Author Archive for Columbia SIPA

Ed tech startup “Learnabi” co-founders met at SIPA

SIPA Class of 2018 alumni Niara Valério and Rahel Tekola (pictured above in the graduation caps) are co-founders of the ed-tech startup, Learnabi. We’re excited to feature their journey from SIPA to startup.

Tell us about your startup, Learnabi.

Niara: We are an NYC-based ed tech company that wants to bring personalized learning to all schools across the U.S. Our approach to personalized learning is a holistic one, where we use data, tech, and engage with key stakeholders to develop individualized learning profiles for students. We provide students with engaging learning experiences that are tailored to their individual needs, preferences and skill level.

Rahel: Our ideal world is one where all students have the resources to do well academically, but more importantly, for them to gain insight into themselves and their personal strengths so that they become lifelong learners. We brought our services to the Bronx initially because we saw a huge need for a personalized format to education, but we’ve discovered that our strategies are applicable to schools across the U.S.

What motivated you to enter the ed tech field?

Niara: I think part of it came from teaching SAT courses in the Bronx, and part from my own personal academic experience. I think most students require more than just time in the classroom to learn and absorb information and schools don’t always have the capacity to do that. The onus falls on the student, but studying and test-taking is a skill in itself, and I think many students don’t really understand how to do so effectively until they get to college. Learnabi was motivated by that. We asked ourselves, “How do we get students to develop these skills early on? How can we fill that gap?”

Rahel: I went to high school in Texas where I was fortunate enough to have access to programs that supported me throughout my journey as a student. However, after moving to NYC I realized that not every student has access to resources to support them and their unique needs in learning. Seeing what our initial impact, prior to starting Learnabi had in our partner school, made me realize that we can have a greater impact on students in NYC and beyond.

How did you balance being grad students and running the startup at the same time?

Niara: Honestly, I look back now and I really have no idea how we were able to pull it off. You end up sacrificing a lot, and it also feels like a huge risk because everyone around you is looking for full-time employment. I would spend all day working in the Bronx then I’d have about an hour to head down to SIPA for classes in the evening, and we were working on Saturdays at the time too. It’s not easy, and I don’t think I’d recommend it haha. But I also think we were lucky in that we didn’t leave jobs to do this full-time, so I think starting a business as a student gives you a safety net and cushion that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Rahel: Most people in graduate school are juggling multiple priorities, and having a business while in school is a juggling act but a much bigger beast. Achieving balance is easier when you have a co-founder who is equally – if not more – dedicated to you and that was the case for me. You also become comfortable with saying no to things to achieve that balance. So, for example, Niara and I made a lot of sacrifices and said no to enticing opportunities that came up, so we could take that time to focus on Learnabi.

What’s the biggest challenge of running a startup?

Niara: You have to do everything and be everyone, especially when you are starting out and that’s tough. You’re doing marketing, finances, sales, it’s a lot and I think there is a huge risk of burn-out as a result. Rahel and I don’t go home after 5pm and not think about work — you’re always working on some level. So I think it’s really important to take breaks and do frequent check-ins with yourself. I think there is a trend with millennials these days where it’s become a badge of honor to be so busy that you have no time for anything or anyone. But I am really not a fan of this hustle culture we’ve created, I think finding balance is far more important and I try to do that as much as possible. Emphasis on try…

Rahel: Not comparing yourself or your startup to others! It’s easier said than done, but it is so important to remember this. As a founder you want to accomplish a lot of things for your venture to be successful, and we can get caught up in the idea of getting far and quickly. Comparing yourself/startup to others also plays into this notion. However, everyone’s journey looks different. Success is defined differently for each venture, so try not to get caught up in the vicious cycle. Niara and I take the time to surround ourselves with a supportive group of board of directors and advisors who cheer us on with each accomplishment and remind us often that setbacks are inevitable but achievable.

What do you wish you knew when you were first starting?

Niara: You can plan as much as you want but you will inevitably run into challenges you hadn’t thought of, so I think it’s important to stay flexible and open-minded.

Rahel: It’s encouraging to surround yourself with other entrepreneurs, not just those in your niche market. It serves as a reminder that you are not alone in this journey.

Wishing Everyone a Happy Valentine’s – and Galentine’s! – Day

A Look Back on SIPA Love Stories

SIPA is the most global policy school that attracts a diverse, accomplished, interesting, and curious community of students, and it’s no surprise that many of them get interested in each other.

Our collection of SIPA Love Stories will warm your heart in this winter cold. Dyanna met her wife Miki on Valentine’s Day at a campus “LGBT Intergraduate School Speed Dating Mixer,” while SIPA graduates Carole and Matthew met while swimming laps at Uris Pool.

A recent addition to the SIPA Love Stories is Katherine Duceman MPA ’15 and Bryan Plummer MIA ’15, who met at Columbia SIPA and were married in December 2019 – congratulations!

Celebrating phenomenal women on Galentine’s Day

“February 13th marks a very special day — not only is it the 44th day of the year in the Gregorian calendar, and the day Earl Hines and his Orchestra recorded “Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues” in 1940; it is also Galentine’s Day! For those of you unfamiliar with Galentine’s Day, it is a national – and I may be using this term liberally – holiday in the U.S. Galentine’s Day is a day for us to celebrate female friendship, and what could possibly be better than female friendship?! Where would we be without the incredible women in our lives, who inspire and support us everyday.

Here is a shoutout to my fellow Seeples, celebrating and appreciating some pretty phenomenal women: Rahel Tekola MPA ’18, Anais Tongoi MPA ’18, Erin Lue-Ling MIA ’18, Fatimah Martin MPA ’18, Jaynice Del Rosario, MPA ’18, Rachael Sullivan ’18, Hermila Yifter, MPA-DP, and Michelle Joseph MPA – DP ’18.”

Niara Valerio, MPA ’19 — Recent SIPA graduate and former Program Assistant at the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid.

 

 

And now, we wait!

(Though with the SIPA application deadlines passed, it’s more like you wait — and we thank you for your patience.)

For those applying to the Fall 2019 term for the MIA and MPA programs, the February 5th deadline has passed. What happens on our end: The joy of reading applications, and putting together events for the spring! You can look forward to signing up for SIPA class visits, events for admitted students to meet the global SIPA community, and opportunities to chat with SIPA students and alumni about their experiences one-on-one. For those of you looking to apply in the future, keep an eye out! It’s good to spread out your research instead of cramming all the events into one.

In the meantime, the Spring 2019 semester is in full swing and we’ll continue updating you on the blog on events happening at Columbia University SIPA, scholarship opportunities, and more. If you want us to address something on the blog that you haven’t seen yet, please shoot us an email. We’ll have takes from SIPA students throughout the next few weeks about looking towards life after SIPA, how to decipher the numerous SIPA course offerings, and advice on learning languages for your future career.


For now, here’s a taste of what’s happening on the SIPA campus: Discussing entrepreneurship with a social missions with Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal.

One billion people in the world don’t have access to eyeglasses.

That’s the statistic that led Neil Blumenthal to co-found Warby Parker, the e-commerce eyeglasses retailer now valued at $1.2 billion.

Blumenthal, who today is the company’s CEO, visited SIPA on January 28 to explain “How We Turned $120,000 Into a Billion-Dollar Eyeglass Brand.” The lecture was sponsored by SIPA’s Management specialization; specialization director Sarah Holloway introduced Blumenthal, and Inés Dionis MPA ’19 mediated a Q&A session following his remarks.

After graduating from Tufts, where he studied conflict resolution, Blumenthal — a native of New York City — was connected to a doctor running a program that trained low-income women to give vision screenings and sell eyeglasses.

The next thing he knew, Blumenthal said, he was working with a foundation doing the same work in El Salvador, where he first learned that fashion matters.

“No matter where you live, you care about your appearance,” he said.

The idea to turn this nonprofit idea into a private company came while Blumenthal was enrolled in an MBA program at Penn’s Wharton School. His friend (and eventual co-founder) Dave Gilboa was complaining about losing a $700 pair of glasses on a plane. As a banker, before he attended business school, Gilboa could easily afford a new pair; as an ex-banker and current student, his circumstances were a little different.

As Blumenthal recounted, e-commerce was just beginning to take off at that time, but no one had tried selling glasses online yet. And so the idea cutting out the middleman — the distributor — in order to sell less expensive glasses was born.

The idea was tested for a year at Wharton, where the founders flooded their fellow students with focus groups.

“The ecosystem [at graduate school] is great for building a business,” said Blumenthal. “Entrepreneurship is about testing in a proactive way.”

Testing and experimentation became a core value of the company that would become Warby Parker, Blumenthal said.

In their first rounds of testing, the founders developed what became the central tenets of Warby Parker’s business model. They quickly discovered that prospective customers wanted to interact with the product before buying. This led to the practice for which Warby Parker became known — giving customers the chance to try on five pairs of glasses at home.

A mentor at Wharton suggested that customers would perceive their planned price of $45 as low-quality and cheap. After determining that people were equally willing to spend $100 for a pair of glasses, the team ultimately landed on $95.

But the founders also never forgot their nonprofit roots. From the beginning, for every pair of glasses Warby Parker sold, the company donated to those in need.

Almost immediately, Warby Parker’s social mission got attention. GQ and Vogue magazines came knocking, each seeking to do a piece on the internet e-tailer with a cause.

Blumenthal, Gilboa, and two other co-founders launched Warby Parker in 2010 amid a flurry of great press. Within 48 hours, they had run out of inventory of the try-on sets. They hit their first-year sales goal easily.

From there, Warby Parker only grew. The company expanded quickly to brick-and-mortar stores, opening up their first showroom in Blumenthal’s Philadelphia apartment, using his wife’s mirror. After discovering a shortage of optometrists, Warby Parker started offering screening done entirely on personal screens, phones, and computers.

By 2018, Warby Parker was valued at $1.2 billion.

To Blumenthal, the company’s social mission and profit goals have always been intrinsically linked. It was obvious, however, that to successfully scale both, they couldn’t do everything.

Instead of managing the a nonprofit and private company at the same time, Warby Parker started partnering with outside nonprofits, like VisionSpring, to provide funding. This took the fundraising burden off of the nonprofit partners and allows them to devote more time to the cause. At home in New York, where the company is headquartered, they have partnered with the office of the mayor to provide screenings and glasses to all New York City kindergarteners.

Blumenthal’s message to entrepreneurial SIPA students is to know their brand and customer base — to “test, test, test” and be driven by a clear purpose and mission.

“We believed in the power of brands to influence culture and society. Brands can stand for something much more than the individual product.”

— Claire Teitelman MPA ’19

The 2019 Joint Japan/World Bank Graduate Scholarship Program (JJWBGSP) opens on March 7th

Mark your calendars for the Joint Japan/World Bank Graduate Scholarship Program (JJWBGSP), which will be taking applications from March 7 to April 11, 2019. A JJWBGSP scholarship provides tuition, a monthly living stipend, round-trip airfare, health insurance, and travel allowance. Since 1987 this program has assisted more than 5,800 mid-career professionals from developing countries and Japan to complete graduate degrees in development-related fields.

This scholarship is “open to women and men from developing countries with relevant professional experience and a history of supporting their countries’ development efforts who are applying to a master degree program in a development-related topic.” SIPA is one of the partner programs for this scholarship, and we encourage you to apply if you’re eligible:

  • Be a national of a World Bank member developing country;
  • Not hold dual citizenship of any developed country;
  • Be in good health;
  • Hold a Bachelor’s (or equivalent) degree earned at least 3 years prior to the Application Deadline date;
  • Have 3 years or more of recent development-related work experience after earning a Bachelor’s (or equivalent) degree;
  • Be employed in development-related work in a paid full- time position at the time of submitting the scholarship application. The only exception to this criterion is for developing country nationals from a country that will be on the updated list of Fragile and Conflict States provided to applicants in the Application Guidelines for each call for scholarships.
  • On or before the Scholarship Application Deadline date, be admitted unconditionally (except for funding) for the upcoming academic year to at least one of the JJ/WBGSP preferred university master’s programs located outside of the applicant’s country of citizenship and country of residence listed at the time the call for scholarship applications opens. The letter of admission must be uploaded before submitting your application.
  • Not be an Executive Director, his/her alternate, and/or staff of any type of appointment of the World Bank Group or a close relative of the aforementioned by blood or adoption with the term “close relative” defined as: Mother, Father, Sister, Half-sister, Brother, Half-brother, Son, Daughter, Aunt, Uncle, Niece, or Nephew.

Find full information for the JJWBGSP Scholarship on their website.

Don’t forget to review SIPA’s external funding database for other opportunities.

 

Watch: The 43rd Annual SIPA D.C. Career Conference

Ana Guerrero MIA ’19 gave a micro view of the SIPA D.C. Career Conference; check out the video below for a macro view. More than 220 SIPA students took part this year, joined by over 200 SIPA alumni throughout the Conference’s panels, site visits, and networking events from January 16-18, 2019.

Read the full recap here.

"The most global public policy school, where an international community of students and faculty address world challenges."

—Merit E. Janow, Dean, SIPA, Professor of Practice, International and Economic Law and International Affairs

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