Lisa Kurbiel, ’89: An Influencer for Social Good
January 16, 2020 by Lisa M. McMahon, MA'09
Lisa Kurbiel, ’89, grew up in North Tonawanda, the only child of a father who served as the town’s plumbing inspector and a mother who was a travel agent. Their Polish, Catholic traditions formed the foundation for a happy childhood spent in the Polish American community of that small Western New York city.
When it was time to go to college—“a given,” Kurbiel says, because her parents always told her that an education would give her the freedom to do whatever she wanted—“she stayed close to home, attending Niagara University as a communication studies major with the intention of working in advertising or public relations.
To complement her curriculum, Kurbiel completed two public relations internships. She became aware that, while the public relations professionals were often women, the CEOs of the companies for which she worked were men. What separated the two, Kurbiel discovered, was the fact that the men typically had advanced degrees.
To her, a C-Suite position meant having influence to affect change, and as a juris doctor seemed to be the preferred way to get one, Kurbiel enrolled at St. John’s University Law School, where she could continue her education in an institution whose Vincentian values aligned with her own view of the world.
Internships were an important part of her graduate school education, as well. One in particular, with the United Nations Center for Transnational Corporations in New York City, started her on the career path she still follows today.
“I was just smitten by what it (the UN) represented,” Kurbiel said. “Eleanor Roosevelt, the Declaration of Human Rights. You think about all the Vincentian messaging that I received, and I went to Catholic schools, so doing good and helping others was always the foundational concept. But I think, for me, the UN made it law, so it was beyond your faith, beyond Catholic dogma. There was something about human rights law that really made me say ‘This is why I want to be a lawyer.’ It was so crystal clear.”
After obtaining her law degree and being admitted to the New York State Bar in 1992, Kurbiel worked weekends and evenings at the Barbri Group so that her days were free to volunteer with the UN.
“It was a gamble,” she admits, “but I just was convinced that was where I needed to be. I think I was seeing a way of being influential for good.”
Kurbiel’s gamble paid off several months later when she was offered a contract as a legal advisor to the government of Mongolia, first with the United Nations Development Programme, then with its Governance Division. Mongolia had just reached independence and the government was establishing the legal framework for what it believed would be the country’s renaissance. Kurbiel provided guidance for officials as they established long-term legislative, policy, and sustainable development strategies.
“In many ways, I was a note taker in those early days,” Kurbiel said, “but I was also exposed to how the UN operated and what it could do. And I met phenomenal colleagues and mentors, people who are just so committed to the UN and what it stands for, which was so motivating. The trip to Mongolia was the big break, and I knew I wasn’t going to go back.”
Those contracts led to others, including one in Somalia, where she educated ex-combatants from the Somali Civil War about human rights as they transitioned to jobs as police officers. Positions within the United Nations system followed. In the Department of Peace-Keeping Operation, she served as focal point for human trafficking, before taking on several roles with UNICEF, including child trafficking focal point, senior social policy specialist in Somalia and Mozambique, and chief of communications, advocacy and partnerships in Kenya. During these years, Kurbiel developed and implemented policy and communications initiatives to combat sexual abuse and exploitation, human trafficking, and child labor affecting women and children in conflict around the world.
One of her proudest accomplishments was working on a zero-tolerance policy to prohibit anyone associated with the UN, from a peacekeeper to a civilian police officer to a contractor, from exploiting or having sex with a child under the age of 18. The policy was endorsed by the UN’s General Assembly--“obvious to many, but not so obvious in the complexity of peacekeeping operations where the legal frameworks in some troop-contributing countries impacts the legal age of consent and other sovereign influences,” she noted.
Another was writing capital gains tax legislation in Mozambique that enabled that country to collect taxes from the multinational companies that mined its natural resources and defined how they would be used. Kurbiel added that she was able to advise the government to commit the first of these taxes, which amounted to $400 million US, to nutrition for children.
“I was just thrilled, because the reason I joined the UN was to help the underdog, to really battle against those who take advantage of the weaker,” she explained.
Kurbiel’s role with the UN also enabled her to satisfy her wanderlust, which was instilled by the family vacations to Mexico, Europe, and the Caribbean she took as a child.
“It was extremely exciting for me,” she said. “The friends I made are from all over the world, but we love a bit of adventure and we love doing things differently. At the time, it felt exotic and I enjoyed that.”
Her job also has taken her to “places where no one else will go,” she added, noting that she lost colleagues through a suicide bombing attack on a UNICEF convoy, and that she often traveled in armored vehicles, wearing a flak jacket and helmet.
Today, Lisa is married to Johnson Kimuyu, whom she met while on safari in Kenya and married at Niagara University’s Alumni Chapel, and has two children, Sofia and Roman. Her current role as head of the Joint SDG Fund Secretariat for the UN--the best I’ve ever had,” she said—has taken her out of high-risk environments and into boardrooms, meeting with CEOs, government officials, and others to gain support of and finance the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that are the foundation for the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The agenda, which was adopted by all UN member states in 2015, provides a framework to bring global equity and equality, supporting a vision of what the world should look like by 2030.
“So now, I fundraise and mobilize resources for those left behind,” Kurbiel said. “I’m putting myself in front of pension funds and asset managers and CEOs to say, not only have I been there, I’ve held hands with mothers in Somalia who have just lost their child because there was not a doctor, not a nurse, and there wasn’t even water in the clinic. I’m hoping my position now can help me really make an impression so that they will invest in the amazing work the UN is doing.”
The challenge, Kurbiel admits, is finding the most efficient ways to advocate for social change, and to be patient in waiting for that change to occur.
“I’m raising resources to end poverty in the world, but in reality, you’re trying to align the world around what matters and what you believe in,” she said. “Every time there’s a delay, there’s girls who are being raped without a court of law, there’s kids who aren’t getting a nutritious meal, there’s a mother who died in childbirth, so it’s all quite urgent when you see the reality.”
Despite the challenges, Kurbiel is motivated about the opportunity to show the world what the UN has and can accomplish.
“The UN is doing good--we are saving lives, we are on the front line in war zones, and it matters,” she said. She added that Niagara’s Vincentian spirit “followed me into law school, and then took me to the UN. Those messages went deep for me, and I feel very blessed and privileged to work for the UN. It is an honor to serve amongst those who dedicate their lives to others.”