Helping Students Reach Greater Heights: A Conversation with Victor Padilla-Taylor

How do you build a mentor network that inspires students from all backgrounds and disciplines in the journey of innovation? We recently sat down with Victor Padilla-Taylor, Tsai CITY’s new Director of Mentor, Advisor, and Partner Networks, to get his perspective on this question. He shared how his personal journey — which has taken him from the highlands of his home country of Guatemala to the sand mountains in Saudi Arabia and back to the East Rock ridge in New Haven —will inform his work at CITY, as he aims to develop a supportive community of mentors that can meet students where they are in their own explorations of real-world problems and opportunities to solve them.

Tell us a bit about your new role at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale.

My role as Director of Networks at our brand-new center involves connecting people (not computers, despite the title!) across Yale and beyond. When you think about the four actions that we promote here at CITY — inspire, learn, build, and connect — then you can understand that people come first in our community. My goal is to infuse interactions with excellence and to improve each day our students experience with the help of mentors, our partners across campus, and external advisors.

What were you doing before joining the CITY team?

Right before Tsai CITY, I was a Global Leadership Fellow at the World Economic Forum, an almost half-century-old institution that organizes the Annual Meeting at Davos. At this Swiss nonprofit with a global footprint, I learned the importance of private-public partnerships in creating solutions to systemic problems. I also saw how having diverse voices represented around the table can have a huge impact on the quality of solutions for real-world problems and how “acupuncture points,” or specific interventions, can be tested to change the current outcomes of global systems like trade, humanitarian assistance, and transportation. I have loved the nonprofit space and felt the call to do more than just generate profits since I graduated from the Yale School of Management (SOM) in 2015. Prior to SOM, I worked as an engineer in Latin America, also on networks — but networks of international suppliers and customers.

One of the primary focuses of your role will be growing CITY’s mentor network. Why is mentorship an important component of CITY’s work?

I think mentors are key to what we do at CITY because of the type of students we have at Yale: they are smart, they are creative, and they have big dreams. We have an opportunity to support these students as they work to find a path between their ideas and their big dreams. As mentors, we have a chance to inspire them through times of change, which often requires courage and resilience. We hope to build a mentor network with individuals full of passion for bridging gaps around big, real-world problems and also to help students learn what it takes to manage themselves. Success is not only about the outcomes of innovation as measured through money or actual products or services, but also about the outcomes of education: the development of new student mindsets and the resilience that’s crucial for sensible risk takers.

In your view, what makes a great mentor?

A great mentor is very good at listening before offering advice — I think it all starts with that. It also involves professional and personal disclosure and a willingness to unpack some of the useful baggage that has been accumulating throughout a life of experiences, successes and failures alike, which can be particularly helpful as lessons for students or teams working on taking their ideas to the next level. A third component I could add is caring for people enough to do the little things that are needed to help them move forward. Being a mentor at CITY is not just a job (most of our mentor positions are not paid). It is about loving the opportunity to work with students in their development process and being mindful about the place of influence you hold in their lives.

As you get started in your role, what are you particularly excited to work on?

First of all, I’m really excited to join the team at CITY. The university has brought together an all-star team, with people from so many different backgrounds and with so many different passions. And I’m also, of course, particularly thrilled about getting to know my extended team, the mentors in our network. A lot of work has been done with this community in the past year: just recently, for example, this network grew from 75 mentors to roughly 100. So I’m taking time to get to know these wonderful people and to see how we can better team up to deliver what our students need.

Another thing I’m looking forward to is spending time with the partners we have on campus. They all have unique views of innovation within their spaces of expertise. And I am glad to see that most of them are thinking about innovation beyond apps and gadgets, often building on the university’s strengths in the humanities. I want to understand how they view innovation and mentorship in general, as well as how we can better support them. Embracing the different forms that innovation can take on campus, from the medical school to SOM to arts and drama, we can support a vision of common values and inclusion as One Yale.

Beyond growing the mentor network, your role also involves working to build networks of advisors and partners. As CITY continues to grow, how do you envision it positioning itself in broader ecosystems?

Tsai CITY is meant to be a center of gravity for innovation at Yale. This is a nice metaphor that I have heard for a big mandate at the center. I certainly agree with it. The universe would be boring if it only had one sun and no planets, right? Yet it is also important to be more than just a collection of stars and planets: constellations are more beautiful. I think the great opportunity at our university is that we can interact and collaborate with other centers on campus to achieve even better outcomes. And we can also extend our influence beyond our campus borders to partner with peer institutions and other supporters around the world

I personally envision CITY as a place where we meet our students where they are. By that I mean building a sort of base camp to support their innovation journeys, whether they’re just starting out and seeking information or are more advanced and need to access specific services, resources, or connections to players in specific fields. By growing our mentor network strategically — with experienced trekkers — I think we can achieve this. That’s my dream for CITY.

How can people learn more and get involved?

If you’re interested in mentoring, we have information on our website on how you can connect with us. Beyond that, nothing substitutes the warmth and quality of personal interactions, so even a phone call goes a long way. I’ll be venturing off campus to meet alumni and others interested in getting involved and will be encouraging one-on-one conversations with our partners and mentors-to-be, so that we can get to know each other and see where the best fits are. And of course, if anyone prefers email, I am reachable at victor.padilla-taylor@yale.edu.

Learn more about Tsai CITY here.