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Columbia SPS Students Showcase Ideas for a Better Future at SPS Next

On April 9, the School of Professional Studies (SPS) Student Life team hosted the third annual SPS Next event at Columbia University’s Faculty House.

SPS Next is a platform for SPS students to take the stage and speak on topics they are passionate about, a forum for enterprising students to showcase their skills, share their ideas, and display their thought leadership.

Four student speakers shared their stories and experiences, presenting unique solutions for fostering a more sustainable and equitable future. Chosen by a review committee from among dozens of applicants, these speakers worked with faculty coaches to refine their presentations.

Assistant Director of Student Life Samantha Bashaw

Assistant Director of Student Life Samantha Bashaw served as the event's host, introducing the speakers and informing the audience that they would have the chance to vote for the best speaker at the event's conclusion.

Kristen Dillard, a New York native who is pursuing her master's in Sustainability Management at Columbia

First up to the podium was Kristen Dillard, a New York native who is pursuing her master's in Sustainability Management at Columbia. Dillard’s academic journey took an entrepreneurial turn when she launched her natural hair care business, EarthCurl Organics, with the aim of raising awareness about sustainable hair care and empowering people of color with knowledge of environmental education.

Seven years ago, Dillard, a dedicated swimmer, found that her hair became thin and brittle due to exposure to chlorine. She experimented with numerous products in search of a solution, only to discover the environmental unsustainability and harmful ingredients present in many conventional products. So she decided to develop her own solution that is free from chemicals and environmentally harmful packaging.

Dillard emphasized the growing consumer demand for ingredient transparency and eco-friendly packaging, noting that these initiatives not only promote sustainable practices but also support local businesses like hers. “We must also advocate for policy changes,” Dillard said, highlighting the importance of broader systemic changes alongside individual consumer choices.

Gigi Etienne, a technology and accessibility strategist currently pursuing a master's in Technology Management at Columbia

The second speaker at SPS Next was Gigi Etienne, a technology and accessibility strategist currently pursuing a master's in Technology Management at Columbia.

In 2024, a staggering 96% of the world's websites were found to be inaccessible to people with disabilities, Etienne shared. “As we develop AI technology, we have to do better,” she said. “We must create AI technology that is accessible to people with disabilities.”

Etienne believes it's imperative to train data models using diverse datasets involving people with differing abilities in every phase of planning, building, and testing AI products. “There are 250 million people in the world with non-standard speech, so it's crucial that we collect and utilize diverse data,” Etienne stressed. She thinks innovation has been prioritized over inclusion, and that's a wrong that shouldn't be repeated. “Because progress is not progress,” she added, “unless it's for everyone.”

Aditi Singh

Education proved to be a powerful tool for Aditi Singh, but she soon realized that hers was tainted. Originally from India but having spent most of her childhood in Kuala Lumpur, Singh attended a British school where she began to grasp the profound influence of British education on Malaysia, a former colony.

When she first learned the truth about India, she was 14. Her teacher set up a debate in history class regarding the British rule of India. Singh was asked to justify the British. Her mother was disappointed, Singh shared, because her Cambridge curriculum textbook had romanticized colonialism benefits. “And that night,” Singh said, “I learned history for the first time.”

In college, Singh conducted a computational analysis of former colonial countries' transformations utilizing a dataset compiled by Harvard historians, which won third prize in an undergraduate statistics competition hosted by the American Statistical Association. Her work shed light on the profound impacts of colonial rule, emphasizing the complexity of historical narratives. “History is rarely black and white,” Singh said, “which underscores the importance of preserving diverse narratives.”

Tom Farndon, the director of client experience at Impact 4 Good, is currently enrolled in the Nonprofit Management program at Columbia

Tom Farndon, the director of client experience at Impact 4 Good, a company specializing in connecting corporations with community initiatives through team-building programs, is currently enrolled in the Nonprofit Management program at Columbia.

Farndon believes that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is no longer merely a workplace perk but a crucial component for individual fulfillment and, consequently, organizational success. “For almost a decade,” Farndon said, “I've done corporate social responsibility team-building programs, and I've struggled with the idea, ‘Is this enough?’”

His perspective shifted during his time at Columbia's School of Professional Studies upon encountering the concept of creating shared value (CSV). Introduced in an innovations class by Richard Finer, CSV transformed Farndon's understanding of CSR. “It's a redistribution approach,” Farndon explained. “It's about corporations and nonprofits collaborating to create value for both employees and communities.”

Gigi Etienne (second from right) was announced as the winner of the audience vote

At the end of this year’s SPS Next, Gigi Etienne (second from right) was announced as the winner of the audience vote.


About SPS Next

SPS Next is an annual platform for SPS students to take the stage and speak about topics they are passionate about. This is the event where students can showcase their skills, share their ideas, and display their thought leadership. The speakers will be selected by a review committee. After being selected each speaker will receive coaching by esteemed SPS Faculty with extensive experience in public speaking, to deliver their best talks yet.