Interview with Natalia Adler by Inspirational Women Series
Natalia Adler is currently serving as the Data, Research and Policy Planning Specialist at UNICEF, where she’s trying to leverage data science to tackle complex problems affecting children through data collaboratives with the private sector and academia. She has also conceptualized a “Cities for Children” initiative, looking at the intersection of urbanization, climate change and child rights in Latin America. Natalia has previously worked with UNICEF Nicaragua and Mozambique advancing human centered design, lean start-up techniques, entrepreneurial ecosystems, and public finance management.
What is your background?
I come from a humble background in the countryside of Brazil. When I was 13, my mom convinced some aid workers from the UK to teach me English. I learned quickly and I was soon invited to teach at a local English school. However, I soon realized I could make more money if I opened my own business. So, at the age of 14, I opened an English school at the back of my grandmother’s house. I had only one student. But I also had a big idea. I noticed that most students were embarrassed of making mistakes when speaking another language, so I created ‘peer’ classes for doctors, business people, students, etc. The English was essentially the same, but the students felt more at ease with their friends. My classes multiplied like wildfire.
You are a Data, Research, and Policy Planning Specialist at UNICEF. Can you tell us how you came to join UNICEF and some of the programs you have developed?
I’ve been with UNICEF since 2005, when I began interning at our HQ office in NY while I was doing my Master’s in Human Rights at Columbia University. Throughout my career, I’ve always found myself starting new initiatives. In Mozambique, I engaged in Public Finance Management in support of equitable public spending for children. In Nicaragua, I pioneered the use of Human Centered Design for policy-making and tried to replicate the Silicon Valley model in an emerging tourism area. In Panama, I conceptualized a Cities for Children framework for Latin America and now I’m interested in leveraging the potential of data science to create value for children.
What are some of the biggest challenges and failures you have experienced throughout your career? How did you overcome them?
Most of the challenges I have experienced were in response to change management processes. I’m entrepreneurial and comfortable with change. But as Woodrow Wilson once said, ‘if you want to create enemies, try changing something.’ Dealing with resistance is not easy. To cope, I read a lot about organizational change, talk to coaches and iterate and learn. I’m part of a network called Doing Development Differently – a group of amazing development entrepreneurs who believe in a more problem-driven and iterative approach to the aid industry. It helps knowing that there are others who think like you.
Can you share with us some of the key findings from the “Cities for Children” initiative?
The initiative is still very nascent. We normally engage with national governments, but cities are increasingly become the primary space for progressive action, protection of diversity and promotion of human rights. In this initiative for Latin America and the Caribbean, the goal was to look at the intersection of urbanization, climate change and child rights. Context matters, especially when 80% of the population in the region lives in urban areas. We focused on only four entry points: (i) mobility; (ii) social cohesion; (iii) data collaboratives; and (iv) civic engagement.
From your experience, what are your most important takeaways from your work trying to leverage data and expertise from the private sector for social good?
We created the Data Collaboratives initiative for three reasons. First, because we recognize that the development challenges affecting children are too complex for just one organization or government to deal with. It takes a village. Second, the most relevant data needed to help decode these complex problems currently sit with corporations in the form of web clicks, like buttons, cell phone data, etc. Luckily, we now have the means to tap on this collective intelligence and data and use it to advance child rights. The initiative is essentially a match-making process that connects concrete problems with solutions through a collective problem-solving.
On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
The gender gap is real and many studies document that. Achieving gender equality is not only a matter of social justice, but also a tool to unleash potential. I’m particularly interested in promoting women’s empowerment in the workplace. Not fully utilizing 100% of our talent pool obstructs the achievement of collective results. Organizations constantly fail to hear from their best people because of persistent biases and discrimination. As Iris Bohnet says, “There’s no design-free world.”
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
I had several classes in French Lit with Dr. Caroline Weber at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s not only incredibly smart and funny, but also very fashionable, fabulous and confident. She’s also extremely empathetic and supportive, going out of her way to listen and help. She reminds me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her writing about feminism and femininity. She had a great impact on me and I don’t even think she knows that!
What advice do you have for the next generation of development entrepreneurs?
Development assistance should be about providing the scaffolding for iteration and adaption – not pre-cooked solutions. Let go of expertise – start afresh every time. Join the Doing Development Differently community and enjoy the journey. In the words of Albert Hirschman, it’s important to have “a little more ‘reverence for life,’ a little less straitjacketing of the future, a little more allowance for the unexpected – and little less wishful thinking.”
What are your favorite books, films, websites and resources related to international development and women’s issues?
For development, I strongly recommend taking the free online course, Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), and checking out all the resources in the Harvard’s Building State Capability website. It’s fantastic! For practical tools for adaptive management, I recommend learning about human center design (Reboot’s has lots of great resources). Too many books to recommend… but I love James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, Iris Bohnet’s What Works, Gender Equality by Design and Dennis Rondinelli’s Development Projects as Policy Experiments.