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Michelle Yi is what determination looks like

"Have you heard about Michelle Yi?” I was at a bar with a group of Slalom people when one of them asked if we knew about a woman in Slalom Atlanta. Word on the street was that she went to college at 13, is a crazy-good violinist, fluent in six languages, and an artificial intelligence guru. I needed more information. So I flew to Atlanta to get to know the woman, the myth, the legend—Michelle Yi.

By Randi Eicher, photographs by Rachel Shaver

Michelle Yi drives a 2015 Audi R8 V10 Carbon Spyder. Black. Its name is Carbon. I don’t know much about cars, but it looks like a very cool car, and people tell me it’s a very cool car. So cool that when she pulls up in it, it often stops people in their tracks. Who is that?

She also rides a motorcycle. And plays violin in a string quartet at a homeless shelter every Sunday. And, by the way, used to play in the New York Philharmonic. And has serious technical chops in machine learning. And volunteers with Girls Who Code every week. And is a marathon runner. And speaks Korean, English, Spanish, Chinese—and, oh yeah, Japanese and Russian.

Michelle was born in the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea in 1988, the year the country became a democracy. She grew up in a very poor family—a family that “lost everything” during the Korean War and decades of dictatorship following it. 
 
When Michelle was only five, her mother passed away from breast cancer. From then on, her grandmother raised her. “She sacrificed everything for me,” Michelle says. “She was an amazing substitute parent.” 
 
As a kid, an only child, she played a lot of violin. “Violin was super cheap,” she says. Playing violin took complete focus; there was no room to think about anything else. 
 
She also spent a lot of time outside, hiking by herself through the mountains to Buddhist temples—mountains that were “no joke, by the way.” She’d close her eyes and try to meditate like the monks, often falling asleep and getting woken up by monks shooing her away. 

When Michelle was nine, her grandmother got news: she had cancer. And they didn’t have money for treatment. “That’s when I knew I needed to figure out a way to make money,” Michelle says. “And I knew that wasn’t going to happen in rural Korea.” 

She came up with a plan. In a couple years, she was going to test out of high school and go straight to college. So she started studying, and when she took the test (something comparable to the GEDs in the states, she says) she passed. She then applied for colleges and was offered a full ride scholarship to Eckerd College in Florida.

She got on a plane to the US, a country she’d never been, where she knew no one. She was 13. 
 
“Honestly, I was really scared,” she tells me over dinner at a nice restaurant in Atlanta. “The only thing driving me was the fact that I had a scholarship and a terrible life back home. Being poor and unable to take care of your family or yourself is a feeling I never wanted to feel again.” 
 
I try to imagine going to lectures, eating in the food hall, living in the dorms at age 13. “It was awkward,” she says, laughing. “I couldn’t drink, had no interest in drinking. I lived in the library and came back to my dorm pretty much just to sleep.” 
 
Thinking about her grandmother kept her focused. “I had to remind myself that I was there with a purpose. I just wanted to graduate early and make money to support her. I had to grow up fast and be tough.” 

At 16, she got her degree. And then a job offer—to be an advanced analytics consultant. Out of scholarship money and with a start date in a couple months, Michelle lived out of her car, crashing on friends’ couches when she could, often showering at gyms.

If I could go back in time and tell myself something, I’d say, ‘Don’t be afraid to speak up, because you know what you’re doing.

As a consultant, her colleagues were “men, twice [her] age,” she says. She had to be on her game at all times. “I knew that if I messed up, people would remember that. They’d say, ‘Yep, that was 16-year-old Michelle.’ So I was a perfectionist. I worked twice as hard and always strove to be the technical expert in the room.” 
 
To share that technical knowledge, she had to learn to speak up for herself. “No one was going to ask me, ‘What do you think?’ Especially a bunch of older, seasoned dudes in technology,” she says. “If I could go back in time and tell myself something, I’d say, ‘Don’t be afraid to speak up, because you know what you’re doing.’” 
 
Today, at 30, she’s not afraid to speak up. Patrick Dougherty, Michelle’s advanced analytics teammate at Slalom, says that when complex machine learning questions come up, “especially at the intersection of computer science, data, and the cloud,” Michelle is the one who answers them. “She's a real expert in that space, and our clients usually see that immediately. After five minutes, they're kind of in awe of her expertise.” 
 
Michelle is dedicated to helping other girls succeed in computer science. Girls participating in the Girls Who Code program will often reach out to her when they’re thinking about dropping out because they don’t like the culture, and she’ll coach them and help them work through it. “Seeing them stick with it, and go to Stanford or MIT and be successful . . . that’s really, really rewarding,” she says.

I knew that if I messed up, people would remember that. They’d say, ‘Yep, that was 16-year-old Michelle.’ ... I worked twice as hard and always strove to be the technical expert in the room.

As I shadow Michelle, she takes me on tours of her clients’ headquarters—a few of Atlanta’s biggest companies—where her teams are helping them use artificial intelligence and machine learning.

One of the projects she’s working on is particularly close to her heart. Her Slalom team is helping the American Cancer Society use machine learning to find patterns in breast cancer tissues. The goal is to discover insights that could help prevent and treat the disease.

As for her grandmother, Michelle was able to pay for her cancer treatments. She died last year, at 90, after a long battle. “I can say I helped give her time,” she says. 
 
Michelle recognizes that she’s been working very hard for a very long time. She says she’s going to take a few weeks off some time soon, to “travel, spend some time in the mountains, eat healthy, sleep, meet up with my friends. Just do normal stuff.” Just breathe, just be. I think she deserves it.