MIT D-Lab Associate Director for Research wins Infinite Mile Award for Everyday Leadership

MIT D-Lab Associate Director for Research Kendra Leith (right) receives an MIT Office of the Vice Chancellor Infinite Mile Award for Everyday Leadership. Photo: MIT D-Lab
MIT D-Lab Associate Director for Research Kendra Leith (right) receives an MIT Office of the Vice Chancellor Infinite Mile Award for Everyday Leadership. Photo: MIT D-Lab


Today, at a ceremony honoring recipients of the MIT Office of the Vice Chancellor Infinite Mile Awards, MIT D-Lab Associate Director for Research Kendra Leith was presented with an Everyday Leadership Award by MIT Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz. Following is the text of her nomination.

Kendra has been a key part of MIT D-Lab for much of its history, demonstrating both everyday and exceptional leadership over the course of 16 years.

Founding Director Amy Smith describes Kendra’s leadership contributions to D-Lab this way: “Her thoughtful counsel has been critical to D-Lab’s growth for many years. She is always one of the first to volunteer when something needs to get done, has been a mentor to many of the younger staff, and is a resource to all. Kendra leads by example, she leads by doing, and she leads by caring.”

Taking on new roles as D-Lab grew

Kendra started working with D-Lab in 2006, just a few years after D-Lab got off the ground, helping to organize the first International Development Design Summit, a program that gained such traction that more than two-dozen summits followed over the next 15 years. Smith recalls that “Kendra had recently graduated from college, and her advisor was so impressed by her abilities that he created a summer internship opportunity especially for her at D-Lab, and during that time, she just exuded organizational capacity.”

Soon after her initial experiences with D-Lab, Kendra embarked on a master’s degree at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and served as one of D-Lab’s first teaching assistants along the way. In 2011, she returned to D-Lab to take on other “firsts” by shaping and overseeing user and market research for D-Lab projects and establishing an evaluation strategy for the Scale-Ups program and the USAID-funded Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE). “Throughout her time at D-Lab,” says a longtime D-Lab staff member, “Kendra has brought a dedication to excellence and a degree of diligence that has been inspirational to the entire staff.”

As D-Lab’s research portfolio grew, Kendra took on greater and greater responsibility for the research team. In 2017, she was appointed Associate Director for Research, leading a team working in off-grid energy, biomass fuel and cookstoves, water purification, local innovation, and home heating, while also co-founding the Lean Research initiative. “She has managed the complex and diverse D-Lab research portfolio in a way that makes everyone feel valued and able to do their best work,” notes one colleague. “Kendra is a tour-de-force,” says another. “In addition to overseeing a complex research portfolio, Kendra is a skilled researcher in her own right.”

Kendra also took on a leadership role in the CITE program, helping to secure multiple follow-on grants from USAID and managing the diverse research programs that resulted from these awards. Many of these projects involved D-Lab colleagues as well as researchers, faculty, and graduate students from across MIT and from other academic institutions in Boston and abroad.

A faculty member from another Boston-area university had this to say about working with her: “Kendra was the glue that held our team together - keeping us on track, supporting us when the times were tough, and keeping us organized. She always showed kindness and professionalism. Further, as an experienced researcher and project manager, she organized a workshop, a course, and a successful project which resulted in a USAID report and multiple top journal publications.”

Caring for the team and for D-Lab

With an unwavering commitment to D-Lab’s mission, Kendra has always been a consummate team player, contributing to the overall health of D-Lab’s cross-cutting programs in addition to the well-being of the D-Lab staff. In recent years, Kendra has volunteered to lead a complex effort to establish ethical guidelines for evaluating sources of funding for D-Lab, been a contributing member of D-Lab’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) Committee, as well as taking an active role in the Career Pathways Working Group.

A D-Lab colleague notes that, “Kendra truly cares about her colleagues and supports them. In the last several years that I have worked with her, I have been amazed by her kindness, self-awareness, and integrity, and inspired by her strategic and critical thinking. D-Lab wouldn’t be what it is today without Kendra’s leadership." Observes another staff member, “With exceptional emotional intelligence, Kendra is a great advocate for other staff members, and, at the same time, she doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations.”

“The first word that comes to mind when I think of Kendra is trustworthy,” says a colleague.  Stated another way, in more colorful terms, a member of the research team elaborates by saying, “Remember the song from the Chevrolet truck commercials back in the '90s, ‘Like A Rock’? ‘Like a rock, standin' arrow straight; Like a rock, chargin' from the gate; Like a rock, carryin' the weight; Like a rock." Kendra is our Chevy truck, our rock – dependable, long-lasting, ready to step up, doesn't stop until the job's done. Thanks for being our rock, Kendra!”