Kenan Sahin recently gave MIT $100 million. To understand why, he says, is to know his parents.
“When I was seven, I went to my mother, whom I loved dearly, and said: ‘Mom, you’ve been so good to me. How can I ever repay you?’ ‘You should not try to repay me,’ she said. ‘You should repay your own children as well as others.’ I thought that was profound.”
Sahin was born in Turkey into a prominent family. His father was an industrialist who later was elected to the Turkish parliament. “He served the public selflessly,” Sahin says. “When my father would go to Ankara, the villagers would swarm around him asking for his help, and he would go from government agency to government agency to get the help they needed.”
Then, when Sahin was 12, his father was killed in a car crash. “The whole city shut down. I just remember a parade of people who came to our house, and everyone had a story of what my father had done for them. My amazement was, how did my father find time to help so many people? He was an exemplary role model.”
Making the gift
Sahin recently decided on the spur-of-the-moment to repay MIT.
The software entrepreneur was to have been giving a speech in China on a recent evening, but the trip was postponed. So instead, he attended the black-tie party celebrating the launch of MIT’s $1.5 billion fund-raising campaign.
At the height of the festivities, he whispered to MIT President Charles Vest that he wanted to say something to the 500 guests. When Vest asked what it was about, he said it was a surprise.
Introducing him, Vest announced, “I really don’t know what he’s going to say.” Sahin added, “He really doesn’t know what I’m going to say. Up until half an hour ago, I didn’t know what I was going to say. But I would like to put $100 million on the table.”
After a stunned silence, the audience cheered for three minutes. “I was surprised by the exuberance of the crowd,” he says. “I just didn’t think that much of it.”
(That night Sahin proposed that the use of the funds be guided by a committee consisting of President Charles Vest, former Presidents Howard Johnson and Paul Gray, and Corporation Chairman Alex D’Arbeloff.)
After attending Robert Academy in Istanbul, Sahin came to MIT and earned a degree in management in 1963. He earned a PhD from MIT in 1969, where he researched computer communication networks. He then taught for 17 years at MIT, Harvard, and the University of Massachusetts.
“Giving to others,” Sahin says, “is very true of teaching, too. When you teach, you give your best ideas to the students, but you don’t expect them to do anything for you in return.” He adds that MIT will greatly amplify the value of the gift through the school’s excellence in teaching and research.
“I’ve always been dedicated to the success of others. At Kenan Systems, I tried to impress upon our managers that their foremost job is to make those who report to them succeed, rather than have those who report to them make the managers succeed.”
In 1982, he began Kenan Systems Corp., with $1000. All of the initial employees were MIT graduates. The company evolved many novel approaches to business, partly based on ideas Sahin had taught and learned at MIT. The company developed software that was used by major telecommunications companies. Last January, the company was acquired by Lucent Technologies.
Sahin is now president of the Kenan Systems division of Lucent Technologies and vice president of software technology at Lucent’s Bell Labs. He is also responsible for promoting the collaboration between Bell Labs and research universities like MIT.
Eventually, he plans to begin a non-profit institute that will translate academic curricula into interactive software for global use.
In his Cambridge office overlooking the Boston skyline, Sahin is saying that life is good.
He plans to continue learning and teaching. He says he is describing to Lucent many ideas behind Kenan Systems that make it successful, hoping that Lucent will adopt some of the ideas.
Wealth hasn’t changed him much, he says. “I still do my own grocery shopping. I carry home the bags. I take my shirts to the dry cleaner. I take my car to the mechanic. Things haven’t changed much. Some speculated that I would buy an island and retire, but I love what I do.”
The only thing lacking in life, he says, is he wishes he had even more knowledge.
“For me, learning new things is a great source of joy. Horizons are opening up in biology, neuroscience, physics and cosmology. There are so many disciplines that I’d like to study. There are so many people I’d like to talk to — poets, scientists, everyday guys all over the world. I want to find out what they do; I want to know their thoughts. There are all kinds of books to read, but there are only so many hours in a day.”