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At SPS this fall, all courses, other than pre-established online courses, will be offered face-to-face in our New York City classrooms. Some of these face-to-face courses will be offered in the HyFlex format to ensure that all of our students can make progress toward their degree requirements, if faced with delays due to student visas or vaccination effectiveness wait times.
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Liliana Iriarte on How the M.S. Nonprofit Management Program Helped Her Turnaround a Struggling Nonprofit and Launch a Social Enterprise

Liliana Iriarte, an alumna of Columbia University’s M.S. Nonprofit Management program, has long been interested in how to affect social good in an impactful way. In addition to her role at Caring for Colombia, a USA-based nonprofit that funds social impact projects in her native Colombia, she is the co-founder of Kai Connection, a social purpose business that connects Latin American mental health service providers with Spanish speakers across North and South America. Kai recently won a runner up slot at the Harvard University-sponsored Social Enterprise Conference’s 2021 Pitch Competition. We spoke with her about her time at Columbia University, and how the M.S. Nonprofit Management program helped her turnaround a struggling nonprofit and aided her journey of creating and growing her social enterprise. 

Tell us about your career and what kind of impact you would like to make.

I am originally from Colombia and have a Bachelor’s in business administration. Throughout my career I’ve been privileged to work in the government, the for-profit and the nonprofit sector. My career in the nonprofit sector started in 2012 when I got a job as an executive director for a nonprofit organization that helps children and soldiers who are victims of landmines in Colombia. This experience showed me the reality of the internal war in my country, the need for mental health, and most importantly, the path I need to walk professionally.  

The impact I would like to make in my country and around the world is to democratize mental health access. It should not be a luxury; it should be accessible to all.

After working hard applying to master’s programs, I was accepted at Columbia University and in 2019 completed the M.S. Nonprofit Management program. While finishing the program I did two internships in NYC. One month before graduation, I got my dream job at Caring for Colombia. In 2020, I co-founded Kai Connection with a fellow Columbia University alumna. Kai is a unique impact-focused teletherapy platform which connects Spanish-speaking users with LATAM-based psychologists at a low cost. In addition, Kai is a social enterprise committed to reinvesting into non-profit missions aiming to provide mental health support to individuals who would otherwise be unable to access therapy.

The M.S. Nonprofit Management program opened so many doors and I am grateful for all I learned at Columbia University.  

The impact I would like to make in my country and around the world is to democratize mental health access. It should not be a luxury; it should be accessible to all. 

What drew you to Columbia's Nonprofit Management program? What did you enjoy most about the experience? 

The experience at Columbia University was unique and unforgettable. I feel so privileged I had the opportunity to study abroad and be accepted into an Ivy League university; it took a great deal of effort, time, and perseverance. What I enjoyed the most during my time at Columbia University was being exposed to the global world all within one city and campus. In Colombia, I was so closed in my own world; my time at Columbia University opened my eyes to so many opportunities that I did not know before. I also enjoyed all the events and learning opportunities the university offers, and the invaluable Columbia University network. In fact, I met my start-up co-founder, who is a SIPA alumna, at a Columbia University event.

What type of skills did you learn? Are you applying them in your career?

The M.S. Nonprofit Management program was a marvelous experience. Learning about fundraising strategies and the power of storytelling are just two of the important skills I gained at the program. 

After graduation, I began work at Caring for Colombia, which was in dire financial straits at the time.  I can proudly say that the M.S. Nonprofit Management program gave me the tools needed to restructure Caring for Colombia and make it a place where Colombians and Colombian lovers around the world can continue to contribute not only their money but also their talent and time to make a better country. 

One of our strategies to revitalize the nonprofit was to organize its first fund-raising annual gala in its 16 years of operations.  Thanks to this event we are not only still operating but we have been growing significantly within our operations, impact, and donor database. 

 As co-founder of a social enterprise, I also apply the skills and network I gained in my program to find new ways to increase Kai’s impact and achieve our goal of making mental health accessible to all. I am very grateful for my time in the M.S. Nonprofit Management program, as it has empowered me to take charge of an existing nonprofit organization while also realizing my own dream of bringing a mental health enterprise to life.

Were there specific classes,  resources, or connections that you valued?

While I enjoyed and gained something meaningful from every course, Finance, Communications, and Fundraising Fundamentals were some of the classes that were most significant and fruitful for me. These classes gave not only incredible insights for my career but also helped me form valuable relationships with classmates and professors. In my first semester I was scared of participating in class and I thought that I would not be able to complete the program because of communication barriers. However, the passion of the professors for helping students learn, their willingness to share their experiences as practitioners, and their openness gave me the confidence I needed to be successful.  I also value the network the University offers. I met people from all over the world who taught me incredible lessons and I am grateful that we are still in touch.  

What advice would you give future students in the program?

The first bit of advice I would share is to be confident, speak up, and don’t be afraid of language barriers. This goes especially to all the international students who will join the program.  

Another suggestion is to take advantage of the network Columbia University offers. I  tried to attend as many events as I could all over the University and that made the experience much more fruitful. It was at one of these many events I met my start-up cofounder, a SIPA alumna. I also encourage you to stay connected even as alumni because the Columbia University  community continues to support you. For example, in 2020 I had the opportunity to present Kai at Columbia University's School of Professional Services (SPS) Greater Good Competition. I was so fortunate to win second place and receive funding from the Beba Foundation.   

Lastly, I would say, enjoy all the time at the program and at Columbia University. Time flies and you cannot return it back. You and I are so privileged to get to call ourselves Columbia Lions!

Learn more about the Nonprofit Management program.