Doing Well by Doing Good
Alumna uses entrepreneurship to inspire underserved students to rise to new heights.
Growing up in one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods, Syracuse University alumna Dayanna Torres ’06, G’09 learned how to rise to a challenge. “It’s healthy to accept your fears because they’re opportunities for growth,” explains the newly appointed director at the Blackstone Charitable Foundation in New York City. “This is true in all areas, especially work and school.”
Credit Torres’ mother—a non-English-speaking, Dominican immigrant with a middle school education—for instilling in Dayanna an unshakable confidence. From their Section 8 apartment in the West Bronx, they made an unlikely pair. While her mother earned minimum wage doing manual labor at local factories, Torres excelled at school. “Despite being treated rather poorly, my mom worked incessantly so that I had what I needed. I learned that it takes a lot of friction to make a pearl,” says Torres, adding that her late brother, a successful entrepreneur, also taught her the importance of financial independence.
“Syracuse does a great job of creating an ecosystem where students of all backgrounds can learn what entrepreneurship means to them. It often involves social entrepreneurship—finding solutions to social or environmental challenges.”
—Dayanna Torres ’06, G’09
That “pearl” is a leadership position with the philanthropic arm of The Blackstone Group, one of the world’s largest investment firms. Torres drives the operations, manages the relationships and leads engagement strategy for members of Blackstone LaunchPad, an entrepreneurship network of 46 colleges and universities that includes Syracuse. “The LaunchPad program provides content, connections and expertise for those interested in entrepreneurship,” says Torres, a first-generation graduate who dual majored in communication and rhetorical studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts and information management and technology in the School of Information Studies (iSchool) and earned two master’s degrees from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “It’s the job of a lifetime.”
Being a True-Impact Entrepreneur
Torres was still in graduate school when the Blackstone Charitable Foundation unveiled LaunchPad in 2008. The program initially supported student ventures but has since grown to encompass entrepreneurial skill-building. “At LaunchPad, we help students succeed regardless of their background or experience,” says Torres, adding that the Blackstone LaunchPad at Syracuse University Libraries has supported nearly 5,000 entrepreneurs since its 2016 inception. “We add value to existing collegiate programs by furnishing resources, networks and events.”
She drove home this point during a recent visit to Syracuse, headlining the Blackstone LaunchPad Coming Back Together Startup Showcase. The program featured a panel discussion with female alumni innovators about the importance of diversity in business. “They reminded me of why I do what I do,” says Torres, who joined the global foundation in July. “Syracuse does a great job of creating an ecosystem where students of all backgrounds can learn what entrepreneurship means to them. It often involves social entrepreneurship—finding solutions to social or environmental challenges.”
Torres recalls how the showcase was preceded by an “involvement fair,” where one student visited the LaunchPad table three times before getting up the nerve to share his business idea with her. “He then became the first person to speak up during the Q&A session, which turned into a lively discussion about the importance of asking for help. The diversity of conversations drives innovation.”
Linda Dickerson Hartsock, executive director of Syracuse’s Blackstone LaunchPad program, applauds Torres’ keen leadership style. “She is a true-impact entrepreneur in business, community and life,” says Hartsock, whose program has raised more than $54 million in investments. “Her energy and dedication are inexhaustible.”
Having a Seat at the Table
Torres has helped grow Blackstone LaunchPad by 35% and is on target to reach 75 campuses by 2026. It also engages more than 1 million students nationwide. But there’s more to the network, she explains, than wooing angel investors and venture capitalists. “We create professional development and skill-building opportunities through pitch competitions, fellowships, mentorships, and interactions with successful entrepreneurs and professionals across various industries.”
Much of her work is informed by LaunchPad’s $40 million commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity. Through the program’s partnership with the United Negro College Fund, she is particularly attuned to the needs of students at historically Black colleges and universities as well as Hispanic-serving institutions.
Because collaboration, like diversity, is an economic imperative, Torres meets biweekly with representatives from all 46 campuses. “It’s important to come together and learn from each other,” she says smiling. “This begins with giving everyone a seat at the table.”
“I loved the diversity of my classmates and my exposure to real-world problems. The experience shaped my vision for where I wanted to be in the future, giving me the skills to build relationships with multicultural audiences.”
—Dayanna Torres ’06, G’09
Torres learned this at Syracuse, parlaying her childhood dream of becoming a Univision News anchor into being a voice for change. “I discovered I could make a difference by helping others,” she says.
“Dayanna doesn’t sit on the sidelines,” observes Jenny Saluti ’99, director of recruitment and admissions for Visual and Performing Arts. “She advocates for others, promotes the value of education, and works to build and maintain relationships.” Ergo her decade-long involvement with a spate of organizations, including the Sigma Lambda Upsilon/Señoritas Latinas Unidas Sorority Inc., the Black and Latinx Information Science and Technology Society, TRIO Student Support Services, and the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP).
Communication and rhetorical studies professor Kendall Phillips says Torres exemplified leadership from day one. “Dayanna has taken ideas from her study of advocacy, collaboration and engagement and has used them to make the world a better place.”
Torres’ other mentors have included Student Support Services director Bob Wilson G’72 and the late Kenneth O. Miles G’11. Wilson, in fact, persuaded Torres to choose Syracuse from a pool of 15 other institutions. “She has the energy of two people,” says Wilson, who got to know Torres during a pre-freshman summer bridge program. “Her interest in different subjects helps support the creative projects of our students.”
It was Miles, then an assistant dean for the iSchool, who sparked Torres’ interest in graduate studies. Holding down two part-time jobs (one of which was a graduate assistantship as an HEOP academic advisor), she studied public diplomacy through a joint effort between the Maxwell School and the Newhouse School, earning master’s degrees in international relations and public relations, respectively. “I hope Dean Miles is proud of me,” Torres says with a trace of emotion. “He was such a huge influence.”
Building Multicultural Audiences
Maria Justina Lopez ’05, G’12, assistant director of scholarship programs in the Office of Multicultural Advancement, has witnessed such skill-building firsthand. A classmate-turned-friend, she marvels at Torres’ ability to connect with people. “These relationships and partnerships help her persevere and be successful. Dayanna is always challenging herself to grow personally and professionally.”
Even though Torres initially struggled with the idea of pursuing dual master’s degrees, her zeal for education carried the day. Indeed, Torres’ forte is invoking positive, progressive change—whether interning for the Inter-American Development Bank, serving as a consultant for JPMorgan Chase & Co., leading inclusive economic development projects through the New York City Economic Development Corp., or working for the New York City Housing Authority.
Professor Michael Schneider is understandably excited about Torres’ Blackstone appointment, but is not surprised by it. “When Dayanna graduated, she listed her career interests as ‘corporate social responsibility, social entrepreneurship program management and community investment,’” says the retired Maxwell-in-Washington programs director. “Dayanna certainly has fulfilled her aspirations and ideals. She’s committed to doing well by doing good.”
Original article published on November 30, 2021 and can be found here.