Celebrating Seven Years of Growth: An Interview with I4DI’s CEO, Azra K. Nurkic

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Azra K. Nurkic is the CEO and Co-founder of I4DI. With close to 27 years of international experience, Dr. Nurkic is a social development professional with extensive expertise in strategic program design, program effectiveness, and organizational development in a range of operational and regional contexts.   

This month I4DI, the organization she founded alongside other team members in 2014, is celebrating seven years of thought leadership and technical assistance to clients and partners on their results-based management of international development and global sustainability efforts. Just recently, we sat down for a conversation with Azra to hear her reflections on I4DI’s journey thus far. 

Dr. Nurkic, from your perspective as CEO, give us I4DI’s elevator pitch. 

I4DI is not your typical MEL (Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning) firm. I4DI’s core strengths — applied research, design thinking, data science, and technology development — underpin our approach to catalyzing positive social and environmental impact. We partner with clients to improve their organizational performance and secure positive impact by institutionalizing a better use of data and evidence for strategic decisions. With our in-house subject-matter expertise, software development and data science team, and our exceptionally talented global network of researchers and development practitioners, I4DI is truly on the forefront of innovation when it comes to evidence-based decision-making and adaptive management. We play the role of a broker between public, private, and non-governmental actors to accelerate mutual impact goals. We are a recognized leader in systems design and deployment of integrated, results-based management solutions for both international development projects and private-sector sustainability initiatives.  

Since the establishment of I4DI, what do you see as your 3 biggest accomplishments? 

Our biggest accomplishment is that we’re still here! The fact that we survived typical startup difficulties and persevered through the growing pains that are inevitable in the process is what motivates us to continue to build our institution. The second accomplishment I would highlight is the group of people that we have assembled as our team. I4DI’s team is our greatest asset. I have so much to be proud of when it comes to the strength of that team:  from their technical capability, tenacity and diligence; all the way to their commitment to service and product quality. 

The third is the clarity of I4DI’s value proposition; our niche. Aside from leveraging technology for results-based management and outcome sustainability, our deep experience in monitoring, evaluation, and learning allows us to help clients think in new ways and solve seemingly intractable problems. We do this across our portfolio – by providing our diverse and growing client base with tools and approaches to do better work with better results. Some of our highlights include; providing innovative yet practical MEL services to USAID’s Resilience and Food Security Bureau, developing a game-changing system to better manage results for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, supporting social impact measurement systems and sustainable sourcing strategies for Mars Inc – a leader in supply chain sustainability, and countless other team accomplishments. 

In two words, what describes I4DI people best? 

I’d say passionate and driven. That’s what describes our teams. Passion for development effectiveness brings our people together. We get excited about new technologies and how they can be leveraged to solve the pressing problems facing our society and the planet. We like challenges and creative problem-solving. We thrive on them. Our teams are also driven and love to make things happen. In marrying these two traits, we channel  our own passion towards results. We dream that the assistance we provide to clients will help make a difference in the world, and  we thrive on seeing great things come out of those dreams.  

What is the work culture like at I4DI? 

It’s a reflective culture that is focused on learning and doing. Fostering results is one thing but reflecting on those experiences and looking for better and smarter ways to do what we do is another. So, we think critically and reflect selflessly and with purpose. We hold ourselves to very high work standards, individually and as a team. Our culture is very much built on autonomy and integrity around the work. We don’t micromanage our people, but we expect a lot from them in terms of being self-driven. We also expect our staff and associates to take ownership of what they work on; and to collegially critique our work, refining and polishing every I4DI product before it leaves our hands. 

The position of a CEO comes with a lot of responsibilities, which can be deeply satisfying but also quite difficult. What are some things you like and dislike about being a CEO of a startup? 

The ability to grow and drive the direction of the organization in achieving business results is at the top of the list. I very much enjoy seeing our work make a positive impact and see I4DI live its mandate, its vision. Building an institution that has never existed before, that started as an idea, is fascinating. A CEO plays an important role in making that idea a reality. Therefore, the leadership, the accountability, and the scope of my job are things I embrace responsibly. On the flip side, making hard choices and trade-offs is challenging, especially when the work environment is changing so rapidly and one has limited ability to be predictive and access timely information to take intelligent risks. Each time you make a  decision as CEO, you are taking a risk, committing the organization to something that may lead to incredible results or may not work at all. That is both thrilling and somewhat disconcerting at the same time – but helps you wake up every day with excitement! 

Oftentimes, the growth of every organization depends on its ability to adapt. How do you see I4DI changing in the next two to three years? 

This is a pivotal moment in time not just for I4DI, but for our industry and the world at large, given the accelerated pace of climate change-related challenges, global health threats, and other sustainability related challenges. This will require institutions and us as professionals to be more adaptive, resilient, and collaborative. Covid-19 showed us just how important multi-stakeholder partnerships are for managing global, disruptive events. And perhaps most importantly, achieving a sustainable future depends on the ability of our leaders and institutions to learn and make evidence-based decisions. This is the focus of I4DI moving forward. 

To do so, we intend to broaden our support to clients and partners by contributing agile technologies, nimble monitoring and measurement approaches, and effective organizational learning systems. We are increasing our investments in research and the development of software and data science solutions. These solutions will improve the timeliness and cost-effectiveness of data collection and analysis, data visualization and digital storytelling, and predictive analytics. We are also expanding our work in sustainable sourcing by growing strategic partnerships with private sector actors in global supply chains and international development agencies, particularly USAID. Together, with these partners, we hope to continue the implementation of innovative MEL systems and adaptive management approaches. 

And finally, what is something the world probably doesn’t know about I4DI as an organization? 

When we founded I4DI, we wanted to choose our clients and do the work that astounds us and makes a difference in the lives of others. We started in the garage of our house, and then we expanded to take over the entire basement as well. Back in 2014, we thought we would not have an office because we were fully embracing technology. We were building our project management information system, Zen-O, and we have been creating online tools and other ways of online collaboration. We thought we did not need brick and mortar then. Upon learning a couple of lessons in the early years of our work, we changed our mind on this, and decided that having a physical space was important. So, we purchased and moved into an office building on Capitol Hill in 2018. However, we found ourselves flipping on this point again when COVID happened. Now, we are at that new crossroad, thinking about how workspaces and collaboration happen between the physical and virtual worlds and where we might end up in the future. Right now, we’re working on a hybrid model, rethinking and reconceptualizing that collaboration for the future. 

A note from Azra: I4DI is continually seeking to build relationships and form lasting partnerships with like-minded organizations, bold thinkers, and driven professionals who share our passion for a sustainable future. Do not hesitate to get in touch if you are ready to innovate and drive our industry forward, together: info@i4di.org