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Alumni profile

Vanessa Colella ’90, SM ’98, PhD ’01

From MIT to Citibank’s innovation leader.

When Vanessa Colella arrived at MIT from her hometown of Wausau, Wisconsin, she began a journey that would send her from coast to coast as a teacher, back to MIT for a PhD, and eventually into the corporate realm. Today she is grateful for every step.

“You pick up skills and experiences and perspectives no matter what you’re doing,” Colella says. “I feel lucky that I get to apply those across what’s been a really wide variety of types of things that I’ve done.”

After graduating from MIT with a degree in biology, Colella taught science in Los Angeles and Brooklyn with Teach for America. In the process, she learned life lessons including how to admit you don’t know the answer and how to manage the toughest meeting of all: a classroom of eighth graders.

Colella’s desire to change the educational system led her to Columbia University for a master’s degree in education, but soon MIT professor Seymour Papert’s work on learning and technology drew her back to the Institute, where she earned both a master’s and a PhD in media arts and sciences.

For Colella, MIT imparted more than degrees. “I think there’s core discipline that comes from education at the Institute that gets in your bones and in your soul in a good way,” she says.

After finishing her PhD, Colella worked as a strategy consultant and then became a partner at ­McKinsey, helping technology and media companies work through challenges. After a stint at Yahoo, where she led the data and insights division and worked on big data, she moved to Citibank in 2010, and became the chief innovation officer and head of City Ventures in January.

At Citibank, she has taken on the challenge of helping a 205-year-old company thrive in a rapidly changing world. Currently, that means figuring out how it can help address the student loan crisis and develop secure payment systems that keep pace with evolving technology.

Colella says she often falls back on the lessons she learned at MIT: “You need to know how to ask good questions, and you need to know how to surround yourself with teams of people who are smarter, better equipped, and just as curious as you are.”

Colella lives in San Francisco with her husband, Giovanni, and their four-year-old son.

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