The WES Mariam Assefa Fund seeks to catalyze economic inclusion, opportunities, and mobility in support of immigrants and refugees in the U.S. and Canada. Through grantmaking, impact investing, partnerships, and field-building, the Fund supports efforts to bring about inclusive economies and to ensure that all immigrants and refugees can achieve their goals and thrive.
The WES Mariam Assefa Fund supports leaders and organizations working to build inclusive economies and to ensure that all immigrants and refugees can achieve their goals and thrive. Our four main goals are to:
The most vibrant economy is one in which immigrants and refugees can access quality jobs and contribute their skills and talents in inclusive and equitable environments.
Since 1974, WES has helped nearly three million individuals achieve their academic and career goals. But 45 years later, systemic barriers to immigrant success and economic inclusion remained stubbornly in place.
In 2019, the WES Mariam Assefa Fund launched with an initial US$30 million commitment from WES to seed its philanthropic arm. The Fund is named after the organization’s former CEO, Mariam Assefa, who led WES for 38 years, making it into the leading social enterprise it is today. Through our funding, we expand the ways that WES helps people learn, work, and thrive in new places and helps society recognize the value of people’s education and experience.
As workforce and education systems are changing rapidly, philanthropy can help ensure immigrants and refugees thrive amidst these changes and create the careers and lives they desire.
Aging workforces in the U.S. and Canada are increasing demand for the talents and skills of immigrants. According to Pew Research, immigrants and refugees are projected to add about 18 million working-age people to the U.S. workforce over the next 15 years. They will help fill the growing number of jobs in high-demand industries and offset the decline in available workers as more baby boomers retire. According to the Conference Board of Canada, immigration is expected to account for 100 percent of Canadian labour force growth by 2040, yet the country forgoes an estimated $50 billion in GDP annually because of the immigrant wage gap and underemployment.
Historically, few funders have focused on supporting the economic integration and mobility of immigrants and refugees. Currently, less than 2 percent of foundation funding in the U.S. goes to pro-immigrant groups; and only 0.6 percent goes to women of color, according to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Only 2 percent of venture capital goes to Black and Brown founders in the U.S., according to research supported by the Knight Foundation.
Looking ahead, as philanthropy evolves, there will be more opportunities to drive resources to immigrant and refugee communities. In Canada, the government currently funds 85 percent of the immigrant-serving sector, but philanthropy can step in to provide flexible, innovative funding and take risks on new approaches.
Equity, inclusion, diversity, and racial justice are inextricably linked to WES and the Fund’s vision of a future where immigrants and refugees can thrive and build the careers they desire. Read how we’re centering these principles in our work.Learn More
Léa Tienou-Gustafson is Senior Director of the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, leading the team and its philanthropic efforts in the U.S. and Canada.
Léa has over 15 years of experience working with and on behalf of immigrant and refugee communities. She previously served as the Director of Refugee and Immigrant Community Services at Heartland Alliance in Chicago, where she oversaw the provision of high-quality case management, employment, educational and youth services to over 1000 refugees and immigrants annually. She has also held roles at community-based organizations in Chicago and served with the Peace Corps in Chad.
Léa has served on the Junior Board of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and was a founding member of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Burmese Community Center. She also served on the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Equity Team, working to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color in Illinois.
A child of immigrants, Léa has lived and travelled in many countries over the course of her life. She has always held a keen interest in cross-cultural exchange and understanding, identity and global migration. She is passionate about creating just systems and welcoming communities.
Smitha Das is the Director of Mission and Impact Investing at World Education Services (WES). She oversees WES’ mission and impact investing portfolios, stewarding 100% of WES’ assets to be mission-aligned. As a daughter of immigrants and refugees, Smitha is deeply committed to WES’ mission, centering equity and justice within her work, and demonstrating a trust-based investment approach.
Previously, Smitha was an impact investor at Social Finance, where she developed and executed strategic initiatives and innovative financing projects. Before Social Finance, she worked in venture philanthropy, renewable energy private equity, and government. Her passion to create meaningful social and environmental impact formed at a young age when she founded a water nonprofit at age 12.
Smitha has a MBA from Harvard Business School and AB with Honors in Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard College, where she co-founded the HBS Impact Investing Club and Harvard Social Enterprise Club. She serves as a board member and advisor for Cell-Ed, JFF Ventures, New Power Labs, and the HBS Impact Investing Alumni Group.
Lauren Crain is the Associate Director for U.S. Strategy and Programs at the WES Mariam Assefa Fund. Lauren develops grantmaking strategies that support economic mobility and integration for immigrants and refugees. She works closely with the Fund’s 20+ U.S. grantee and investee partners to make connections across the workforce development, adult education, and immigrant integration ecosystems to champion and amplify their work.
Lauren has over 10 years of experience working in international human rights, higher education, and migration, including at the Aspen Institute and Scholars at Risk. She earned a BA in politics from New York University and an MA in Middle Eastern studies from Columbia University.
Lauren is passionate about addressing systemic and intersectional barriers that limit opportunity for individuals, and looks to build bridges that will create more just, democratic, and resilient institutions and communities.
Marina Nuri is the Associate Director for Canada Strategy and Programs at the WES Mariam Assefa Fund. She leads the Fund’s grantmaking in Canada.
Prior to joining the Fund, Marina spent several years designing and managing international development programs across Africa. Before that, she spent eight years in management consulting with Accenture, advising both private sector and social impact organizations on strategy and operations. Marina has an MBA from the University of Oxford, Said Business School.
Having worked across the world and seen the value that diversity and economic opportunity brings to workplaces and communities, Marina is passionate about driving racial equity and justice and advancing opportunities for all.
Silan Akgul is Senior Manager of Communications at the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, leading communications and influence strategy to further the Fund’s impact in both the U.S. and Canada. In this role, she supports communications for the Fund’s grantee and investee partners.
Prior to joining the Fund, Silan helped build internal and external communications at the Helmsley Charitable Trust, a philanthropy focused on improving health outcomes for all. She played a key role in advancing the foundation’s leadership in its early years. She began her career at Just Food, a nonprofit that develops community-driven solutions to inequities within the New York regional food system. She holds a BA from Baruch College and is currently completing her Master’s in Public Administration.
Silan is personally driven by the Fund’s mission as her father is an immigrant and her mother an immigration lawyer. Based in New York City, she loves Citi Bike, the Union Square Greenmarket, and exploring the city’s diverse food options.
Nomzana Augustin is the Senior Manager of Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships at the WES Mariam Assefa Fund. She drives the Fund’s external partnerships, strategy, and initiatives with funders and other external and internal stakeholders.
Previously, Zana led and supported economic development and equity-focused initiatives and programs at Save the Children, FHI360, and Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT).
As a first-generation immigrant, Zana brings a profound understanding of the needs and solutions required to integrate and support immigrants and refugees, especially for those living with intersectional identities.
Karla Gregorio is Senior Program Manager for the Fund’s grantmaking and strategy in the U.S. She serves as the day-to-day lead for several grantmaking initiatives in the U.S. with project management, strategy, planning, and thought leadership responsibilities.
Karla has over a decade of combined experience in program management, learning and evaluation, and policy development while working within organizations engaged in immigrant and refugee integration, economic development, and sustainability.
Prior to joining the Fund, she designed and managed capacity building programs for Listen4Good, an initiative of the Fund for Shared Insight. She also worked in the standards and policies department at Fair Trade USA, where she was responsible for maintaining and improving requirements for fair, ethical, and sustainable business practices. Karla began her career in the non-profit sector with Upwardly Global, an organization that focuses on immigrant and refugee workforce development. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from U.C. Berkeley, and an M.P.A. in International Development from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Born and raised in the Philippines, Karla has an ingrained passion for supporting economic and social integration of immigrants and refugees. She centers her work on equity and inclusion, ensuring that the self-expressed needs of those we serve are at the forefront of decision-making. Outside of work, you will find her spending quality time with her partner and daughter, and discovering new spots for scuba diving.
Zenia Dacio-Mesina is the Senior Grants Manager at the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, leading the pre- and post-award administration of the Fund’s grants and impact investments in the U.S. and Canada.
Zenia has over 10 years of experience in grantmaking operations in public charities and previously worked in non–profits and NGOs focused on environmental issues and international development in the U.S. and the Philippines. Zenia holds a BA in environmental science from Otterbein College (now University) in Ohio and she holds a master’s degree in International Development and Social Change from Clark University in Massachusetts.
Zenia views philanthropy as a partnership between funder and grantee and is passionate about improving the Fund’s grantmaking processes so that they are respectful and responsive to the needs of Fund applicants and partners. Please feel free to contact Zenia if you have any feedback!
Matthias Pries is Manager of Impact Investing at the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, where he helps to build out the Fund’s impact investing portfolio and shape WES’ broader mission investing strategy.
Previously, Matthias worked at Convergence, delivering a program that provided seed funding to develop blended finance structures for nature-based solutions to climate change. Prior to this, Matthias was an Innovative Finance Fellow with the Privy Council Office in the Government of Canada, where he developed and managed social finance strategies and projects focused primarily on public health. Matthias has also held positions at the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, and Social Finance, where he has built expertise across impact investing and outcomes-based funding.
Matthias holds a Bachelor’s degree in Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo, where he graduated with Honours and was President of the program’s student association. He also graduated with Distinction from the University of Edinburgh, with a Master’s in Climate Change Finance and Investment.
Matthias has dedicated his career to mobilizing capital for impact. Outside of this, he is an avid outdoorsman, with great love for camping, hiking, and canoeing.
Jawad Shahabi is Program Manager for the Fund’s grantmaking and strategy in Canada.
Jawad brings a decade of experience in program management and humanitarian operations from Afghanistan, one of the most complex working environments in the world. Prior to joining the Fund, Jawad worked for the United Nations World Food Programme, working to ensure that affected communities were not harmed in humanitarian operations and their voices were heard in the design and implementation of assistance programs. Jawad also worked with The Asia Foundation in its Afghanistan Country Office where he led the implementation of Afghanistan’s broadest and longest running barometer of public perceptions, Survey of the Afghan People. The survey reflected public perceptions of almost 12,000 Afghans annually and was considered a credible source of public perception longitudinal data.
Jawad has a Bachelor of Law from Kabul University and a Masters in International Economic Law from University of Toulouse, France.
Jawad is excited about supporting communities and economies in Canada to become more inclusive for all. A foodie by nature, Jawad loves cooking and learning new dishes. He is also a certified open water diver.
Sifat Shahana Yusuf is Canada Program Manager at the WES Mariam Assefa Fund. Sifat is responsible for supporting the Fund’s grantee partner community in Canada, and contributes to communications, strategic planning, and new grantmaking.
Originally from Bangladesh, Sifat has nearly a decade of experience working in health systems, non-profits, social development, and project management. Before joining the Fund, Sifat worked as program manager for healthcare connections at ACCES Employment, where she spearheaded initiatives and training aimed at supporting internationally educated healthcare professionals find meaningful alternative healthcare careers within Ontario. Before moving to Canada, Sifat worked for different non-profit organizations including the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease & Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b), World Vision, and Girl Effect.
Sifat earned her Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Science from Queen Mary, University of London, and a Master’s in Public Health from James P. Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University.
Sifat is excited to help the WES Mariam Assefa Fund support meaningful and bold initiatives that support newcomers and immigrants starting their lives in new places. She currently resides in Toronto. During her free time, she enjoys hiking, food festivals, reading and spending time with family and friends.
Lei Ma is the U.S. Senior Program Associate at the WES Mariam Assefa Fund. Lei supports and manages a range of programmatic and funding initiatives, data management, and special projects that advance the Fund’s U.S. goals and grantee partner community.
Lei’s passion lies in social innovation and environmental sustainability. She most recently worked as a program officer at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, where she developed and led China-related research projects aimed to foster economic development that integrates environmental and social factors. Lei also supported the immigrant small business owners community at Kiva, a non-profit micro-lending platform for the underserved.
Lei is excited to support efforts to build an inclusive economy for immigrants and refugees and believes that a core part of the U.S.’ identity is being home to more immigrants than any other country in the world. Lei’s experience – and that of her loved ones – as an immigrant helps her realize the importance of the Fund’s work to improve social welfare and livelihood, one of the key aspects of sustainable development.
Abby Frias is Senior Grants Associate at the WES Mariam Assefa Fund. In this role, she provides funding administrative, data management, and special project support through all stages of the Fund’s grantmaking operations in the U.S. and Canada. Abby also supports the Fund team in adopting trust-based philanthropy practices and centering equity in how we fund.
Abby most recently worked on the WES Mariam Assefa Fund team in summer 2021 as an intern focused on grants management and communications. She also interned at the City of Worcester’s Executive Office on Diversity and Inclusion. She is from Worcester, Massachusetts and received her Bachelor of Arts in Government with double minors in Justice and Peace Studies and African American Studies from Georgetown University. Following graduation, Abby worked in community development through AmeriCorps. She loves working with non-profit organizations, grassroots organizations, and local government at the intersection of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and immigrant justice. Her favorite part of being on the Fund team is learning and seeing the real impact of grantmaking, impact investing, and partnerships in immigrant communities.
Ashley Taylor is the Senior Associate, Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives at the WES Mariam Assefa Fund. In this role, she is responsible for supporting the Fund’s external partnerships and initiatives with funders and other external stakeholders, while managing internal philanthropic initiatives.
Prior to joining the Fund, Ashley supported and advocated for academic opportunity and equity for immigrants, refugees, and low-income families. She also managed community initiatives that center intersectional experiences. Ashley first joined WES in 2019, working in WES’ core business services serving international student, immigrant, and refugee applicants through credential evaluation services.
Ashley is deeply committed to applying a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion, amplifying marginalized voices, and uplifting Black leaders.
Shevani Khatri is the U.S. Program Associate at the WES Mariam Assefa Fund.
Shevani first began working with the Fund team as an intern in January 2022 with a focus on communications to uplift the work of our grantee and investee partners. With an interest in economic globalization, Shevani is passionate about supporting and empowering migrant workers. Prior to the Fund, Shevani was a research fellow at the non-profit Hindus for Human Rights and an intern at the Northern California World Trade Center, supporting their international visitors leadership program.
Shevani received a B.A. in Global Studies from UCLA. She completed a year-long senior thesis project, “Mobility Through Money: Keralite Workers in Dubai and the Remittances Sent Back Home,” and had the opportunity to present her research at UCLA’s Going Global Student Conference in 2021.
Shevani is from the Sacramento area of California. Outside of work, she enjoys practicing film photography and rewatching her favorite sitcom Seinfeld.
Ani Gurtsishvili is the Canada Program Associate for the WES Mariam Assefa Fund. In this role, she provides critical programmatic, administrative, data management, convening, and special project support across the Fund’s team.
Ani first began working with the Fund team as an intern in September 2022 with a focus to provide research, analysis and team coordination support to Canada Strategy and Programs team. Prior to the Fund, Ani held another internship at WES where she provided critical support to the program delivery and integration team utilizing Salesforce.
Ani holds a bachelor’s degree in IT & Business Systems Analytics from York University, where she graduated with Honours.
As a first-generation immigrant, Ani is dedicated to advancing equity and inclusion in her work, with a strong commitment to empowering communities.