Magazine May/June 2013 Organizing the World

01 May 2013, 18:00
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Organizing the World

A graduate of the Yerevan Physics and Math Magnet School and guru of the Russian internet technology industry, David Yang is sometimes jokingly called "a man with the shortest Armenian surname." He implemented his first successful project back in 1989. It was the now legendary electronic dictionary Lingvo. Then the OCR Fine Reader followed, which is used today by tens of millions around the world. For the past twenty-something years, he has completed many different projects. Among them is the recently-opened Ayb school in Yerevan which Yang and his friends hope will open the doors to success of Armenia's youth.

David, you come to Yerevan less frequently and only for business.

Once a year is a must. And each time, walking around the Physics Institute, I have a special feeling. I lived here for 17 years and I know every rock – by the way, they all remained in the same places. Only now everything appears smaller – in childhood all the houses were so huge, and now they seem to be small. Yet Ararat is easily visible now. Probably because the factories stopped working, and the air is cleaner – so the industrial decline has its own advantages.

You left Yerevan in 1985. What have you missed the most?

For many years, when I lived in Moscow, I really missed the sun and fresh air. But recently my family and I moved to the suburbs of San Francisco, to Silicon Valley, where there is plenty of both.

By the way, Portola Valley, where we live now, reminds me of my home in the Physics Institute neighborhood not only by its climate, but by the people as well. Only a few thousand live here, many of them are professors at Stanford, and there is a really cozy atmosphere in this town. The only problem is coffee – they don’t serve Armenian coffee here or even Italian espresso, only Americano. To work around this predicament, I bought a coffee machine and started learning the art of latte – I even attended special courses.

And how is your life in America? Is it difficult to get used to a new place?

Not really. We like to travel with the family, to live in different places. I am not sure I will eventually settle in America, but for now everything is wonderful. It’s especially amazing how different this country can be. For example, about ten years ago I lived for a while in Chicago. It was a rather provincial place where everything is calm and measured. But San Francisco is brimming with life. Nearly 80 percent of residents are foreigners. They are active people – engineers, financiers or businessmen, who are always trying to invent something. In Palo Alto I have a favorite café – a small, five-table place. And from every table you can hear conversations about a new business project or some news from the Stanford Linear Accelerator. You cannot imagine how pleasant it is to be immersed in this environment of huge entrepreneurial potential.

What about all your friends – don’t you miss them at all?

In this sense little has changed – many of my friends work here including PhysTech alumni (the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology) and some Armenians. They are open guys, always full of ideas, always looking for potential investors. They often call me in when they want my assessment, want to be heard out. And quite often they offer promising projects in which I could participate, one way or another. But for the foreseeable future Ayb remains my priority.

The opening of Ayb came as a truly big event in Armenia last year. Do this year’s results meet your expectations?

In fact, the history of the school had begun long before it was opened. We came a long way developing the concept, looking for teachers, translating textbooks into Armenian, talking with architects and raising funds. As for the intermediate results, they have already exceeded our expectations. Our purpose is to give the kids an education that will enable them to continue their studies in the best universities of the world, and then return home and become scientists, businessmen, politicians, presidents – the ones on whom will depend the future of Armenia. And I see now we are on the right track. You know, my parents gave money to support the Ayb foundation, but they had a rather vague understanding of the project before they came and met the students in person. After that, they decided to move from Moscow to teach here. My father, who once came from China to Yerevan to study, would instruct in physics and maybe Chinese and my mom would teach Chinese history.

Many of those who founded Ayb were, like you, students of the Yerevan magnet school.

Having studied in that school allowed us later to enroll in the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and become what we have become. That is why the original idea was to come back and restore the Yerevan Physics and Mathematics Magnet School. Then it became clear that it would be difficult to invest $40 million into a public school. The investors wanted to be sure their funds remained safe. So it was decided to set up our own school.

But Ayb alone will not solve the problems of education in the country.

Of course, our goal is not to build just a school, but to create an environment. That is why from the onset we have been working closely with the Physics and Math School.

What determines the success of educational projects such as Ayb?

There are two important factors – teachers and students. In any learning environment, there should be brilliant teachers and striving students. And one does not make sense without the other. In the magnet school there was a wonderful communication with each other, spending the whole day there and, of course, the teachers were true professionals. But that’s not all: succession is important too. A big role in our education was played by the alumni who came back to school every summer and taught us elective courses. Many of my peers spent that time playing soccer while we were coming to the empty school, sitting in a hot classroom, listening to stories of the older guys. But I need to say, we found time for soccer too.


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