First Responders

A group of volunteer paramedics in Manzanillo, Dominican Republic.

When Jason Friesen ’12PH enrolled in the executive master’s program at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health in September 2010, he had a vision for a health-care nonprofit that had huge potential but needed a little fine-tuning.

A year earlier, Friesen, then a paramedic in San Diego, had founded Trek Medics International, an organization that set out to donate emergency medical equipment, including ambulances, to developing countries. But while volunteering in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, Friesen realized that the needs of poor communities — which have few hospitals, no formal system of emergency care, and mostly unpaved roads — were more complex. “The problem wasn’t a lack of equipment,” says Friesen, “but of infrastructure.”

The emergency medical system that Americans take for granted — including 911 dispatchers and networks of first responders — doesn’t exist in many countries. As a result, car accidents, complicated births, heart attacks, and other sudden illnesses are more likely to be fatal. But to replicate our system, “you’d need lots of money and really good roads everywhere,” Friesen says. “The question was, what could we do instead?”

Friesen thought he had the answer. He wanted to recruit local volunteers, train them in first aid, and dispatch them to emergencies via a text-messaging system — in effect, crowdsourcing an emergency-response network. The volunteer first responders — on foot, bicycles, motorcycles — could provide emergency care at the scene and, if more treatment was needed, summon other volunteers to transport the patient to a hospital.

“In these countries, you can’t send an ambulance to every scene,” Friesen says. “But everybody has a cell phone, and a guy on a motorcycle can get there quickly, stabilize the patient, and treat any immediate life-threatening conditions — by, for example, stopping a hemorrhage or keeping an airway open.” With better communications and a little medical training, he thought, many lives could be saved.

Friesen headed to Mailman, hoping to hone his mission and get valuable management experience. Soon after enrolling, he accepted a post as the director of an international health-care organization in Haiti, which meant commuting from Port-au-Prince to New York (classes in the executive program meet for one long weekend a month).

Columbia proved to be a “great incubator” for Trek Medics and provided a crash course in how organizations work, he says: “We’d study a concept in class, and the next week I’d be in Haiti implementing it.”

Friesen also struck up a friendship with classmate Kevin Munjal ’12PH, an emergency physician at Mount Sinai Medical Center and a pioneer in community paramedicine, a new model in which EMTs provide more care on scene, rather than transporting every patient to an ER. Munjal agreed to be the medical director of Trek Medics. Its new motto: “911 where there is none.”

Today, Trek Medics International has helped to establish networks of volunteer first responders in several communities in the Dominican Republic and Tanzania. Local health organizations generally recruit and train the volunteers, many of whom are compensated with free cell-phone service, while Trek Medics provides the open-source, text-message-based dispatching platform called Beacon. The communication system, which can be used on any mobile phone, with or without an Internet connection, was designed with funding from Google and the cloud communication company Twilio. Trek Medics also got a boost from the Columbia Startup Lab, which provided office space in SoHo, and from Columbia Business School’s Tamer Fund for Social Ventures, which awarded the nonprofit a $25,000 grant.

To date, volunteers have responded to some one thousand emergencies and provided more than seven hundred potentially life-saving trips to hospitals.

A key to Trek Medics’ success, Friesen says, is that he and his small staff find creative ways of adapting their services to suit local circumstances. For instance, in Mwanza, Tanzania, Trek Medics helped recruit the drivers of the city’s ubiquitous motorcycle-taxis, called boda-boda, to be first responders. In Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, Trek Medics simply shared their dispatch technology with an existing group of volunteer EMTs and firefighters.

 “Trek Medics goes out of its way to make efficient use of local resources,” says Meghan FitzGerald ’05PH, a partner with the private-equity firm L1 Health and an adjunct professor at the Mailman School who serves on the nonprofit’s board. “Jason’s approach is not a helicopter drop or Band-Aid fix but rather a solution empowering local health-care providers to work with technology and help their own.”

— Melinda Beck

Guinn’s Gallery

Photograph by Steve Weinik

Muralist David Guinn ’94CC brings fine art and unexpected vistas to the streets of Philadelphia. In Sartain Garden (2010), his swirling brushstrokes extend the natural boundaries of a community garden by adding lush foliage to an adjacent wall. “I wanted to achieve the spontaneous mark-making of a watercolor painting, but in a mural,” says the artist, who has painted over thirty wall installations in his hometown. Before street art became his calling, Guinn studied architecture at Columbia, an education that helped develop his eye for urban design. Today, he teaches fine art at Moore College of Art & Design and is the founder of Freewall, a space where muralists can showcase their creations.


Trustee emeritus H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest ’58LAW, ’09HON and his wife Marguerite are among nine winners of the 2017 Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, given every two years to philanthropists who embody Andrew Carnegie’s devotion to giving. Lenfest, a lawyer and media entrepreneur, has donated more than $1.2 billion to education, social services, and the arts, including more than $100 million to Columbia.

Madeleine Olnek ’08SOA took home the top prize at the Champs-Élysées Film Festival in Paris for her film Wild Nights with Emily, which imagines an illicit romance between the poet Emily Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson. School of the Arts film student Max Rifkind-Barron ’11CC served as a producer.  

Two Columbians have been confirmed by the US Senate to positions in the Trump administration. This past spring, David Friedman ’78CC became the new US ambassador to Israel. Friedman was previously a lawyer with the firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, where he represented the Trump Organization in several bankruptcy cases. He has also been involved with several philanthropic organizations, particularly those that support Israeli settlements. David Pekoske ’89SIPA now leads the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Pekoske is a former vice commandant for the US Coast Guard; he retired from active service in 2010.

Parul Sehgal ’10SOA has been named a book critic at the New York Times, following chief book critic Michiko Kakutani’s retirement. Sehgal, who is also an adjunct professor at the School of the Arts, has been a senior editor and columnist at the New York Times since 2012.  Her TED talk on literature and envy has been viewed more than two million times.

Two Columbia Business School alums were included on HuffPost’s list of five next-generation tech leaders. Alicia Syrett ’07BUS is the former chief administrative officer of a major private-equity firm and the founder of Pantegrion Capital, an angel-investment vehicle focused on seed and early-stage investments. Delphine Braas ’14BUS is cofounder of Sailo, a marketplace connecting boats, captains, and renters, which now manages a fleet of four thousand vessels. (For more on Braas and Sailo, see our Fall 2014 cover story “Start Me Up.”) 

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— Carolina Castro

Startup Spotlight: Denim Generation

Hilary Hahn on the set of the ABC show "Shark Tank".

As a film-studies major, Hilary Novelle Hahn ’07GS spent most of her time behind the camera. But late last year, she was center stage on the ABC hit TV show Shark Tank, seeking a $500,000 investment in her teen fashion line, the Style Club.

“The Style Club is a fashion-apparel brand for the social-media generation,” Hahn told the panel of “sharks,” business leaders who would decide whether to invest based on her pitch. “The shopping behavior of the younger consumer has changed. It’s all about the experience.”

Hahn’s interest in fashion started as a hobby: like many other teenage girls, she expressed herself by bedazzling and shredding her jeans. But Hahn had a bigger audience and more raw material than most nascent designers. As a teen, she toured with Destiny’s Child and ’N Sync as a singer and dancer, and Levi’s was the sponsor. Hahn started wearing her denim creations on stage, and soon others on the tour wanted her designs. Levi’s took notice, inviting her to create a capsule collection and perform in its stores.

Hahn thought that her fashion career was just a phase, but after college and a brief stint in Los Angeles, where she produced videos for a digital style network, she realized that she could combine her interests.

The Style Club has thrived on social media, where its thirteen-to-thirty-year-old customers hang out. It uses music videos featuring prominent fashion bloggers and social media “influencers” to showcase the clothes. Hahn has also built the brand by encouraging customers to apply to be “brand ambassadors”: in exchange for Style Club swag, the ambassadors promote the line on their own social-media accounts, extending the company’s digital reach into the millions.

It’s important to Hahn that her clothes have an empowering message. During the 2016 presidential election, she introduced a “Babes Who Vote” line, which is emblazoned with political slogans. “I think that in the current political climate, it is impossible for anyone of any gender, age, or political or sexual preference to be apolitical,” she says. And while some might take issue with the term “babe,” Hahn feels her generation is reclaiming it. “Before, it was derogatory, but today, it’s all about female empowerment,” Hahn says. “A babe is smart and strong and a little pushy.”

Clearly, being a little pushy has served Hahn well. On Shark Tank, she ended up making a $500,000 deal with fellow Pittsburgh native Mark Cuban. Since then, the company has settled into new Manhattan offices and recruited more staff. There are now exclusive Style Club collections at Urban Outfitters, Nordstrom, and others, with more coming soon to Macy’s and Forever 21. “We’re tripling our orders from retailers,” Hahn says. “It’s all pretty exciting and overwhelming.”

— Leah Ingram

Ask an Alum

Photograph Courtesy of Judy Martialay

¿Por qué se debe aprender otro idioma?

Judy Martialay ’68GSAS spent 31 years teaching foreign languages and is the author of ¡Hola! Let’s Learn Spanish and Bonjour! Let’s Learn French. Since retiring in 1995, she has become an advocate for language education.

COLUMBIA MAGAZINE: What are the benefits of learning a foreign language?
JUDY MARTIALAY: Children who learn another language are more tolerant of cultural differences and more appreciative of diversity. And there are cognitive benefits to being bilingual: the discipline needed to separate two or more languages gives the brain a workout, which, as you age, can help stave off dementia.

CM: What advice would you give to an adult trying to learn a foreign language?
JM: It takes time, patience, and discipline. You need to stick with it, because after the first ten weeks or so, lessons become more difficult. Online programs like Rosetta Stone and Duolingo can have positive results, but it’s important to supplement those lessons with face-to-face conversations. Skype is an effective tool because it allows students to interact directly with people in other countries, in real time.

CM: Does our education system do a sufficient job of promoting foreign-language instruction?
JM: Most students in the US don’t start learning a foreign language until middle or high school, if at all. Language programs rarely take priority in school budgets. This is unfortunate, because biliteracy is such a desirable attribute in today’s job market. Most students learn Spanish, which is useful, but Mandarin, Arabic, Urdu, and Pashto are growing in importance, because they are prevalent in business and international relations. Americans underestimate the value of speaking another language. People think that everybody on earth knows English, but in reality, only 7 percent of foreign speakers have achieved advanced proficiency, and 75 percent of the world neither speaks nor understands English.

— Julia Joy

The Dorm Chef's New Menu

Jonah Reider serves guests at his Brooklyn supper club, Pith. / Photographs by Nina Westervelt

Jonah Reider ’16CC has always been an accomplished multi-tasker. But even he will admit that his senior year at Columbia got a little, as he puts it, “goofy.” While he was finishing his thesis in economics and sociology (“a statistical analysis of worker-owned cooperatives in the United States”), working as a research assistant to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, and playing jazz piano in a number of student bands, he was also casually running a restaurant out of his dorm room with a waitlist of over four thousand eager diners.

As for the origins of his legendary supper club, Pith, “Seriously, it wasn’t even that deep,” Reider says. “I’d just text a few homies and tell them to give me five bucks for groceries. But, you know, word got around ...”

Indeed it did. In October of 2015, Spectator ran a review of Pith, touting it as the campus’s best new date-night spot. The New York Post, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times all picked up the story. Four months later, Reider was a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, feeding the host truffle-honey-infused phyllo dough with pear-nectar sorbet.

Sudden fame does have its drawbacks, though, particularly when running an underground restaurant. Reider was eventually evicted from his University housing because of concerns from the New York City health department. He also sometimes felt conflicted about the attention.

“I didn’t want to be known as the dorm-room chef for the rest of my life,” Reider says. “People thought that it was a gimmick, but entertaining has always been something that I’ve taken very seriously.”

After graduating, Reider moved to Brooklyn, crashing on a friend’s loveseat while hosting food events at venues around the city. One of his favorites was a collaboration with the Bronx Brewery in which he turned their fermentation tanks into big vibrating speakers and served a menu incorporating their signature brews: celery-root soup with Citra hops, beer-braised short ribs, and panna cotta with espresso milk-stout foam.

Last fall, Reider went on a culinary tour of Australia sponsored by KitchenAid and then headed to the Chicago restaurant Intro for a one-month residency. The restaurant featured several of Reider’s dishes, and on the weekends he took over the space entirely, curating every detail from the menu to the playlists (the Chicago Tribune gave him three stars).

Reider is now back in New York, and, thanks to a pair of benevolent Brooklynites with a too-big townhouse, he now operates Pith as a supper club several nights a month. Reider lives and works in the house and runs the dinners cooperatively with his landlords. He’s traded his dorm-room toaster for a wood-burning pizza oven, his Ikea plates for hand-crafted pottery, and supermarket groceries for truffles and caviar, fiddleheads and morels.

Instead of asking guests to chip in for groceries, Reider now charges ninety-five dollars for an eight-course tasting menu, with an optional forty-five-dollar wine pairing. Nonetheless, reservations remain as elusive as they did at Columbia. Reider, who hosts ten to fifteen dinners a month, says that tickets sell out almost instantly.

In between the dinners, Reider is taking time to travel, write a cookbook, and eat at some of the restaurants he couldn’t afford while in college. But he doesn’t want to start a restaurant, at least not in the traditional sense.

“I think people don’t want fine dining anymore; it’s too stuffy. I like thinking about how to present a meal more creatively,” he says. “With really dope food.”

Rebecca Shapiro

Walking and Talking

Seth Kamil near his home in Brooklyn. / Photograph by Eric Yagoda

As a child, whenever Seth Kamil ’93GSAS would visit New York, he’d go on long walks with his grandfather, who had a starry-eyed love for the city. “He took me everywhere, even the roughest parts,” says Kamil. “I think he was at his happiest when he was showing me the city.” Kamil inherited that passion and built it into a thriving company: today, as the cofounder and president of Big Onion Walking Tours, he oversees 1,800 neighborhood tours — serving thirty thousand customers — every year.

Kamil started giving tours in 1991, when he was a twenty-four-year-old Columbia graduate student looking to earn a little extra cash. His adviser, historian James Shenton ’49CC, ’54GSAS, suggested that Kamil — who was studying American ethnic and urban history — become a guide at the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum. He did, and after working there for a year, he and fellow guide and grad student Edward O’Donnell ’95GSAS decided to start their own company.

Outdoor walking tours were uncommon at that time, but Kamil and O’Donnell were inspired by another Columbia professor, the New York City historian Kenneth T. Jackson, who encourages his students to explore the city by foot. They began guiding people around the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Ellis Island seven days a week, writing their dissertations at night.

“I’m Jewish and he’s Irish Catholic, so we could work every day but Thanksgiving,” Kamil says.

Business was initially slow, but the company caught a break in 1994 when a writer for the Washington Post travel section was the only person to book a tour on a snowy day. Kamil — who didn’t know his customer was a reporter — went ahead with his two-hour introduction to the Lower East Side and earned the company a glowing write-up.

O’Donnell left the business in 1996 for academia, while Kamil expanded the company. He never finished his dissertation, on the history of homelessness in New York, though his research did inform one important business decision: the choice of the company’s name. In the late nineteenth century, Kamil learned, police on the Bowery used to call the homeless “onions,” because they were dirty on the outside, with layers of stories underneath. For Kamil, that felt like an apt metaphor for the city. “You have to brush off the dirt to find what’s hidden,” he says.

Big Onion hires only graduate students or recent PhDs as tour guides and pays them a starting salary of fifty dollars an hour. Guides customize each tour, integrating the company’s research with their own academic knowledge. Explaining history to tourists from Bulgaria or a group of second-graders turns out to be excellent preparation for teaching, says Sonja Drimmer ’11GSAS, a former guide, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “Being a guide was essential to learning how to think on my feet,” she says.

One of the most popular tours, the Original Multi-Ethnic Eating Tour, winds through the Dominican, Jewish, Italian, and Chinese communities of the Lower East Side. The newest, Art, Sex, and Rock & Roll, takes visitors from artist Andy Warhol’s studio to the site of CBGB, the club where punk rock was born.

For Kamil, the rewards of his work are personal as well as professional. He met his wife while leading a tour through the landmarked Eldridge Street Synagogue — she was cleaning stained-glass windows as a volunteer — and wooed her with sour pickles from Guss’s on the Lower East Side and obscure facts about nineteenth-century Yiddish-speaking gangsters. Today, they live in Brooklyn, but Kamil still crosses the river most days to lead his original Lower East Side tour. “I feel lucky to spend my days doing my favorite thing,” he says. “Walking around New York never gets old.”

— Jennifer Altmann

CEO with a Calling

Amit Paley, center, marches with Trevor Project staff and volunteers at the New York City Pride March. / Photograph by Sasha Vorlicky / Trevor Project

“Imagine being a fourteen-year-old trans kid in Texas,” says Amit Paley ’10JRN, ’11BUS, talking about a call he recently took at the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide and crisis prevention for LGBTQ youth. “Soon laws could dictate which bathroom you use at school. So, you’re physically uncomfortable and emotionally degraded. And you really need someone you can talk to about it.”

For several years, Paley has been that person. This summer, he became the Trevor Project’s CEO, but before that, as one of the organization’s hundreds of volunteers, he helped to man the twenty-four-hour Trevor Lifeline, offering words of encouragement, suggesting resources, and, mostly, listening. Paley is the first volunteer to lead the organization, and he still takes his weekly four-hour shift on the phones. He couldn’t have started at a more critical time.

“The day after the presidential election, our call volume doubled,” Paley says. “And it’s been getting busier as the reality of the new administration sets in. This May, we received more calls than in any other month in the hotline’s nineteen-year history.”

Paley says that the new administration has been harmful to LGBTQ youth —particularly those who identify as transgender and gender nonconforming — through both its rhetoric and its policy. “Most of these kids grew up in a time that felt hopeful. They saw marriage equality come to fruition, and they felt like things were trending in the right direction,” Paley says. “But the policies of this administration are encouraging bullying and intolerance in communities across America.”

After President Trump announced a ban on transgender troops in the military this past July, for example, the Trevor Project saw another influx of calls. “Even if the policy doesn’t apply directly to a caller, the sentiment behind it matters,” Paley says. 

In addition to running the hotlines, the Trevor Project, which serves more than two hundred thousand youth every year, also has an advocacy wing. Paley says that its current priority is fighting what is commonly known as “the bathroom policy” — the reversal of federal protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity. The Trevor Project is also working to ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth, and to promote more accurate data collection around LGBTQ suicide and homicide.

For Paley, who came out as gay while an undergraduate at Harvard, the move to a full-time role at the Trevor Project is a significant pivot, and one that feels very personal. He started his career as a journalist with the Washington Post — his work covering the Iraq War was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize — and then moved to the paper’s corporate office. He came to Columbia Journalism School on a Knight-Bagehot Fellowship, which allows cross-disciplinary study in journalism, business, and law. While there, Paley won a second fellowship to continue his studies at the business school. He then worked for several years as a consultant at McKinsey and Company, specializing in health care.

At the Trevor Project, Paley hopes to expand the organization’s reach. Along with the phone hotline, there’s now TrevorText and TrevorChat, where people can connect with volunteers via text and instant messaging, and TrevorSpace, a peer-to-peer social-networking forum. “We want to reach these kids where they’re comfortable, on the platforms that they’re already using,” Paley says.

Though he’s started at a challenging time, Paley says he remains hopeful about the future and inspired by the strength of the LGBTQ community, particularly when he thinks about how much progress has already been made. The Trevor Project was founded in 1998 by three filmmakers who had won an Oscar for a short film about a gay, suicidal teen named Trevor. “They wanted to put the phone number of a crisis hotline at the end of the film so that anyone who felt like Trevor could call and get help,” Paley says. “But there literally wasn’t one to put up. No one was doing this kind of work anywhere. It’s heartbreaking. That’s what gets me out of bed every day.”

The Trevor Lifeline is 866-488-7386. The website, with other resources and information on volunteering, is

— Rebecca Shapiro

Honorable Accessories

Artist Roxana Alger Geffen ’95CC has made a political fashion statement with Dissent Collars, a collection of neckpieces inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59LAW, ’94HON. The Supreme Court justice, who owns an extensive array of expressive jabots, received attention the day after President Trump’s election for sporting a studded one that she reserves for moments of dissent. Geffen, who is currently a resident artist at the Arlington Arts Center in Virginia, crafted her own collars of resistance using yarn, safety pins, and other household materials — including earplugs and a Swiffer pad. “It gave me a chance to celebrate the powerful women we do have in office,” says the artist, who makes femininity and domestic life recurring themes in her work.

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