Archive for education

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.

a city of shining lights: an inside look at urban and social policy

SIPA’s location in New York City provides an ideal opportunity for students to learn about the workings of one of the most dynamic cities in the world. The Urban and Social Policy (USP) concentration attracts a very diverse group of students from the public, private and non-profit sectors who are interested in managing city governments and non-profit organizations, and designing and analyzing policies across a variety of sectors. USP students enter SIPA with backgrounds in teaching, immigration law, non-profit program evaluation, urban transportation systems, public health, and many more areas.

USP classes are taught by faculty members with extensive academic and professional experience. Mayor David Dinkins, the former mayor of New York, offers a unique perspective in the two courses he teaches to USP students every year. Professor Ester Fuchs, the Concentration Director, served as Special Advisor to the Mayor for Governance and Strategic Planning under New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg from 2001 to 2005 in addition to her many years of teaching experience at Columbia. A number of other full-time and adjunct faculty members draw on their experience as city planners, high level officials in city government, and executive directors of non-profit organizations. They are experts in immigration, organizational management, housing policy, social movements and several other fields.

Students can choose between the Urban Policy and the Social Policy track. Both tracks equip students with strong skills in policy analysis, program management and evaluation. The Urban Policy curriculum offers focus areas in the following fields: Urban Politics and Governance; Management in Urban Public Sector or Not for Profits; Urban Social Policy; Urban Economic Development, Planning and Land Use; Sustainability and Environmental Policy; Housing Policy; Education Policy; Health Policy; Crime, Safety and Security Policy; and Employment and Labor Policy. The Social Policy track provides students with the analytical tools, management skills and knowledge needed to design, implement and evaluate the outcomes of social policies that aim to increase access to economic opportunity in marginalized populations and manage economic and social risks, such as unemployment, poverty, social exclusion, crime, recidivism, homelessness and sickness.

The concentration hosts The Global Mayor’s Forum each semester, featuring mayors from cities in the U.S. and around the globe. USP also hosts a series of roundtables, panel discussions, and brown bag events offering students the opportunity to hear from leading practitioners in the field. Additionally, USP hosts field trips for students to local museums, organizations, and historic sites.

USP graduates pursue careers in leadership levels within city, state and federal government, political campaigns, non-profits and NGOs, think tanks, philanthropic foundations, social enterprises, and academia. During their time at SIPA, many students pursue internships with the New York City government as well as with leading non-profit organizations, consulting groups, and think tanks coming up with innovative solutions to urban and social challenges. A sample of employers who hired USP graduates is available here


Economic and Political Development (EPD) concentration 101

The Economic and Political Development (EPD) concentration attracts diverse students from around the world who are committed to fighting inequality between and within countries, eradicating poverty and its causes, and promoting inclusive growth and human development by expanding people’s civil and political as well as economic and social rights and freedoms. To take on these global challenges, EPD curriculum equips students with a variety of skills in policy analysis, program planning, monitoring and evaluation, and advocacy. Through an interdisciplinary package of courses, workshop projects, and practical internships, students acquire both a broader understanding of the processes of economic, political and social change in the developing world as well as a more focused competence in specific fields such as microfinance, small business and social enterprise development, corporate social responsibility, gender and development, education policy, public health, sustainable development, post-conflict reconstruction and governance.

One of the most exciting opportunities within the EPD concentration is the Workshop in Development Practice, through which students gain practical experience by engaging in on-going cutting-edge development projects, often involving country fieldwork. Working in teams with a faculty supervisor, students assist a variety of clients on a wide array of assignments in international development. Students take a multidisciplinary approach to their work and learn extensively from each other as well as from the hands-on tasks of the workshop itself. A list of past workshop projects can be viewed at the following link:

The EPD concentration is dedicated to enhancing students’ overall experience at SIPA. We sponsor a number of events throughout each academic year. This includes social events, such as the annual EPD retreat, happy hours, cultural trips around the city or off-campus parties; brown bag talks and evening lectures with practitioners and academics; and career events such as internship and alumni panels. We regularly collaborate with other concentrations, student groups and regional institutes to address the wide array of interests among our EPD students.

EPD graduates are uniquely prepared for careers in international development. They seek leadership positions in the nonprofit, public and private sectors and pursue opportunities in development consulting, microfinance, small business and social enterprise development, corporate social responsibility, gender and development, education policy, public health, sustainable development, post-conflict reconstruction, governance and/or capacity development. EPD works very closely with SIPA’s Office of Career Services to provide a comprehensive support to our students. A sample of employers who hired EPD graduates is available here


Service and SIPA

The following was contributed by Anesa Diaz-Uda, a second-year MPA student.


What makes SIPA so special is the fact that there’s really something here for everyone.  In what is arguably the greatest city in the world, SIPA naturally offers a living laboratory in which students can refine their academic and professional interests.  Refining these interests happens inside and outside the classroom.

Most of the students here hope to evoke a positive impact within our communities, and I’ve tried to do just that.  In January of 2009 I started a new student group of peers interested in mentoring high school students.  We forged a partnership with the International Community High School (ICHS) in the Bronx largely because of my connection at the school, but also because the school was an ideal fit for most SIPA students.  All of the high school students enrolled at ICHS are recent immigrants to the US.  They’ve been living in the US for less than five years, and are all English Language Learners.

SIPA students began our work by first meeting with ICHS administrators, and soon began directly working with the school’s social worker.  We then met a few prospective high school students (students who wanted a mentor, and were likely college bound but needed a bit of extra attention).  After this initial meeting with the students, the social worker formally paired us with 1-3 high school students. We were paired based on interests (both academic and extracurricular), languages spoken, and general congeniality.  Since then, we’ve been meeting with our kids about once a week for tutoring or just to hang out.  We also go on group outings – namely to museums and dinners.

In August, I recruited some of the first-year students to the program, and with a few new mentors we’ve been able to work with more of the high school students.  It sounds cheesy, but all of these kids really are representative of the American dream.  They’re the first generation in their families to attend high school in the US, and the first generation to hopefully attend college.

It was busy in the fall helping them prepare for the SATs and with their applications to colleges, but it was also very exciting.


Learning that Matters: How a New Generation of Leaders is Making an Impact on Education

I like to be able to provide information to prospective SIPA students concerning the work of our alumni.  The following is an article on a project developed by 2006 SIPA alumna, Prathima Rodrigues.  The project was actually developed while she was a student at SIPA.

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“I want to be an accountant when I grow up,” says an eager Samir, as he expertly calculates the amount of profit his team has made selling hats as part of a business simulation activity. Samir is a grade eight student at St. Francis School, Bangalore, India and is part of a group of 25 other kids participating in a pilot workshop for Skills for Kids (SFK).

Skills for Kids (SFK) is a program that teaches the concepts of entrepreneurship to young children – concepts that are useful in everyday lives but are often not taught in schools as part of formal curricula. The SFK curriculum simplifies these concepts and brings them to the classroom through fun, learner-centric and experiential activities.


SFK was founded by SIPA 2006 alumna, Prathima Rodrigues while still at graduate school. During this time, Prathima was awarded the Sasakawa Young Leadership Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) from the Tokyo Foundation which laid the foundation for her initiative. “Receiving the SYLFF fellowship was a great honour for me”, says Prathima. “The Tokyo Foundation encourages fellows to work in international development and start their own initiatives. It was a good opportunity for me to leverage the SYLFF network and the fellowship has certainly helped me create and scale-up my entrepreneurial venture. Also, SIPA gave me a very good foundation for my work. I was able to constantly apply what I learned in the classroom.”


Prathima says that formal education in most schools in India for example, does not equip children with relevant skills. Though the demand for these skills is rising, both in tertiary education institutes and in the job market, preparation of youth for work and life is inadequate. Increasingly, firms want to hire young people who not only posses sound technical skills but have good communication and teamwork skills and who are creative and dynamic in the workplace – traits that are essential in today’s globalized economy.

From a small student led initiative, Skills for Kids has achieved considerable scale in the last few years. Prathima now leads a team of three – Badamjav Batsukh (SYLFF Fellow and Officer, Ministry of Education and Science, Mongolia), Sapruddin Perwira (SYLFF Fellow and Director, Project Hope, Indonesia) and Sunil Mathew (Senior Software Engineer, OPNET Technologies, Maryland, USA). “I met most of my team through the SYLFF network. Each team member brings his/her distinct expertise to the table and we are very open to each other’s suggestions”, says Prathima, “all of us are very motivated and do this apart from our regular jobs. We manage to coordinate quite well though we live in four different cities across the globe.”


“Activities that focus on life skills and financial skills, enable children to be more productive in the classroom, more self-sufficient and more inclined to contribute to their community’s social and economic development”, says Prathima. “Significant anecdotal and empirical evidence show that if encouraged at an early age, a targeted curriculum, pedagogy and faculty can catalyze the development of this entrepreneurial mindset among young adults. Teaching and learning in developing economies is based on a system of rote learning that in several cases, is alone not sufficient to actively encourage students to think on their own and take on responsibilities; traits that form the core of developing an entrepreneurial mindset.”

Skills for Kids follows an integrated model of entrepreneurial and life skills development, that equips secondary schoolscreenshot207 students with a set of marketable skills (See Figure 4). The 18 hours of the Skills for Kids curriculum encompass 8 modules; each module consists of a set of activities that develops both cognitive skills (such as in economics and personal finance) and non-cognitive skills (teamwork and communication) in young people.  “The unique aspect of the Skills for Kids model is that it is based on two parallel streams of learning – building tangible skills in economics or finance and developing behavioral traits such as decision-making, positive self-esteem and good communication.” says Badamjav. “Each activity follows this bi-channel approach and ensures that students grasp the core theme of each lesson but at the same time develop these traits.”

The first Skills for Kids pilot was coordinated by Badamjav and implemented in Mongolia followed by a second pilot in India, coordinated by Sunil.  “Many donors and academics come to the camp, to visit the children and on supervision missions. But this is the first time that students are learning a set of extremely useful skills.” says Ms. B. Danya, a senior teacher at the summer camp in Mongolia, where the pilot was held. “I want our teachers to be trained on how to teach this so that many more children can benefit from this program”.


The team believes that the children are an integral part of the program and the kids are constantly encouraged to express provide feedback on what they liked or disliked. Fifteen-year-old Tuya from Mongolia says, “The activities were interesting. I learnt a lot about business skills and I had a lot of fun. I do not get to do all this at school”. “We were very pleased, with the ingenuity of the students”, says Prathima, “They were able to understand and apply many of these complex concepts. They are so incredibly creative; there is a lot we can learn from them.”

screenshot206Prathima and her team represent a new breed of young change makers – individuals who, rather than only talk of what’s wrong, get together and try to make change happen. “We are extremely proud of what we have achieved”, says Prathima, “there is much that young people can do with a little creativity and a lot of hard work. I hope that our work serves as an example to other young people in various parts of the globe and motivates them to make a difference in their communities.”

Prathima Rodrigues is a SIPA 2006 graduate (MIA, EPD). At present, she works with the World Bank in the Europe and Central Asia region. Her previous work experience includes projects with UNICEF, U NIDO and the Development Gateway Foundation. Prathima also screenshot2451 serves as an advisor to Make a Difference ( and served as a judge for the 2009 Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC).  She has an engineering degree from KREC, Surathkal, India and a master degree from Drexel University, Philadelphia. Prathima is from Mangalore, India and presently resides in Washington D. C. Prathima was recently awarded a Youth Innovation Fund (YIF) grant from the World Bank to pilot Skills for Kids in Kosovo. She can be reached at pr2141 [at]

"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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