Archive for entrepreneurship

Cassia Moraes MPA-DP ’15 of Youth Climate Leaders

As CEO and partnerships lead at Youth Climate Leaders, Cassia Moraes MPA-DP ’15 is working to build the next generation of climate leaders through a unique around the world experience. Participants learn about climate change in theory, understand it in practice and work on hands-on projects with other young people, ultimately building a community of climate champions.

While at SIPA, she became interested in entrepreneurship and took classes to further that interest. She worked with an international NGO after SIPA, but it was only when she was actively looking for jobs again that she decided to launch her own organization: the Youth Climate Leaders (YCL). SIPA not only provided her a great education but a network that she still relies on at YCL.

As Cassia puts it: “SIPA is one of the best schools in the world which is empowering. You are so privileged to have this experience and, because of it, it is your duty to give back to the world what you learned.”

Learn more about this and other organizations fostered and founded by our Development Practice students here.

Learn more about the MPA-DP Program:

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.

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

Why I chose International Finance and Economic Policy as a Concentration

When I was looking at graduate schools initially, I knew I wanted to focus on my three interests: women’s economic empowerment, entrepreneurship and finance. It was very important for me that I found a school that allowed me to pursue all three. The International Finance and Economic Policy concentration was ideal in that it provided me with coursework in both finance and economics.

My first year courses included macroeconomics and microeconomics, as well as corporate finance and international capital markets. All of which gave me a strong background in financial and economic policy and allowed me to apply the skills I learned in the classroom in a real world context. The International Finance and Economic Policy concentration is also ideal in that it has three separate tracks: International Finance, International Economic Policy, and Central Banking. This meant that I could tailor my coursework to focus specifically on international finance.

I chose the International Finance track because I knew that my interest in promoting women’s economic empowerment through entrepreneurship required that I have knowledge of accounting, corporate finance, as well as emerging financial markets. Additionally, the International Finance and Economic Policy concentration had a global focus, which allowed me to look at financial systems and economies on an international scale. This was very important to me considering that my main interest is to help women entrepreneurs and 51% of SME’s globally are owned and operated by women. Additionally, my specialization in Gender and Public Policy was a great way for me to combine my interests in both finance and gender. Much of the work that I did in my IFEP classes served me well in my gender classes, particularly in the realm of evaluating economic and financial systems through a gender lens.

Photo Source: Carol M. HighsmithPublic Domain

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.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

“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

Boiler Image