Mila Atmos ’96CC, MIA ’05’s SIPA story begins in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. Watching the planes hit the Twin Towers on television from her Wall Street trading desk, she knew she needed a reset.
Her subsequent journey includes a stint at Sesame Street — where she helped bring the program to Indonesia— and, more recently, as a podcast host and producer. Her weekly podcast, Future Hindsight, looks at civic engagement through in-depth interviews with citizen changemakers.
Atmos, who was born in Indonesia and raised in Germany, is a changemaker herself, funding an ambitious initiative at SIPA called Emerging Voices in National Security and Intelligence. Launched in 2021 and housed at SIPA’s Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Emerging Voices encourages women and students from underrepresented back- grounds at both the undergraduate and the graduate level to learn about and consider career opportunities in the national security arena.
The following conversation with SIPA Magazine has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You attended Columbia College and worked on Wall Street. What was your path to SIPA?
I think I have a very relatable SIPA story, which is that after September 11, I thought, What am I doing here? I enjoyed working on a trading desk, but I had already been thinking I needed to change tracks. And when [9/11] happened, I thought, I really need to be in public service.
You host and produce the podcast Future Hindsight about civic engagement. Why did you want to start it?
I started the podcast after the 2016 presidential election. I had this hypothesis at the time that there are things we can do between voting and running for office. And I thought, let’s talk about those things, because what we’re still sorely lacking today, but especially in those days, is an engagement from the general public in our civic life. If we can showcase civically engaged people, I’m hoping we can inspire others to also get engaged but also give them tips on how to get engaged.
I’ve learned so much. I feel like I’ve earned a PhD in what’s possible—what we can achieve as everyday people.
You made a generous gift to fund Emerging Voices in National Security and Intelligence, an initiative that will expand curricula at SIPA and Columbia and encourage women and students from underrepresented backgrounds to consider and pursue professional opportunities in national security and related fields. What was your motivation?
I saw the announcement that Saltzman appointed a new director [Keren Yarhi-Milo, in 2020]. I thought, Oh, maybe there’s an opportunity here to do something that hasn’t been done before at SIPA or Columbia. I’d been thinking about this for a long time but had never fully thought it out or articulated it until I read the article about Keren — that we don’t have a pipeline of women or underrepresented communities in security policy.
I firmly believe that having diverse voices in decision-making positions makes for better, more effective decisions. I hope one day someone who’s gone through this program becomes secretary of defense or secretary of state or even president— somebody with this kind of background. But in real terms, we know it’s often staffers who do most of the work in drafting and executing policy, so it’s very important to build a long bench of people who can go through the system and iterate on different kinds of decision-making. My hope is that having gone through Saltzman, these people become active mentors and pull other people along through the network.
What are the best ways for SIPA alumni to be engaged?
I think number one is giving money— at all levels. I sometimes feel like it's lazy to say, “Please give money.” But actually, it goes the longest way, because Columbia has really good ideas of how to expand access to deserving students, how to make the curriculum more interesting, more academically demanding — all of those good things. What’s lacking is the funding, not the ideas or even the execution. Ultimately, however you get involved, be it giving, volunteering, or mentoring, it will be interesting and impactful and enhance your life beyond whatever you invest.