NYC High Road Fellowship Enters Act Two
“You’re going to have many acts in life.” Stepping out of the theater, the words played over in Alex Herazy’s (‘25) head. The line didn’t come from the cast of Hamilton, a production Herazy had now finally seen live, but from Robert Taylor who took center stage earlier that day when he spoke to the High Road Fellows at Cornell’s NYC ILR School.
Taylor is the executive director of Youth Action YouthBuild (YAYB), an education and training nonprofit operating out of East Harlem, New York. YAYB works with young adults who face economic challenges and are out-of-school and out-of-work, helping them complete their high school education and open pathways for meaningful careers.
Taylor's words undoubtedly spring from his youthful dreams of becoming a playwright. When he moved to New York City after college to pursue playwriting, Taylor instead entered another stage: service. “I found it really fulfilling and vitalizing, to be with the team everyday going to different parts of New York City doing service and coaching and mentoring and helping people develop themselves while actually doing work. That sort of became the template for most of my jobs,” said Taylor.
It’s the second week in a row Bryanne Sarfo (‘26) has asked the same question: whether to “sell your soul to corporate america,” or “do something meaningful”.
The fellows leaned forward in their chairs. Nothing captures their attention like an unorthodox career story; it’s a reflection of where they are as young adults trying to establish what they want out of life and how to get it.
"Assess your values, and then live to those values,” said Taylor. "To me, meaning doesn't come from the work that you do. Meaning is really a perspective of what you bring -- you can find meaning in anything. You can find the usefulness and utility behind something if it speaks to your heart…It's a perspective issue, and you've got to be true to yourself."
"One decision doesn't mean a lifetime,” chimed in Esta Bigler. “You can change. You can start at one place and go to another. I've had many different careers in my very short life (because I'm still quite young), so there's many possibilities. Don't foreclose anything."
“True that,” said Taylor.
After 31 years, Joy London quit her job in corporate America (she points to Sarfo, recalling the fellow’s question directed at Taylor the week prior). “There came a point where I liked what I did, but I wasn’t excited anymore,” said London.
“I went back to school…and I found out that what I was studying spoke to all these quirky skills I had, so I made a leap of faith.” Leaving her successful career at international law firms and consulting firms, London became an expert in cyber policy and risk management, exploring the threat of nation-state hacking of state voter registration databases in U.S. presidential elections.
London’s meeting with the fellows came at a particularly pertinent time following the indictment of former President Donald Trump, a case stemming from controversy over election results. Clearly, London’s career gamble paid off.
Today, London is the associate general counsel and director of international development at the OSET Institute, navigating a political “cast of characters” that teeters between tragedy and comedy. “But thank goodness, after 31 years, I went ‘okay, that’s enough’,” said London.
“How do you navigate wanting to choose a career that really makes your heart sing versus chasing prestige for more lucrative ends,” asked Sarfo again.
“It was a very intense job working 65-70 hours a week,” recalled London. “I had to travel a lot. I was picked up every week by a Lincoln town car at my house to get to the office at 5am to make phone calls to my colleagues in Asia. I just woke up one day and thought ‘I like the job, but something’s missing. I can’t keep up this pace. I don’t feel happy. And it was starting to impact my health.”
“On a prestige level, I like to view many of life’s steps, especially early in your career, as either option-opening steps or option-narrowing steps,” added Ed Baum (‘81), a partner in the litigation department at Perkins Coie LLP.
Joined by his wife Holly Wallace, the two were able to answer the deluge of career questions asked by the fellows. “Life is a series of decisions, and I would go towards what gives you energy and be around people who make you better – let those kinds of decisions lead you, and try not to be so driven by prestige,” said Wallace, managing director and senior financial advisor at Merrill.
“What gives you energy to get through your day?” asked Ron Varghese (‘25). “Recognizing that I solved a problem is enormously gratifying,” said Baum. “I’m a fanatical fisherman, and it’s the same skill set. Because fishing is not a matter of just putting something out and waiting for the fish. Every day, every situation is solving for a problem.”
Claire Ting (‘25) recognizes Baum’s fishing as a sort of career Chekov’s Gun, where “wisdom from one sector helps influence another in your practices, and vice versa.” In playwriting, Taylor will tell you, when there is a gun written into a scene, there’s bound to be a reason - it’s bound to go off.
“What are you going to do with your life after Cornell?” – it’s a question Herazy hears a lot. “It’s an existential question. A huge question,” he said. “But I think this summer and the Friday speakers have taught me that it’s a perpetual question. It’s a question you’ll ask yourself at every point in your life with your professional goals and your personal goals.”
The fellows are deep into their summer work. Things are confusing, and they’re often left with more questions than answers, but there is an understanding forming that their experiences are shaping something. The fellows are beginning to live the questions, and with the help of Taylor, Bigler, London, Baum, Wallace, and the other magnificent Friday speakers, the students are starting to believe that one day they may live into the answer.