SWM-008: Social Work as Social Enterprise, with Alumnus Matt Omelagah

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Communications director Mary-Lea Cox Awanohara talks to Matt Omelagah, a 2006 graduate of the Columbia School of Social Work in Social Enterprise Administration (SEA). Matt says he always felt destined for a career combining social causes with his passion for business, so was delighted to discover the SEA program, which has been a cornerstone of the CSSW's academic programming for more than 40 years. He now serves on the Dean’s Advisory Council and has made a point of hiring qualified SEA grads, urging other alumni to do the same.

Background information & key points:

Matt Omelagah portrait

  • Matt says he was always attracted to working in business. At the same time, though, he enjoyed helping people improve their lives. He was inspired by his first job as an undergraduate, working at a care home with at-risk youth, young boys who had already been involved in the juvenile justice system. This experience altered his plans for his life fundamentally. He knew he would always want to work in social services, though he also knew he did not want to be a clinician. Columbia's Social Enterprise Adminsitration Method turned out to be the perfect fit.

  • Matt’s three field placements during his time at CSSW supported his professional goals by setting him up with a "strong professional platform" to start a career in social enterprise administration. He particularly enjoyed working for Professor Shelly Akabas at the Workplace Center—says he is still in contact with five of the youth he worked with, seven years later.

  • He mentions that he particularly appreciated Professor Akabas's criticism of his writing, as well as her insistence that he get better at it by doing research-based writing for six months. She set the bar very high for him, he says.

  • Matt’s first job after graduation involved working on deinstitutionalization in California: specifically, he was tasked with finding and starting up residential care homes for people with developmental disabilities—a job that launched him in his SEA career.

  • Matt now works at West Bay Housing Corp. (recently renamed "Brilliant Corners"), which handles supportive housing, i.e., affordable housing for those with developmental disabilities. He says the company has built its brand around "person-centered housing plans."

  • He has also started up a family-owned business called Omelagah, Inc. It finds housing for the formerly incarcerated with the aim of preventing recidivism. The company has been in business since 2010 and employs 106 people. "Good business practice builds good social work practice,” Matt says. "Social work lives through organizations and part of being a good social worker is building the organizations that enable good social work to happen."

  • Matt says he is a zealous SEA advocate. He advises students: "Be open...you never know where it will take you. The skills you learn at Columbia are transferable."

  • Matt has made a point of hiring Columbia SEA grads and urges other alums to the do the same: "If you're an alum, pay it forward—there’s a student out there looking for a job, so pick up the phone and call the Alumni Office."