J-PAL North America Staff Spotlight: Finance and Operations Team

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Five headshots of J-PAL North America's Finance and Operations Team
Top row (from left to right): Isaak Kifle, Khadija Noor, Chris Silva
Bottom row (from left to right): Sarah Orzalli, Elizabeth Zuckerberg

In the fifth installment of our Staff Spotlight series, we feature five J-PAL North America staff members who support our work through their roles on the finance and operations team, which provides key support to the work of J-PAL North America, from hiring, to budget management, to fundraising.  These team members discuss how they came to J-PAL North America and share favorite aspects of their work. 

Isaak Kifle

Isaak Kifle is J-PAL North America’s senior human resources associate. In this role, he manages recruitment, onboarding, performance management, and HR administration, as well as coordinating the work of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) working group. 

What is your favorite part about working at J-PAL North America?

The mission: even though in my role, I don’t usually deal directly with researchers or randomized evaluations, getting to work in support of a mission to lift people out of poverty is inspiring. I apply talent management practices to the social impact space and work with others to move towards the goal of being a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive place to work. I also enjoy the people I get to work with, and I appreciate how everyone, across different backgrounds and identities, is united in that mission and able to apply different skills to a common goal.

What is your professional and educational background, and how does it relate to your current role?

I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, and I was not planning on working in human resources while in undergrad. But over time, I came to see this field as the intersection of psychology and business; it’s a core business area but one where you’re interfacing with people and dealing with issues that arise at the workplace. I’ve now worked in HR for over seven years, and working at J-PAL North America has been an opportunity to continue applying principles of psychology within an organization, while in service to a mission I care deeply about.

What has been your favorite project at J-PAL North America?

Shortly after I started, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) working group began engaging with DEI consultants to move forward a few specific goals. Working with those consultants and with staff across the organization, we were able to make a few organizational changes, including testing new approaches to how we recruit staff, implementing a new performance management system, and conducting staff training on areas like implicit bias. Completing these consultant projects and turning proposed next steps into reality was very validating. I look forward to continuing to learn and progress in our DEI work.

What would you most like to tell yourself at age 13?

It might sound a little cliché, but I would tell myself that it’s fine that I don’t know what I want to do later in life. Careers aren’t always linear—people can change or shift careers, or move in a way that isn’t always vertical, and that’s okay. There isn’t one kind of career trajectory that works for everyone. I would tell him to be open to opportunities, even if the opportunity doesn’t fit what you were told your career should look like.

Khadjia Noor

Khadija Noor is a senior development associate at J-PAL North America, where she manages support across the policy team. Learn more about how she came to her current role. 

What is your professional and educational background, and how does it relate to your current role?

I have a Masters in Diplomacy, focused on forced migration and human trafficking from Boston University. After grad school, I worked with children in transitional housing, a job that was utterly fulfilling in one sense but also emotionally demanding. After that job I realized that as much as I like working on direct service, I wanted to explore working in policy, contributing to systemic changes. 

What has been your favorite project at J-PAL North America?

Witnessing the progression of the tutoring work, from dissemination to implementation, and its implications for children. Working with the education sector gives me the opportunity to contribute to translating research into action. Personally, tutoring is an intriguing topic for me. Growing up, I felt that seeing a tutor had a bad connotation, like “why can’t you keep up with your classmates,” so I held myself back from asking for help. The evidence on tutoring is helping to destigmatize this myth, and now I find myself encouraging my younger sister to seek tutoring. That itself is applying evidence to daily life. 

What drew you to J-PAL North America originally?

What drew me to J-PAL NA was the mission of alleviating poverty by using randomized evaluation to inform policy. When working with vulnerable populations, there are always implicit or explicit biases—even when we try to address them, we can fail. J-PAL North America has an innovative and sustainable approach to answering the question of “how we can help?” without dehumanizing the populations we are trying to serve.

What valuable career lessons have you learned so far at J-PAL North America?

J-PAL not only encourages their staff to speak up, but they listen to them. During my time here, I have been encouraged by colleagues and managers to express my ideas. Here I have found a safe place to express myself, whether it is sharing ideas or channeling different emotions, or contributing to my journey of finding my voice. 

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I was born in a refugee camp in Kenya at the onset of the civil war in Somalia. After being resettled in America with my family and growing up in Boston, I became aware of how many different organizations and people were involved in helping my family thrive. I knew that I wanted to be someone like that for children who are going through something similar. I’ve always wanted to help in some capacity to be able to see people not only survive, but thrive. 

Sarah Orzalii

Sarah Orzalli is a senior grants and financial manager at J-PAL North America, where she oversees financial management and grant administration.  

How did you first learn about J-PAL North America?

Before J-PAL, I worked at the University of Chicago with the family planning division in the OB-GYN department. My boss at the time was very interested in evidence-based policymaking, and I remember her talking about J-PAL as an organization she admired in the evidence-based policymaking space. When the time came for me to resettle back to Boston and I saw J-PAL had an opening, it seemed like an exciting opportunity.  

What do you like most about J-PAL North America?

The people! At J-PAL, I respect everyone and am amazed by their intelligence and competence, but I also really enjoy their personalities. Everyone is kind, thoughtful, and fun. It's just been great to get to know many wonderful people over the years.

What aspect of your role do you enjoy the most and what are you currently working on?

I like that this job is constantly changing and there's always something new to learn.  Currently, I am working on the J-PAL annual budget for the 2023 Fiscal Year, and we’re also preparing reports to the managers of different programs so we can talk in more detail about their specific program’s budget for the year

What valuable career lesson have you learned at J-PAL so far?

I've learned that I'm capable of much more than I thought and shouldn't be afraid to take on new challenges. I started at J-PAL with a very discrete, contained portfolio of work, but it evolved rapidly. That's how I  began to manage for the first time, and although it was only two people, I thought, "this is a terrible idea." Thanks to that opportunity, I grew and nowadays, managing people is one of my favorite parts of my job. 

What would you like to tell yourself at the age of thirteen?

Just be open to opportunities. There are so many more paths, careers, and experiences in the world than you know. Be open to seeing what's around, particularly in non-traditional paths.

Any random facts that you would like to share with us?

In graduate school, I wanted to make some extra income and I saw a posting on the university job board for a company that was looking for a "female with a pleasant American accent.” I decided to apply and ended up recording a bunch of random phrases for a voice synthesis company called CereProc. Now you can find and use my voice under "Katherine, American English."

Chris Silva

Chris Silva is an operations & IT associate at J-PAL North America where he manages technology systems, supports office operations, and provides IT support to staff. Learn more about why he came to J-PAL North America and the role technology plays at the workplace. 

What first brought you to J-PAL North America?

When I was studying graphic design in college, I got a position working on an education tech helpline. I worked my way up through the ranks until I was the students’ supervisor for the entire Student Tech Program. From there, I moved on to working at a financial firm.

During my time there, I realized that I wanted to get out of the private sector and back into the education sector. When I found the listing for J-PAL and read more about the organization, I realized that this was not just a nice job; this was a job at an organization whose mission to alleviate poverty aligned with my own values. 

What is your favorite aspect of your current role?

I’m in charge of basically everything that revolves around technology within J-PAL North America, so I’m excited about better integrating technology into our day-to-day lives. I’m working to bridge the digital barriers, especially when we can’t be face-to-face, by doing things like instituting guidelines around using Asana, our project management platform. I also have a blast working on documentation for various things, like writing out rules and best practices for how we should use a certain technology. 

In general, it’s been very empowering to be treated as someone who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to technology. I have a lot of technology project management responsibilities beyond just troubleshooting computer problems. I’m being given the tools to draft proposals and manage systems and make more decisions about the best uses of technology. 

What is on your bucket list?

I haven’t ever traveled outside the continental United States and Canada, so definitely traveling more. My top three cities are Paris, Dublin, and Tokyo, and it’s feasible one of those will be coming up soon for my honeymoon. I love all those cities for different reasons. In Paris, the food and baked goods are obviously appealing. I’d love to go to Dublin because my grandmother always wanted to go and it’s a beautiful country. And for Tokyo, I think traveling to Japan would push me outside my comfort zone, and I’ve always enjoyed Japanese culture (and the top-tier public transportation).

What would you most like to tell yourself at age 13?

If you are yourself, you will find people who love you for who you are, and those are the people you want in your life. And just to have fun, be weird; do stuff just to say you’ve done it.

Liz Zuckerberg

Liz Zuckerberg is the director of finance and operations at J-PAL North America. She leads operational functions, including human resources and financial planning, to help our team maximize the effectiveness of our work. Hear about her passion for evidence-based policy and favorite moments at J-PAL North America.

What drew you to J-PAL North America?

I believe that if we want to see systemic change, we need policymakers to have the evidence they need to make informed choices. Those who can affect real change need to understand what policies and programs work to reduce poverty, and we need to invest in scaling up effective programs to benefit those who need it most. I was drawn to J-PAL because I believe the evidence we catalyze and disseminate can help drive real change. I also deeply value J-PAL North America’s commitment to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion and applying a racial justice lens across all areas of our work. 

What is unique about working at J-PAL North America?

In addition to having a really smart and kind group of colleagues, I enjoy being a part of a global network of colleagues from around the world who are also working to reduce poverty by ensuring policy is informed by scientific evidence. Although our focus is North America, we learn from other regions and share best practices on the research and policy work as well as the financial and operating systems. I’ve met with colleagues from J-PAL regional offices and it’s a wonderful learning opportunity, both professionally and personally. Additionally, I’ve really enjoyed being a part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology community and working with colleagues in other departments.

You’ve been at J-PAL North America since 2018. Are there any moments that stand out?

Seeing the state of California allocate $4.6 billion for expanded learning opportunities to help students catch up from learning loss was a proud experience. Even though I work on the backend, I care deeply that the work we do leads to policy impact and helps improve people’s lives. As a parent of two school-aged children, it has felt particularly gratifying to see J-PAL North America’s evidence inform effective educational investments in California and other states.  

What does your workspace look like?

During the pandemic, I’ve been working from home with my Wheaten Terriers—Rascal and Mayhem—sleeping beside me. I also currently have piles of books on mastering complexity, leadership, and DEI on my desk that I am slowly working through in hopes of continued improvement in these areas. I keep a sign over my desk that reads “transparency + accountability = trust” to remind me how important trust is to building an equitable and inclusive organizational culture.

What is on your bucket list?

Lots more domestic and international travel. I’d also like to do a lot more in-person volunteering with local organizations that help their clients meet their housing and food needs. After a pandemic hiatus, I’d like to get back to being of service.

This post is the fifth in a series highlighting staff at J-PAL North America. The first post features our health team, the second post features our communications and fundraising team, the third post features our state and local innovation team, and the fourth features our homelessness & housing stability team. To learn more about our staff and their accomplishments, follow J-PAL North America on LinkedIn.