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This is the story of how I went from being an overworked architect making $1000/mo to earning 6-figures as an innovation consultant working with corporate clients around the world.

Like any 21 year old, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My dad, a Major in the Israeli Air Force, tried to help and suggested I apply to architecture school because I liked making murals of my favorite bands (any Metallica fans out there?) on my bedroom walls (instead of getting mad, my parents labeled me “creative”).

Since architecture sounded just as good as any other profession, I applied to the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, and was (surprisingly) accepted. Over the next 5 years, I would spend every single minute in the studio – sketching unrealistic ideas, cutting foam boards, burning my fingers on the hot glue gun. It was glorious. I dreamt of one day becoming a Rem Koolhaas or a Bjarke Ingels.

A recent graduate and just a few months into my first job at a small architecture studio, I was ready to give up. Pulling all-nighters drafting floor plans for public toilets and earning $1K/mo started chipping away at my dream of being a Starchitect. A few months into the job I decided to quit and open my first business building and rendering 3D models for architecture and animations studios.

I was now an entrepreneur.

Two years went by, the business got bigger, an offer came in to buy the company, and I decided to sell. Jobless again, I figured it was time to go back to school. I sent out five applications to different graduate schools in the USA and was accepted to three. One of them was MIT.

 At MIT, I joined a 2-year program called Design and Computation which was part of the Architecture School. A year into the program, I figured this was my chance to make a run for it…escape my fate as a struggling architect and join the ranks of tech entrepreneurs. I managed to score a Research Assistant position with Kent Larson who was then the Managing Director of House_n Consortium and today manages the Changing Places Group at the Media Lab. Kent had his hand in all sorts of projects, from tunable LED lighting panels with Osram-Sylvania, to Smart City simulations, and reconfigurable homes with work/live spaces.

At the same time, I also met Una-May O’Reilly, a professor from the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) who did some work in the past on genetic algorithms for architectural design. Una-May and Kent took me in and backed a proposal I submitted to add a second Master’s degree in Computer Science to my existing program. To my surprise, the proposal was accepted and I started taking courses in programming, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and more. I added another year to my program and ended up submitting one thesis for both degrees on the topic of User-Centered Architecture. To prove my thesis, I built an AI-powered web application that could help everyday folks design a one-bedroom apartment. If you want to know more, you can get my thesis here.

IBM Research, here I come…

My first job in tech at IBM Research was to lead a team working on Human Computation Games for the enterprise. We inherited a PHP-based prototype for a game developed as an internship project and were tasked with bringing it to market (although this was IBM Research, so the “market” was a bunch of top-tier journals and conferences). We spent 2.5 years turning that prototype into a generic platform (two words everyone at IBM loves) that was used by a few folks within the company and yielded an academic paper at respected journals/conferences. If you’re interested, you can read the paper here.

MIT, here I come…again.

After almost 3 years at IBM Research, I started feeling restless and decided to go back to school…again. This time for a PhD at the MIT Media Lab. My former thesis advisor, Kent Larson, was recruiting talent and asked if I wanted to join his group, Changing Places, as a Research Assistant.

Going back to MIT (and school, in general) was great…and weird. I was now married with one kid and another one on the way living on a monthly stipend that barely covered our rent. I panicked. I spent the next year developing a Lego-based interactive tool for urban design and simulation for the CityScope project, but something didn’t feel right. This wasn’t the real world. I wanted to work with real companies on real challenges. I knew it was time to leave. One day while Kent and I were having a meeting in his office, I told him I was quitting the program.

Out of the PhD program and back in Israel, I was lost again. I had no idea what I was going to do or how I was going to make any money. I decided to launch a new company called Playful Labs which would leverage my expertise in UX/CX and Gamification to help brands improve engagement with their audience. I ended up spending almost two years working with early-stage startups as a mentor at BizTEC, Siftech, and other local accelerators. I also got a chance to work with local schools who were trying to figure out how to make their classrooms more game-like.

Working with early-stage startups and schools was very rewarding spiritually…but not so much financially. So, when Oded Drory, an old friend, who was working at Li&Fung in Shanghai, suggested that I meet Dr. Leonard Lane, Director of the Fung Academy, during his trip to Israel, I jumped at the opportunity.

Fast-forward a few months, I met Dr. Lane in Israel for an informal chat. Dr. Lane and I hit it off right away and he invited me to Hong Kong to spend a day with his team at Fung Academy. He wanted us to brainstorm how they could leverage Human Computation and Gamification to improve their supply chain business.

After my visit to Fung Academy in HK, things started spiraling out of control (in a good way, I mean). I signed my first big consulting contract with Fung Academy and got on a plane to Shanghai to develop a playbook for Explorium, the Fung Group’s retail and supply chain innovation lab.

That’s where I met Richard Kelly, the Fung Group’s ex-IDEO Chief Catalyst, and now a close friend and personal mentor. Under Richard’s guidance, I got a chance to work on some truly amazing projects like Explorium in Shanghai, but also build an Open Innovation program for Global Brands Group in NYC, open a second Explorium in Hong Kong, and design an Artificial Intelligence (AI) curriculum for the Fung Group’s top leadership.

My biggest takeaway and the next chapter in this story is the website you’re visiting now. Because what I realized is that everything that I’ve done in my life so far – studying architecture, learning to program, mentoring early-stage startups and consulting – has been leading up to this moment. I hope that this website and everything in it will help you on your journey, my friend.

Cheers,


Yaniv

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