is an editor at Epicurious.com.

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