Jen Toba-Davila, AIA, and her mentor Rod Nagao.
Mark Kushimi Jen Toba-Davila, AIA, and her mentor Rod Nagao.

The catalyst for 5x5x5, a mentorship initiative of AIA Honolulu, was a lack of available networking and leadership opportunities for the chapter’s younger members. Veteran architects wanted not only to engage novices but also to promote AIA membership to students and associate members. They envisioned 5x5x5 as a pipeline of future leaders in the architecture community. The program has become a model emulated by other AIA chapters around the country. We talked with Jen Toba-Davila, AIA, and her mentor Rod Nagao about the power of mentorship to transform careers.

Toba-Davila: We have an innately giving culture, and the people of Hawaii are known for their generosity and the responsibility [they feel] to take care of future generations. These principles— ultimately grounded in reciprocity—allow the program to be possible and to thrive. We’re extremely fortunate that we have a large pool of leaders within our community who make giving back part of their legacy. Our culture is what keeps the program strong.

Rod put a lot of thought and effort into getting to know each and every mentee. His graciousness and time were extended to each mentee even after the program concluded, which are gifts many mentors might offer but don’t follow through on.

With Rod’s experience in construction and my being an architect, our work bonds us, as well as our other shared interests like golf, travel, and the importance of family. I have a lot of admiration for Rod and his dedication to mentor young professionals on his own time.

Nagao: As a mentee, follow your intuition in terms of what feels right. Be curious enough to ask lots of questions and that will help you get to where you need to in terms of a possible career.

Toba-Davila: I think architects aren’t really different from most people. We’re always looking for connections, and we’re looking for advice—especially when you’re starting off new in your career; you just graduated; you’re looking to meet people and wondering how to build your career and your professional development. That’s a big driver for the program.

Mentorship is not hierarchical. You can learn something from everyone, and most times, the mentors walk away from the program learning just as much as the mentees.

Nagao: The program is being replicated elsewhere because it’s a simple recipe. The program is structured in a way that it provides enough quality time between mentors and mentees.

Toba-Davila: Every AIA chapter has its different needs, so hopefully others can use the program as a blueprint or a roadmap to build off of. I’m really excited to see how the program can transform and evolve with the changing times. -- As told to Stephen Hicks