“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do” — Steve Jobs
An extract from my Q&A with Birkan Uzun for ‘Vision Matters’, broadcast on Kıbrıs Postası on 24 March 2021.
Q: What did you want to achieve at Amazon?
A: I wanted to develop applicable technologies that will help human beings such as machine learning and human-computer interaction.
Q: What inspired you to have such a solid growth mindset?
A: I have always pushed my boundaries from my early childhood. I am goal-orientated and I knew I have to be a planned and disciplined person with precision if I am to achieve my big dreams. I always challenge myself to push my limits.
Q: Where does exactly your courage come from?
A: It comes mainly from my family. My family always encouraged me to make my own decisions. [They] always ask, ‘How can we help you?’ They encouraged me to do successful things in life.
My mum especially supported me a lot. They encouraged me to make mistakes in the pursuit of my dreams and, to learn from them. They encouraged me to try new things. ‘If it doesn’t happen’, they said, ‘try new things. Keep on trying and learning’. I never stood in my comfort zone.
Q: Do you want to become the next Amazon?
A: Yes, why not? (smiling). I’m currently in the learning process at Amazon. But I would like to be an entrepreneur running my own business. First, I want to invest in smaller projects. Learn from them, scale them, then jump into bigger ones. In time we never know what will happen.
Q: You recently started working for a Venture Capital firm. What’s it like? Tell us about it
A: it’s a fascinating journey. We take care of decisions about millions of dollars, the analysis of smaller start-ups. Mentoring them, helping them scale, inspiring people to work with. I’m learning a lot from every step along the way.
Q: What do you think of a success story from TRNC?
A: There has been a paradigm shift after Covid in the world. The purpose of business has to do with helping mankind, helping a country develop itself. This is what I call entrepreneurship. Money is just a by-product of such journey.
I want to see how entrepreneurship culture in our country shall unfold in 4-5 years. I would like to be of help as a mentor, an investor offering consultation for young entrepreneurs. If there comes a great opportunity for me, I could return. Why shouldn’t I? It’s my country, it’s my people. I want to give back what they gave me.
Q: Do you have a message for the state officials in support of an entrepreneurship eco-system?
A: The State and all our institutions should provide resources for the eco-system to flourish. Universities should be supported as well. We have young talents everywhere, but there has to be incentives and necessary legislation for them to operate and produce results.
Searching for a hero like Birkan…
I am proud and forever grateful to be the first introduce him to Turkish Cypriot society, especially to inspire young entrepreneurs and change makers through my online talk show, ‘Vision Matters.’
As a human being who found himself stuck in a place isolated from the rest of the world, I am always deeply impacted by the greatest minds who shaped history in all aspects of life. What inspired them to do great things? What were the sources of their motivation? Where did they find the strength and grit to endure in difficult circumstances? These were some of the questions which I have pondered over ever since my childhood and teenage years.
Before I volunteered to write a tribute for Birkan, I had no idea it would be such a difficult and emotional journey into his mind, heart and spirit.
I was blessed to have had the chance to explore his life through interviews he gave, as well as by speaking to his family, friends, and colleagues. Through those exchanges, I was even more amazed by his super-human achievements, his relentless discipline, and I was heavily moved by his unstoppable spirit.
You see, Birkan had a grand Turkish Cypriot dream. A beautiful dream that became apparent to all Turkish Cypriots when he spoke atop Vinson Massif in December 2021.
Birkan Uzun to Turkish Cypriots at the top of Vinson Massif: “Whatever your goal is, you can achieve it if you put your mind to it. Embargoes cannot stop you. No one can. It all starts and ends in your head and heart.”
“I’m very proud and happy to know that our Turkish Cypriot flag of North Cyprus was waved and planted at this peak. I also hung our flag on our tent. Here, I am telling everyone who doesn’t know the story of TRNC and the story of Turkish Cypriots. Guys, we have lived under embargoes for many years and, unfortunately, we keep on living.
“But the message I want to give you is simple: Whatever your goal is, you can achieve it if you put your mind to it. Embargoes cannot stop you. No one can. It all starts and ends in your head and heart.
“If you really want to do something, nothing can stand in your way. Wherever you look in the world, you can see successful Turkish Cypriots. The world may not know about it, but they will.
“Slowly slowly, we continue to promote our country with our achievements, and I am very happy and proud to have contributed to this promotion campaign.”
The profound loss every Turkish Cypriot felt with Birkan’s passing
Birkan, aged 28, spoke these words when he arrived at the summit of Vinson Massif – the tallest peak in Antarctica – on 16 December 2021, after completing the fifth leg of his epic ‘Seven Summits Project’ to climb the tallest mountain in each continent.
Some days later, Birkan was interviewed by Turkish media and now the whole world was aware of this vivacious young Turkish Cypriot and his inspirational climb and words.
Tragically, Birkan lost his life in a skiing accident in Oregon two weeks later.
The Prime Minister of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC), Mr. Faiz Sucuoğlu, broke the news to the country in an early morning announcement on New Year’s Day. The joy and euphoria we felt for the New Year completely disappeared.
We were stunned. It was too shocking to believe such a brilliant young man’s life had been cut short so suddenly and unexpectedly. I witnessed the same reaction to this awful news as it spread first across Cyprus and then to Turkish Cypriots around the world.
TRNC President Ersin Tatar tweets after attending Birkan’s funeral
Birkan Uzun evladımızın cenazesi 10 Milli sporcumuzun omuzlarında Güzelyurt’ta tören alanında . . Birkan her zaman kalbimizde olacak, Birkan’ımıza Allah’tan rahmet diler, ailesinin büyük acısını paylaşır, ailenin ve tüm halkımızın başı sağolsun. pic.twitter.com/eZJrVbThIx
— Ersin Tatar (@ErsinrTatar) January 10, 2022
In the hours and days immediately after his death, I looked a lot at the now iconic picture of Birkan holding the TRNC flag at the peak of Vinson Massif and thought about his incredible achievement. He had become the first Cypriot to climb the tallest summit in five different continents, leaving just two more to conquer as part of his quest.
Social media was awash with comments about Birkan and I tried to read them, but the sheer volume of reactions was overwhelming.
My feeling of loss was so profound that it was as if I’d lost a dear family member. I had only been part of Birkan’s life in recent years, but we had bonded so well, and we had so much in common…
This tribute to Birkan takes a closer look at his life and the difference he made to me and other Turkish Cypriots during his short life. His was a life well lived and his legacy is to be ultimate source of inspiration for TRNC youth and future generations to come.
Turkish Cypriots ‘exist’ and yet…
The year was 2008. I was invited to a week-long European youth human rights seminar in Madrid as the Coordinator for the Turkish Cypriot Human Rights Foundation.
Ahead of our trip, the organisers asked us to bring special foods and items that were a distinctive part of our culture. I brought hellim (Cypriot cheese) and zivania (Cypriot brandy).
When we were asked to present our foods on the first day of the seminar with our respective flags, I was stunned. Seeing other European flags, including the Republic of Cyprus and Turkiye, but not the TRNC flag, which was not permitted, I instantly felt lost.
Even though I had raised myself as a world citizen not really caring about flags, it turns out it does matter; it was the first time I had ever witnessed what it feels to be a stateless person.
It was the moment my whole life, my perspective towards identity, nationality, flags, and ultimately the Cyprus problem would change forever.
I made a promise there and then to devote myself, and to work tirelessly for the independence and strengthening of my country, North Cyprus, and our Turkish Cypriot identity.
Just like Birkan, I belong to a community, the Turkish Cypriots. We live in the Northern part of Cyprus, which is unknown to many worldwide. Our state, the TRNC, is currently only recognised only by Turkiye.
The peculiarities of my geography, and the politics and history of my homeland meant I was trapped as the victim of Cyprus problem, just like many generations before me.
Some say, according to international law, we do not exist. Greek Cypriots, who control the once power-sharing Republic of Cyprus, call us “illegal”, and define our land as “occupied territories”. We have been subjected to unjust embargoes for decades but, still, we Turkish Cypriots keep on living.
It is under these circumstances that I was born and grew up.
Dreaming as a Turkish Cypriot
I have always been a curious person. When asked as a child what I would like to become when I was older, I responded: “An astronaut.” People would laugh at me, believing that it’s out of the question because I was from North Cyprus. Because in our society, dreaming has always been called “a crazy act”.
You are not supposed to step out of line, to remain in the boundaries drawn by ‘society’. You’re supposed to memorise things at school, get good grades, and look cool in the eyes of your neighbours’ children and their families.
After finishing school, you proceed to university, then for guys like me, you’re supposed to fulfil your ‘national duty’ by doing your military service. After completing that, you’re supposed to find a good, secure job in the government, with a good salary, then get married, have children and that’s it. We called it “life”.
I have always rejected this preordained ‘life’, wanting to do things my way. It turns out I was not alone; there are many other Turkish Cypriot dreamers, including Birkan, who always looked for ways to be part of the world, to make a difference and to scream to the world: “we exist!”
I was introduced to Birkan and his ‘Seven Summit Project’ by his father, Mr. Cengiz Topel Uzun. In truth, prior to this I had never heard of Birkan’s name mentioned in any of my circles.
Back then, I was conducting interviews with prominent and emerging Turkish Cypriot talent for a TV and newspaper series I hosted. The series was first called ‘the Visionaries Club’, later becoming ‘Vision Matters’ on an online platform.
The simple, yet ambitious, philosophy of my show was to defy the so-called ‘learned helplessness’ among Turkish Cypriots that primarily stemmed from Cyprus problem, which was heavily affecting and undermining the development of our country.
My goal was to eventually create a different, self-confident Turkish Cypriot community of visionaries across all spectrums of life. I had discovered visionaries during my time working in the private sector and as an activist elsewhere.
As an entrepreneur myself, I had started from scratch, making me very resourceful. I was keen to challenge the status quo and to defy the culture of ‘learned helplessness’ around me. My passion and mission is to help create a society of visionaries and unite Turkish Cypriots under a common vision.
Birkan was one of those rare visionaries. As I was to discover after meeting him, this young man from Güzelyurt was a deeply idealistic and ambitious person, a role model in so many ways for others to aspire to. Indeed, I was surprised to see how far his ideals and influence spread.
Şener Levent on Birkan Uzun: “you dared to dream to be at the peak. You reminded all of us Turkish Cypriots what it means to be great”
Şener Levent, a vocal critic of the state of TRNC, which he often describes as a “pseudo state”, praised Birkan in an unprecedented article after his death (‘Zirvedesin, Hep Zirvede Kalacaksın Çocuk’, Avrupa, 11 January 2022.).
“What a shame for us that we did not know your incredible achievements before you passed away. You have woken us all with your tragic death. As someone coming from such an underdeveloped region of Cyprus, you dared to dream to be at the peak. You reminded all of us Turkish Cypriots what it means to be great.
“What happened to us? We never dreamed to be the best of our professions; the best versions of ourselves. Instead, we envied and resented each other. We thought Cyprus is the centre of the universe; we remained primitive.
“This is our boy. ‘He waved the TRNC flag at the peak?’ I don’t mind at all. It’s his own right and I have huge respect for him.
“You dared to dream son. You taught us all what it means to dare to dream and eventually to be at the peak. You will always be there. You will always be in our hearts, minds, and souls, at the peak.
“This country needs visionaries who fearlessly chase their dreams. You have been the leader to inspire them all. I cannot thank you enough for the greatest gift you have given this society: hope, belief, dare to dream big.”
Who was Birkan Uzun?
Birkan was an incredible person in mind and soul; an unusual Turkish Cypriot, and a young visionary that I had long been searching for; a leader who could inspire others.
Born in Famagusta on 29 June 1993, Birkan grew up in North Cyprus, but moved to the USA as an undergraduate to pursue his dreams.
His father Cengiz is a teacher turned senior administrator working at the TRNC Ministry of Education. His mother, Hatice Uzun, is the deputy manager of a local bank, while his younger sister Tuğya Uzun, recently graduated from EMU’s Visual Arts and Visual Communication Design department.
Birkan was an A-grade student. After graduating from high school with distinction, topping his year, he opted to study computer science and engineering at MIT, one of the finest universities in the USA. He won a scholarship, aiding his study abroad.
After receiving his bachelor’s and masters’ degrees, Birkan moved to Seattle in 2016 to work for Amazon. To the public, he is best known for his athleticism and climbing, but Birkan’s day-job was also very demanding, illustrating perfectly his character, vision and incredible mindset.
During his time at Amazon, Birkan worked on solving customer problems in the healthcare space, and from 2020, specifically on how best to tackle the COVID-19 response at Amazon. He primarily worked on the intersection of devices, cloud services and machine learning. Essentially, Birkan was a human-computer interaction expert.
To many Turkish Cypriots, who suffer from ‘learned helplessness’ brought on by the Cyprus problem, Birkan’s profession was both highly innovative and daunting.
During his senior year in college, Birkan was encouraged by his colleagues and professors to start climbing as a hobby.
In an interview he did with Cyprus Today, Birkan described his passion why he fell in love with climbing: “I believe that among the many beauties of climbing is its ability to transform a person.
“Every climb you go on, even if you do not summit, you realise that you’re capable of so much more than what you can imagine: feeling unstoppable; having the skills, drive, and resilience to overcome obstacles. Imagine being able to assess and accept the risks of failure and progress as though you had no doubt you would succeed. Climbing gives me this.”
Tributes to Birkan are a testimony to his greatness
Indeed, as his best friend Yaşar Orakçıoğlu explained to me, “he was unstoppable from his very childhood. He was always 3-4 steps ahead of us all in terms of pursuing the goals he wanted to achieve, which to many of us were even unimaginable.
“His sharp focus towards his goals, his relentless discipline, his planned attitude was reflected in every minute of his life because he always dreamed big. He always dreamed to achieve what seems impossible to many.
“It was incredible to observe and witness his way of life, which ultimately made him graduate from college with a grade of 10 out of 10. It was such solid, growth mindset, hardcore discipline which took him to study at MIT and later to work for Amazon”, Yaşar emphasised to me.
Another close friend, a young entrepreneur who runs an Ed-tech start-up in London, Mustafa Gokeri told me, “Birkan was a brother of mine. Whatever he put into his head, he would unquestionably achieve.
“He was in love with the smell and people of Cyprus. He was fearless in the pursuit of his dreams. He never gave up on his dreams, and most importantly, he always valued his friends a lot. He was a huge inspiration to me. I live and miss him.”
Perhaps the most heartfelt message came from his girlfriend, Kayla Davis. In an in-depth interview with me, she talked candidly about her grief of losing Birkan, and how he had inspired her to be the best version of herself for the rest of her life:
“We met in the Spring of 2018. He told me once he loved to be inspired by other people. Hearing about other people’s life experiences gave him such a drive to do more in his life.
“We often hosted Trip report nights with his other climbing friends, so he could be further inspired for future trips. Birkan was always looking to the next adventure. I used to joke that Birkan always had a plan, even if that plan was going to change in the next week, day, or hour, he always had a plan.
“He would have ideas of where he wanted to go to explore for his next trip or for his next career move. He would even have ideas of what my next move should be and what I should set for my goals. Birkan was very selfless in that way.
“He wanted everyone to succeed and to be the best versions of themselves. People often turned to him for advice on such matters, especially when it came to business or career needs.
“Whenever Birkan would write to me, it was always something to inspire me to push myself outside my boundaries and do more. Here’s a quote from one letter he wrote to me:
“A lot of us sit around just waiting… We make these hollow promises about who we are going to be and what we are going to do when the right time presents itself. We think we have so much time to waste, while we evaluate our options. If you live a full life, towards the end of that life I am pretty sure you will have time to think, so go get it now! – Love, Birkan”
When we spoke back in March of this year, Kayla told me Birkan’s words and strength will be with her forever, and that he had “truly changed” her life “forever.”
Although he had not been with them long, Birkan’s employer, Madrona Ventures, covered all the repatriation costs to fly his body back to the TRNC.
Madrona Ventures is a relatively young company in the USA, which supports and invests in entrepreneurs and start-ups to scale. Their heartfelt tribute to Birkan after his death made me proud of him as a fellow Turkish Cypriot:
“Losing someone you care deeply about is always hard but losing Birkan is truly tragic. Birkan was part of the Madrona family, and while our time with him was too brief, we were privileged to share in his life.
“He was incredibly curious, kind-hearted, and caring, and shared that with everyone around him. His intelligence, work ethic and good nature all positively impacted our firm, our investment decisions, and the portfolio companies with whom we work.
“He loved life and was adventurous at a level that most of us just dream of. A few weeks ago, Birkan summited Mt. Vinson in Antarctica in his broader quest to climb the seven highest peaks across seven continents.
“He dove fully into his many passions – including software programming and innovation, Turkish Cypriot culture, and mountaineering.
“Our prayers and hearts are with Birkan’s family and loved ones. We will miss his energy and passion around the halls of Madrona.”
As can be easily seen from these tributes, Birkan made a large and positive impact with all who knew him.
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Birkan broke through the pain barrier to reach Mt. Vinson summit
Birkan’s girlfriend Kayla also told me about his love and dreams for Cyprus, and how proud he was to be a Turkish Cypriot:
“Before I met Birkan, I had very little knowledge of Cyprus. I didn’t even have any idea of where it was on a map. From him, I learned so much about his country. He was so proud to be a Turkish Cypriot. He wanted to start a company in Cyprus that would help improve the lives and exposure of his country. He planned on buying a house and using it as a vacation rental when he wasn’t there, so that he could invite more people to come visit the beautiful island.”
She described the secrets of Birkan’s huge success, which were underpinned by his incredible levels of endurance and resilience against challenges.
“It’s not to say Birkan didn’t have any challenges in the pursuit of his goals. He had a few health issues during my time with him, most significantly he herniated two discs in his back and had back surgery in April 2020. The recovery was slow and even following the surgery, he still had consistent back pain.
“He struggled with the pain, worried it would prevent him from doing the very sports he loved. But even with this set back, it did not derail him from his goal of the 7 summits. Birkan was the most mentally strong person I’ve ever known. His pain never went away, but he was able to make it manageable to continue training for Mt. Vinson.
“To go from such a serious surgery to summiting the highest point in Antarctica in less than two years is such an amazing accomplishment. I hope his life continues to inspire everyone who learns about him, as he has inspired me for the rest of my life.”
Birkan was truly out of this world. His determination, resilience and belief demonstrated that nothing is impossible, so long as you put your heart and mind to it.
With every achievement abroad, whether academic, or professional, or sporting, he acted as the consummate ambassador for the TRNC, which he proudly and happily represented and promoted.
He was far more than an adventurer and climber, as this article shows, and he shone a light on how people can excel in any field by always aiming high.
Muzaffer Eygün places a photo of Birkan at Everest Base Camp, flies TRNC flag in honour of his friend
KKTC’li genç dağcı Muzaffer Eygün,
3.5 ay önce , Dünyanın 5 zirvesine bayrağımızı diken merhum dağcı Birkan Uzun’un yolundan giderek KKTC Bayrağını ve Birkan’ın fotoğrafını Everest’e astı. Tebrikler 👏👏 pic.twitter.com/oj7SOBDIVG
— NevvalS (@NevvalS) April 16, 2022
As Birkan’s father stated during the funeral, “We want the young generation to understand him fully and to put their hearts and minds to achieve their goals. We expect each individual to push beyond their boundaries to reach their peak.”
On this first anniversary of his passing, it falls on all of us Turkish Cypriots to ensure Birkan’s can-do mindset takes root in our society, so that such a culture envelops our young people to believe they too can achieve, that they can dream big and pursue them as vigorously as Birkan did, dreams really do come true.
Birkan is forever our hero, who was crazy enough to think he could change Cyprus. He has.
May he rest in eternal peace.
This article is by Turkish entrepreneur, media commentator and broadcaster, and activist Mustafa Abitoğlu.