Recap of 5th Annual SUMASA Symposium: Driving Sustainability

SUMASA is very proud to have presented our 5th Annual Sustainable Perspective Symposium, “Driving Sustainability: Who’s Responsible?” last Friday, April 8th at Casa Italiana on Columbia University’s campus.

As Steve Cohen, Executive Director of the Earth Institute, announced in his opening speech, we are proud to have students so motivated in the area of sustainability. Nilda Mesa, Director from the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, briefed the audience in her keynote speech on the changes occurring through the growth of New York City in the face of poverty. Nilda’s point were validated through the featured speaker, Matthew Ketschke, VP of Distributed Resource Integration, Con Edison Company New York, who discussed the rising challenges of solar and wind power across the grid of the New York City area and the innovation that is constantly being harnessed and shared nationwide to create new ways to store and utilize energy.

Our Master of Ceremony, Brian Wennersten of NBCUniversal Media, introduced us to two enthralling panel discussions on Reshaping Corporate Innovation and Advancing Resilient Cities.

Reshaping Corporate Innovation panel was impeccably moderated by our SUMA Professor Celine Ruben-Salama of CBRE. Panelists discussed the importance of reporting and engaging corporations to be more involved. Panelists discussed how to involve consumers; waste management of organic foods into the sewer system and the importance of metrics.
Panelists: Ralph Bianculli Jr., Managing Director of Emerald Brand; Marisa Buchanan, Executive Director, Sustainable Finance at JPMorgan Chase; Ellen Kondracki, Senior Director of Global Sustainability Becton, Dickinson and Company; Peter Smith, Vice President of Delos Solutions Delos Living.

Steve Clemon’s of Atlantic Live, had the audience captivated with his in-depth knowledge of the presenters and entertaining commentary on the Advancing Resilient Cities panel. The discussions ranged from electric busses, innovation with lighting to advancing sustainability through sport franchises and our common devotion of athletics.
Panelists: Collette Ericsson Chief Sustainability Officer and Enterprise Asset Management Lead  for New York Metropolitan Transportation Bus Operations; Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, President of Sports Alliance; Miguel Sossa, Co-lead Smart Cities NA Accenture; Amanda Stevens, Manager, Env. Research Program at NYSERDA.

Interested in making an impact on next year’s symposium? Please use this link to submit your thoughts on next year’s topics, speaker or interest in volunteering on the committee.

We would like to invite you all to celebrate the success of the program on Thursday at 8:00pm at Mel’s Burger (2850 Broadway, NYC). Looking forward to seeing you all there.

SUMASA 2015-2016 Board Members
Shaun A. Hoyte, President
Keith Wong, VP Academic Affairs
Crystal Li, VP Communications
Derrick Sullivan, VP Community Outreach
Jocelyn Gan, VP Events
Cheryl Poccia, VP Finance

A special thank you to all who volunteered! This event couldn’t have been the success that it was without their teamwork and dedication.

SUMASA Symposium Volunteers
Leticia Valadez
Lindsay Ferzoco
Ari Kapiloff
Jordan Chan
Alia’a Harum
Fred Yonghabi
Cher Yang
Sargam Saraf
Kerry Babb

Special Thank You for your generous guidance and support.
Allison Laude
Pamela Vreeland
Diane Spizzirro
Marivi Perdomo Caba

Who We Are

The Sustainability Management Student Association (SUMASA) is a student organization elected to represent the student body of the Columbia University Sustainability Management Master’s Program.  We strive to advocate on behalf of the students, foster community engagement, and provide meaningful development through academic and networking opportunities in an evolving sustainability industry.

Interview with “Creative Conservationist” Asher Jay

by Wendy Hapgood for Columbia University Women & Sustainability

Asher Jay is a National Geographic emerging explorer and self-described “creative conservationist”. She uses art, poetry, sculpture, animation, online media, and her sheer force of personality to help save the planet. She has dedicated her career to raising awareness of biodiversity loss and the importance of sustainable development. Her art has been used in conservation campaigns for rhinos, elephants, lions, tigers, sea turtles and more.

I met Asher at her favourite neighbourhood cafe, LA Burdick hot chocolate, in Flatiron Manhattan. It’s a high-end cafe, filled with handmade chocolates including in the shape of adorable bite-sized penguins, rabbits, and elephants. With her hurried entrance, a ball of frenetic energy enters the room.

Asher has a unique talent for connecting people visually and emotionally to the tragedy of our planet’s dwindling biodiversity. She begins by telling me passionately about the challenges of our crowded planet and our disconnection from nature, “there’s 7 billion of us, going to be 9 billion soon. And to me, that is staggering. Do we not understand how that is basically to our own detriment? We can’t live independent of the fabric of life. We are not disparate from life and yet we’ve come to think of it as separate.”

We spoke on two occasions over our rich hot chocolates. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

When did you know that wildlife conservation was your calling?

“When I was really young, growing up between India and England, I brought anything that fell out of a tree back home. I think it came from my Mum who would go on long walks thru parks and constantly bringing wildlife back home. Together, we’d fill up my Granddad’s empty pill bottles with different millets, grains, insects and seeds, so that when we rescued an animal, we’d be ready to feed it it’s precise natural diet. I think this early passion bled into everything I did thereafter.”

She says that growing up, she truly believed she was part of the animal kingdom, and imagined that she was raised by wolves or part of the bat world. “I really did believe I was a bat”, she explains. “And I had fangs. These are actually veneers”, Asher points to her front teeth, “I was missing my two incisors at birth so my fangs were right up front”

Asher Jay sees herself as a part of the natural world – at one with nature. She feels connected to nature “at a cellular level”, as an extension of herself. “I do feel mountain when I’m with mountain. I feel rhino when I’m with rhino. I don’t see the difference. How can I not protect that part of me that is out there?”

Deep Rooted Truths (c) by Asher Jay

In a world that is rapidly urbanizing, with more than 50% of the global population now living in cities, how do people connect with nature?

“I think early education needs to emphasize why and how we are dependent on ecosystem services and biodiversity. It’s great that we’re moving into urban areas and ‘verticalizing’ our systems. When you’re vertical, your entire impact on the planet is building upon itself. We’re rewilding areas that were once suburban sprawl. I think we need to keep moving in that direction, but with a conscious understanding of why so that when the baseline has shifted, and all we are experiencing is a human-curated area in our lives, we know that we’ve consciously chosen that path for a reason.

We have a huge surge of shows that are currently focused on survival behavior, but we have done a masterful job of surviving. We are literally the most dominant species on the planet. We have an impact on every system of the world, every species has been eclipsed by us. We literally consume everything. We take everything. And then we market it. We scale it up. We take for the possibility of making more than we need so we can make an extra buck out of it. It’s a bizarre appropriation mentality. We are voracious consumers.”

What species do you work with?

“I work with different species every day. Take elephants for example, whose population count is now estimated at between 350,000 to 400,000 elephants in Africa. This sounds like a lot given that we are working with a species that is critically endangered, on the brink of extinction. But we need to look at that number in relation to the fact that we’re losing an elephant every 15 minutes, close to the count of 35,000 to 50,000 elephants every year. That’s a six year timeline to losing elephants as we know it.  And then there are the ones that are not loved, the ones that aren’t often spoken about: amphibians, reptiles even insects. 400,000 insects can be killed in a single column of the Amazon rainforest each time we cut down the rainforest. I think it’s tremendous that we are killing so much life on a daily basis. Our entire way of life is basically tethered to a system of death. We’ve perpetuated life at the cost of other lives, which is not natural at all. It’s not cradle to cradle. It doesn’t bring life back into a moment of death, that cycles back into life. Death is somehow separate and we’re feeding life with it. The planet’s bearing the cost.”

Same Same but Different (c) by Asher Jay

How do we move away from our culture of consumption?

“It’s convenience. Our entire paradigm has to shift.  Especially those of us who are in the know, it’s a privilege for us to spread the word, it’s our duty to act and shift our personal behaviors. Beyond that, you also have to come from a space of non-violence, of not being violent to yourself, to not hate yourself for being human, to not hate others for being human, because we are natural whether we like it or not. We’re just a really destructive, large-impact species that needs to figure it out.

We don’t see the systems connecting anymore. We don’t see our effluent treatment, dumping raw sewage into the rivers. We don’t see our plastic lids going down the gutters or flying around as trash and then ending up on the shoreside, ending up in the oceans, ending up in the rivers. We don’t realize the global impact of our local choices because we are not even localizing those choices anymore. What we source is from the world, and then we throw it wherever we want. It’s the tragedy of the commons.”

How do you define sustainability?

“The idea of sustainability is constantly being tweaked. Personally, I believe the term should encompass the welfare of as many living things as possible: both human, wild and domestic animals, and plants. Everything you do, if you think about the ripples it has, and how many lives it intersects with, and how far can you reduce that impact, then it becomes better.”

What is your advice for women in sustainability?

“People grow up thinking they can only be one thing, and place limits on themselves. But why? You have one life. You have 80-100 years on Earth. Do whatever you want. Do as much as you can. Live as big a life as possible because you’re not going to get out of it alive. You get one shot at it. Who says you can’t, other than you? You’re the only person dissuading you from doing what you want with your life.”

Later that week, I visit the United Nations to watch Asher Jay in action as a keynote speaker for the 2016 Winter Youth Assembly, on the theme “Transforming our World: The Role of Youth in the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals”. Asher on stage is a bright flash of color and enthusiasm, dressed in a colorful Hermes scarf, zebra print tights, and animal-themed stick on nails. The young audience loves her. Combined with the visual impact of her art, projected up high in the grand general assembly hall, her words bring energy and inspiration to the youth assembly. That’s where Asher’s talent lies. She reaches people through her art, reconnecting them with a wilder world.

Asher speaking at the UN on the Role of Youth in the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals



Interview with Diana Sierra, co-founder of Be Girl

Diana Sierra co-founded of Be Girl, a social enterprise that designs and manufactures reusable, washable and high performance period panties and sanitary pads. They have pilot their product in more than 12 countries and are ready to launch in the US. Previously, Diana built her career in industrial design as a consultant, working for almost 10 years for different multinational companies and consulting firms such as Smart Design, Frog, Panasonic. Read on to learn what it takes to be successful as an entrepreneur and what you need to keep track of before launching your own social enterprise.

By Beatrice Troiano (SUMA 2016)


 Please tell us about your organization, Be Girl, and your role

 I co-founded Be Girl, a social enterprise, together with SUMA alumnus Pablo Freund. My role constantly bounces between CEO and Creative Director.

Be Girl pads are the outcome of a collaborative design process. They are a basic yet extremely resourceful solution that features a reusable, washable and fast-drying waterproof pad-holder/pouch that can be attached to underwear like a traditional sanitary pad, and can be filled with any available safe disposable or reusable absorbent material – e.g. toilet paper or re-purposed cloth. This unique design gives women and girls the option to adapt it according to their access to water and available resources in their own environment.

What motivated you to launch Be Girl? 

During the SUMA program I participated in an internship with the millennium promise/ villages in Uganda. I was involved in two projects. One of them comprised working with coffee farmers and advising them in the technology they needed to go from wet to dry processing of coffee. I was also working with an arts and crafts cooperative. During this experience I met a lot of young girls who had dropped out of school and were looking to work in the shop.

This is when I became aware that menstruation is a huge issue in developing countries. Lack of access to proper menstrual management products is preventing millions of girls from completing their education.  These girls miss five days of school each month, which leads do a drop in performance and eventually to drop out of school as they are not able to catch up.

As a woman and designer, I felt a deep sense of responsibility to address this issue and create a solution, as designers do. Using only the materials I had on hand – an umbrella, mosquito netting, thread, scissors and a needle – I made the first prototype for a reusable and washable waterproof pad-holder/pouch that attached to the panties and could be filled with any available safe disposable or reusable absorbent material.

How does Be Girl support girls & women’s empowerment? 

In many countries, when a woman reaches menstruation, because of a lack of facilities she has to stop going to school during that period. This means she gets singled out and left behind because she cannot keep up with the workload. Essentially these girls are being denied the right of education because of their gender. One in ten girls worldwide is dropping out of school every year because of this issue, but in Uganda the rate is forty times higher. This is why we decided to test our product with millennium promise. I believe high performance and well-designed re-usable sanitary products will help these girls have a more fair shot at life with minimum intervention. There is no point in giving these girls a book and pen if systematically they are denied access to education just because of their gender. Lack of access to products to manage your menstruation with dignity is not a privilege but a fundamental human right.

You have recently launched a successful Kickstarter campaign. Tell us about your company’s next steps.

The first country where we decided to test the product was in Uganda with Millennium Promise. We piloted the program and interviewed women for a year and got our results in May 2014. The participation and feedback we received were incredible. I was amazed at how small products could have such an enormous impact.

After the pilot-test results we were featured on the Huffington Post. Then a foundation from Sweden read about our work and contacted us to see if we were open to seed capital. We also applied for an incubator in Washington DC – Halcyon Incubator ( – which provided us with tutoring, mentorship and housing. Both these opportunities were crucial as they allowed us to continue pursuing our projects.

In 2015 we started developing the design of our sanitary pads to shape in the form of underwear, the same universal absorbent pocket construction but delivered in a panty for a 2-in-1 solution. We are now present in more than 12 countries and our core team expanded to 2 more amazing professionals, Maria Paola Navia and Stephanie Rapp-LeGrant. We also have interns and volunteers on a rotating basis who support us in our operations. At the moment Saron Simon, from Brown University, is in the field piloting our  program in Ethiopia and Laura Almonacid from Washington University assisting in the management of the EmpowerBank.

Our goal for 2016 is to enter the US market. We have decided to enter with a “One for one” model: for every US purchase of panties, we are giving one to a girl in a developing country. This way we are making a connection between developed and developing countries. We are partnering with NGOs to allocate products where there is the most need. Having Be Girl accessible in the US is crucial for us as, from the environmental perspective, the product removes millions of sanitary pads each year from landfill.

What are two most important skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Does this differ for a woman entrepreneur?

I would say a combination of discipline and passion are needed to be a successful entrepreneur. Passion will get you through the hard times, discipline will give you a structure to follow. This differs immensely for women as some things are expected more from women than from men. Moreover I believe women pitch differently to investors than men – we tend to be more reserved and more cautious and this can often make us look less ambitious. This is why gender lens investing is very important when making investment decisions. This is a way to increase access to capital for women entrepreneurs and businesses that have women in leadership positions.

Tell us how your industrial design experience and the SUMA program have helped you with starting Be Girl.

I worked for 12 years in the product design and product development industry. I decided to join the SUMA program to enhance my career. I was working on baby care products and their Life Cycle Analysis and I felt very frustrated that my clients would not consider more environmental products if there was not a direct money benefit attached to it.

The very flexible schedule is what attracted me to the SUMA program. I was able to tailor the program to meet my needs and learn how to put a dollar sign into doing the right thing. During the SUMA program Professor Louis Rosen, who was teaching the practicum class at the time, really helped me during my career transformation. She brought in all these incredible professors to give us a different perspective on sustainability. One of these, a mechanical engineering professor called Vijay Modi, explained to us how even a simple object like a cooking stove can prevent million of children dying form pneumonia and that for me was a life changing moment as a designer.

What do you find most challenging about your industry or role?

The most challenging part of being an entrepreneur is making the case of investment. I got very lucky and received seed investment right from the beginning. If you do not have investments or savings it is really tough to develop your idea and make this career shift. Unfortunately, there is a huge lack of platforms that help start-ups and people with great ideas plan their careers change, thus these people get stuck and have to go back to their initial jobs.

What advice do you have for young women interested in social enterprises?

If you have a great idea, do not immediately jump into it but start planning first. Performing a pilot or market test, to see what the results of your idea are, is crucial before jumping right into your project and quitting your job. Otherwise you are putting too much economical stress onto your idea and may break for the wrong reasons. I incubated my idea and tested it out 2 years before doing a full career switch  and starting Be Girl.

What are two companies you’re excited to follow over the coming years? Why?

I am a technology geek and I always like to follow technology and design companies like Tesla. I think Mars One will make it real to go to Mars in our lifetime and, not that I want to move there, but find it fascinating.

Interview with Marisol Rodriguez, founder of SHAREnergy

Marisol Rodriguez is a design consultant with over 8 years of experience in product innovation, consumer research, prototyping, and business model generation methodologies. Holding an M.S. in Sustainability Management ’15 from Columbia University, she most recently consulted for World Resources Institute, Oxfam and WWF through her capstone and graduation projects; her social enterprise SHAREnergy, an initiative incubated within the co-working space at the Earth Institute, focuses on renewable energy and sustainable development. In this interview, jointly conducted by SUMANI and Women & Sustainability, Marisol tells us about her organization and shares advice for the entrepreneur in you.

By Beatrice Troiano (SUMA 2016)

Please tell us about your organization, SHAREnergy and your role.

SHAREnergy is fundamentally a “virtual energy grid” that connects the developed world where there is (in many cases energy abundance and waste) to the developing world. We connect residential buildings, commercial spaces, and real estate companies in large cities to villages around the world, using kWh savings as capital to install and distribute clean energy products.

Our organization bridges the gap between large energy consumers and the many (BOP) communities living off-grid in developing countries. Our goal is to utilize the collaborative economy as a catalyst to achieve energy equality. Every second of power saved in a large city can translate into more than 6 hours of light or a new efficient cook stove, an opportunity for families to raise themselves out of poverty.

My role as the founder is to build this concept out and validate different pathways of our business model. Our first project was the “sharenergy home challenge” tested in a downtown residential building in NY, where apartments participating committed to save energy through home lighting updates, moving from standard incandescent lights to LED, this small intervention, impacted 450 people in Kathmandu, generating 108.000 hours of home light for Nepali families and  $7,200 dollars in savings in less than 6 months since the project was delivered. Fuel can be a significant expense for people in rural areas as much as $8 per month, when multiplied across all the families in this community, the benefits of switching to renewables are impacting their health and generating opportunities to save money, re-investing in education and their own business.

Refining the operational model is what I do in daily basis. For instance I have recently been thinking, why only apartments or buildings, could we in a long-term work with utilities, or engage the NYC major sustainability department to sign up into our “virtual energy grid” platform at the city level?

What motivated you to launch SHAREnergy? 

 When I attended the SUMA program at Columbia, I was exposed to the energy poverty problem. I took Energy & Sustainable Development class with Philip LaRocco, The assignment required us to study a country, understand its energy context, identify an energy need and build a business plan around it. Even after the semester ended, I continued to study this area through classes as Innovation and Energy markets with Travis Bradford, Lean Lunch Pad with entrepreneur Bob Dorf at the Business School and Human Ecology with Professor Jeffrey Sachs, all of whom are outstanding professionals and leaders. With the collaboration of the (SEL) Dr. Francisco Sanchez and the Earth Institute I gained access to UN Millenium Villages, ( and got to visit Ruhiira in Uganda. They installed micro-grids, that are helping farmers, schools and families to alleviate poverty in the village. I also realized that we need it to support other villages that still lack access to electricity services. This is, when I decided that SHAREnergy should move from paper to reality.

SHAREnergy implements its projects in rural areas empowering women cooperatives. Why is it important to focus on women and children? 

There are several reasons, health, gender equality and economic growth.

Lack of access to clean energy for cooking and lighting disproportionately affects women and children. If you looked at WHO numbers you will find that 1.3 billion people lack access to basic energy for cooking and lighting homes. This limits the opportunity for education and income generation, Air pollution is now more deadly than HIV and malaria combined, and most of the victims are women and children exposed to indoor wood fires in developing countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) study found that 3.5 million people die early annually from indoors air pollution and 3.3 million from outdoor air pollution, also it has been shown that when women work, the local economy grows. In some locations SHAREnergy’s projects might not involve financing community micro-grids, but it could be helping replace dirty cooking devices or kerosene lanterns with cleaner options.

Tell us about your next projects. In which countries are they focused?

2016 will be an exciting year, we are planning to continue the “home sharenergy challenge” in other neighborhoods around New York, which will help us to provide home light to an estimated group of 2000 people in Uganda and Colombia. We will be validating our business model at the commercial and corporate level; simultaneously we plan to have an online tracking platform that will provide transparent information of kWh and GHG emissions saved and generated in both sides of developed and developing nations.

For the long term, through our “VIRTUAL ENERGY GRID”, we will love to see our platform mobilizing kWh savings from New York City to Nepal, from Abu Dhabi to Colombia, or Geneva to Uganda, this is a bit further in our plans.

What are three most important skills needed to innovate, or to move from idea to revenue?

Innovators need to have strong technical skills, understand systems, know how to break a problem down from macro to micro details, and for social enterprises you need +200% of “empathy”, to understand the economical, social and environmental challenges of the beneficiaries, which most of them, leave under the poverty line, earning less than 2 dollars per day. Also, as a leader of the project, sometimes you may be working alone; you must develop strong leadership skills to engage with multiple stakeholders, focus on setting appropriate goals, and track the progress and don’t be discouraged by failure, continue working to achieve the goals you have set.

Does this differ for a woman entrepreneur, if so, then how?

This doesn’t change for a male or female. The process is exactly the same. Where it may differ in, is when raising capital. US statistics say that investors are more likely to invest in enterprises run by men. But I think businesses are changing – social enterprises, philanthropic organizations and impact investors are focusing in the advantages of having women leading companies. It’s a bright future for woman entrepreneurs and for conscious-responsible business.

Tell us how your corporate world experience and the SUMA program have helped you with starting SHAREnergy?

My background was in design, research and manufacturing. But, I was looking to improve quantitative and scientific skills to validate the progress and impact of the projects I was designing. While doing my master, I took classes at the business school such as Lean Launchpad, SIPA classes to have a deep understanding of sustainable development. At SUMA program I would definitely recommend Greenhouse Gas Emissions – Measuring & Minimizing Carbon Footprint with professor Dickinson, the content of this class is fundamental for any of the sustainability challenges you may be facing as a professional.

What do you find most challenging about your industry or role?

At SUMA everyone cares about sustainability and social development, but that changes quickly when you start working in the real world. Some of our potential clients may understand the implications of their decisions as energy consumers, but some are simply not interested in the topic. Awareness and education are a huge part of what we do, communicating to families, building managers and companies, that we need to work in global solutions, this is not an easy task, but is not impossible either. Our goal is to communicate that sustainability produces economic, social and environmental benefits.

What advice do you have for young women interested in social enterprises?

If you have a solid project, or an innovative idea, work to validate your concept with solid data. While you are at university built the necessary skills to move your concept into a reality, there are a lot of opportunities within Columbia community network, learn from other entrepreneurs, and most important be persistent.  I think women have the potential to lead the social enterprise revolution. Is the perfect opportunity to do business and do good, without sacrificing any side, we can drive change and create empathy. Any women or men, can be innovate as a entrepreneur, as an employee, or student, the responsibility of creating a more sustainable and fair world is the same for everyone.

What are four organizations you’re excited to follow over the coming years? Why?

Acumen – Ame Igharo, an outstanding SUMA graduate and classmate, is an Acumen Fellow, she introduced me to the impressive work of this non-profit, they just started operations in Bogota, my hometown. The first company they are investing is called Siembra Viva, which provides a technology platform that connects smallholder farmers selling organic produce to customers in cities.

Team Rubicon Employing military veterans to work as a support teams for disaster relief around the word.

Little Bits – Founded by a woman engineer, using toys as a platform for young kids to learn simple technology concepts.

Student Energy by Janice Tran a SUMA classmate, a platform to inform the next generation of energy leaders.

To know more about our SHAREnergy initiative, watch our video  and follow us on Linkedin

Interview with vegetable farmer Yoko Takemura

YOKO TAKEMURA (SUMA alumni ’13) has leveraged her network and studies to land her dream job – working on a vegetable farm. She seeks to create sustainability through farming and has ambitious goals of starting her own efficient, small-scale farm. Yoko is the real deal and a true a leader in sustainability. She reminds us that you don’t need a corner office to achieve success.

Discover how Yoko is transitioning from city life to farm life, and her mission to find happiness by getting her hands dirty.

By Katie Macdonald

It’s so hard to explain to people why I’m going into farming. It took a long, winding route to reach this stage of my life. It’s not easy to move out of the city, pick up your things and move to the middle of nowhere. I like to tell people, when you’re living in the city and striving to live sustainably, you’re bound by these restrictions and rules. It get’s suffocating. You kick yourself when you break the rule, and it was getting to a point when I was saying, ‘no’ to this, ‘no’ to that. But switching to the farm becomes, ‘yes’ to this, ‘yes’ to that. I’m actually growing things, sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. I’m nourishing people, revitalizing the soil and providing a sanctuary for wildlife!

Yoko Takemura Tokyo, Japan

After college, I started working in Tokyo, then moved to Singapore and then the Philippines. I moved to New York in 2012 to start full-time at Columbia’s Sustainability Management (SUMA) program as an international student. I wanted to do something to protect the environment, eventually hoping to go into teaching. The SUMA program was heavily energy focused, and nothing really struck me – except for water. I pursued water hardcore, but it wasn’t until the end of the program that I discovered food as an outlet to contribute to sustainability. I built my own hydroponic garden in my bedroom and became a co-op member of a NYC community garden after I graduated.

After graduation I started working with big data for a consulting firm. Meanwhile, I started exploring all types of food opportunities. I was volunteering at the garden, cooking and going to food events.

I’ve always wanted to work on a farm and at that time I had a very naïve thought that I could just email a farm and expect to work there. The more research I did and the more I talked to people, I realized that I wanted a skill set that I’m passionate about and can speak intellectually about. That’s why I started seriously looking to farms for job opportunities.

At first, I was applying blindly to farms nearby and not getting many replies because I didn’t have any farm experience. But, if you want it, you really just have to get out there and meet the farmers. And that’s exactly what I did.

I got a job at Riverbank Farm in Connecticut. It’s a small organic vegetable farm that sells its produce at farmer’s markets. It’s located in the most picturesque location, and has a beautiful Hudson Valley landscape. It’s so serene.

My boyfriend and I have a long-term vision of purchasing land and having our own vegetable production. We go to lots of workshops on small-scale farming. My dream is to have a boutique farming operation, that’s run efficiently with hand tools that generate enough food to live on. There have been many successful cases where farmers make more money than they need to just get by. However, one huge barrier that young farmers face is acquiring land. It’s always about land buying and finding land. It’s a tricky issue.

After working in consulting, I fully believe I can place myself within the corporate space and make changes. Addressing sustainability in the corporate world is absolutely needed. I could see myself working with sustainability data and making impacts. But this wasn’t the sustainability I was after and that became increasingly aware to me.

I’ve lived in big cities all my life. I never grew up in a farm family. I haven’t had any exposure to farms at all. But, you don’t need to be close to it or have had exposure to it to go into this type of work. I know how tough it is, but I want to make this my life.

With farming, if I work hard enough I can make change in the word. And that’s really exciting to me.