The life of Carlos Arturo Torres is one of serendipitous connection, of doing just the right thing at just the right time. Carlos has made a life of braving new frontiers and pushing the boundaries of innovation. Despite having roamed far and wide, Carlos’ story actually began, as most stories do, modestly, in the small mountain city of Tunja, Colombia.
“Back when I was growing up the weather was around 12 degrees all year long. It was rainy, it was windy, it was cold. There’s actually a saying that people drink a lot to forget about the cold, then they go to church to ask for forgiveness, then they go back to drinking to forget about church.”
From an early age, Carlos showed an aptitude for the creative. Growing up in a more remote area meant that he did not have access to a tremendous amount of resources, but in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, his imagination flourished.
“I didn’t have a lot of toys growing up. One of my favorite things to do was build my own out of clay. I’d make dinosaurs, cars, and then destroy them and start all over again.”
By the time he was in high school, Carlos realized he had a talent for building these sculptures, but his interest in the English language spurred on by late night reruns of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, led him down a path in teaching. At the age of 16, he began working as a substitute teaching English grammar. When it came time to go to university, he began a degree in Spanish language education.
However, Carlos continued to work all throughout his degree in order to support himself. The time commitment soon proved to be too much and his grades and attendance began to suffer as a result. With failing out of university imminent, Carlos’ director offered him an ultimatum: drop out voluntarily now and possibly return later, or flunk out and be barred from readmission.
“I decided to quit, and that same day when I went to work, they told me ‘Sorry, there was a cut in budget and we have to let you go.’ So I lost both things in a single day.”
In a time of turmoil and uncertainty, it was Carlos’ mother who plotted out the course for him.
“She came home with an application form for the National University in Colombia. She told me that I should apply to an industrial design program, which she didn’t know much about other than a friend telling her that they made cars out of clay in it.”
With that, Carlos made his transition to Bogotá to begin a program in industrial design. Immediately, he appreciated the hands-on approach, claiming he didn’t even touch a computer until his fourth semester. For him it was back to basics: sketching and clay.
Things continued this way for a few years, and all moved on steadily until Carlos’ final year, when a series of protests derailed his studies and left him unoccupied for two months. Unable to tolerate the drudgery of doing nothing, Carlos decided almost as if on a whim to try another project in the meantime. Though he didn’t know it at the time, this decision would lay out new paths before him.
“There was this French car manufacturer that used to have a global design contest. They invited everyone, it didn’t matter if you were an eight-year-old kid or a professional designer, to design a car. I like cars a lot, even though I don’t know how to drive.”
The theme of the year was designing a car for the future. Though Carlos was about to graduate, he felt as if he hadn’t completed a project at the time that truly proved his capabilities. With all the spare time, Carlos decided this would be his chance to put his talents into action.
“Since I come from an underdeveloped part of the world, I thought no one would pay attention to me. I wasn’t expecting anything at all. But suddenly the results came in and the project was a winner.”
One would imagine the accolade to be a boon to Carlos’ résumé, but it proved to be unexpectedly difficult for him to find work afterwards.
“I couldn’t find a job anywhere because after I won that contest, everywhere I applied people told me I was overqualified. I had to stretch my prize money for almost a year because I just couldn’t find work."
To make up the difference and help support himself and his then girlfriend, Carlos began working with ad agencies despite his heart not being in it. After a short time, Carlos decided instead he would be better off applying to a master’s program.
“I wanted to see if I really had the talent or if my winning the contest was just a lucky strike.”
Carlos was admitted to Umeå, a Swedish school regarded as one of the most prestigious in the world. He was admitted in a set of ten, students from all over the world handpicked by the director to form a diverse spectrum to promote the exchange of ideas and foster healthy competition.
Despite the tremendous honor of being accepted to such a program, there was a lot on the line for Carlos. Being unable to afford the program, he received a scholarship, but he still was forced to put his parents’ house on a loan to afford living in Sweden. Nevertheless, Carlos found his niche.
“The cool thing was that even with all the challenges of the weather, the emotional situation, and the responsibility since I was there with the house of my parents on the game, I really felt like I had found a place that I fit for the first time.”
During his time in the program, Carlos was allotted a year to pursue internships that would allow him to grow professionally. The day he had read about an internship opportunity at the Future Lab of Lego, he asked his program director if he knew anyone there.
“He didn’t, but it just so happened that he did know that a former employee from Lego was visiting the school that same day, so we went and talked to him. He knew a senior designer and gave me his contact info. He said, ‘I don’t know if he’s still working there, but give it a try.” It turns out that that guy had actually become the director of the Future Lab.
Shortly thereafter, Carlos was flown to Denmark. He got the job. It was through this internship that Carlos conceived a project that would change his life. Wanting to do something for his home country, Carlos pitched an idea to the Future Lab director.
“What if kids could build their own prosthetics with Legos?”
The idea was approved, and Carlos set to work designing the prototype. During initial testing, Carlos already saw the potential this product could have. He spoke to us about his trials with a boy named Dario.
“We asked one of his friends what they thought about him. He said, “Oh I feel sorry for him because he can’t do a lot of things, but he’s a cool guy.” We finished the test and asked him what he thought of Dario now and he said ‘I want one of those.’”
Carlos explained his purpose was to create an environment where children could play without even thinking of a particular condition as a disability. The results were exactly as he had hoped, and shortly after he presented his project at gave a 3-minute presentation of the project at a conference held by Umeå. Within 24 hours, Carlos was wading in job offers.
“There was a person from IDEO Chicago in the audience. IDEO had always been popular with designers, so everyone in the school was on top of him like flies on the cake. I didn’t want to talk to him because I felt like he was too popular and I’m sort of a shy person.”
While he was outside having a cigarette, Carlos was approached by the IDEO representative. Before he knew it, the exchange morphed into an informal job interview and Carlos was invited to Chicago. Despite never having dreamed of moving to the United States, Carlos soon found himself on a Chicago-bound plane for the next stage of his life.
“It was really tough. When you move to a different place, you have to start from zero. Here it was even harder in a way, because the type of immigrant you are in the states is a different type of immigrant that you are in Europe, especially for Latin people.”
Carlos found a rough welcome in the states. Upon his arrival at the airport in Houston, he was immediately subjected to intensive screening from the airport security. In spite of all his accolades and achievements, Carlos’ Colombian passport and common name marked him as a potential danger. After jumping through hoops set by at times hostile security officers, Carlos was released.
However, after a few months in Chicago, Carlos’ initial judgments have undergone a change. He cites the diversity to be one of the United States’ greatest strengths.
“I find the states one of the richest places on Earth where people are so different from each other. You can just look at them and sort of read their story.”
Though Carlos has not made any permanent plans, and with his trajectory thus far being filled with unpredictable turns, it is hard to say where he will go next. One thing that is for certain, though, is that his relentless optimism and perseverance will endure in whichever corner of the globe he finds himself. He left us with a final piece of advice about his key to success.
“I would say the states has been really inspiring. You try and you try and you fail and you try again and you fail. Then you have to understand why. I’m actually still trying.”