Meet the Team

Eli Kennedy

Chief Executive Officer

Eli joined LPFI in 2016. For over a decade, Eli has worked to develop the STEM talent pipeline in underrepresented communities and improve educational systems. He has led a region for Platform Learning, a tutoring company focused on low ­income students and made investments in educational reform initiatives as a director at the Broad Foundation. He has also served as the President and CEO of the Pacific Charter School Development, where he developed over 50 public charter school facilities, raised more than $30M in new philanthropic funding, and scaled the organization as it expanded into three new states. Most recently, he served as Senior Vice President of Redbird Advanced Learning, a leading research-­based EdTech company. 

Danielle Rose

Chief Programs Officer

Danielle’s foray into the education space began in 2010 with Rocket Learning – USA, after working in a diverse set of engineering and business roles in the energy sector for BP America, Inc. over the span of eight years. Danielle joined LPFI in 2015 as Director of Programs where she is responsible for organization wide program development, operations and expansion. Just prior to joining LPFI, Danielle successfully built and managed the operations for Redbird Advanced Learning. Danielle holds a B.S. from Spelman College in Mathematics and a B.S. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her own lived experience – academic and professional – has well equipped her to help further fulfill the LPFI mission.

James Sarria

Director of Alumni Partnerships & Programs

James has been working with youth empowerment, educational and environmental non-profit organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2002. James joined the LPFI in 2009 and through his current role, he continues to work towards increasing the impact of the programming and development of opportunities for alumni to persist in STEM fields. As a strong promoter of community engagement, James continues to create and hold spaces for alumni to develop a strong network and supportive community in times of need, achievement and celebration. James studied and experienced realities in rural Latin America & East Africa at Friends World College, and Conservation & Resource Studies with a Minor in Forestry at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also a member of the San Francisco Afro-Brazilian dance community, an avid world-traveler, a human rights advocate, and a promoter of global sustainable food systems.

Alexis Martin, Ph.D.

Director of Research

Alexis Martin joined LPFI in 2011. Alexis received her Ph.D. and M.A. in Education (Social and Cultural Studies program) at UC Berkeley and her B.A. in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences from the University of Redlands. Prior to LPFI she taught education courses at UC Berkeley & Sonoma State University, and worked with teachers in professional development inquiry groups examining equity in their classrooms. She has also taught high school social studies and has done outreach with students who were the first in their families to attend college.

Sumaiya Talukdar, J.D.

Director of Strategic Innovation

Sumaiya works on new program initiatives and scaling the impact of LPFI with a focus on computer science. She was born in Bangladesh and her passions include education & equity, international development, traveling, and biking. She has studied, volunteered and/or worked in Europe, South and Southeast Asia and Latin America. She graduated with honors from Georgetown University and attended the Emory University School of Law where she served as the President of the International Law Society and an editor of the Emory International Law Review. Her medical database compilation and research has been published in the major cardiology journal Circulation. Prior to joining LPFI, Sumaiya served as a law clerk at Coan & Lyons LLP and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta where she worked to create and preserve the housing rights of marginalized members of our society.


Rebecca Horwitz

Director of Curriculum & Instruction

Rebecca has worked to improve educational opportunities for under-served students of color since her time as an undergraduate at Rutgers University. Through an undergraduate fellowship with National Science Foundation designing inquiry-based science lessons for local urban schools, she developed an early passion for using STEM to empower youth. For the past six years, she has taught high school math, served as a school administrator, and worked as an instructional coach for Aspire Public Schools. Through these experiences, she supported the region-wide implementation of a new mathematics curriculum, designed and facilitated professional development experiences on a range of topics (including literacy in STEM, authentic assessment, and culturally responsive teaching), and initiated school-wide programs to support both the academic and social-emotional growth of students. Prior to joining Aspire, she had a short career as a lawyer. Rebecca graduated summa cum laude from Rutgers University and with honors from The University of Texas School of Law.



Gabriel Chaparro

Site Director | SMASH Stanford

Gabriel Chaparro was born in Sanger, CA and moved to the Bay Area when he was nine years old. Gabriel graduated from Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay) with a B.S. in Physics and after working in various fields, Gabriel followed his true calling and taught high school science at Hayward High. Gabe eventually left Hayward to pursue a Master’s Degree at the University of the Pacific. After earning his master’s in Educational Administration and Leadership, Gabe moved to Southern California to work on a PhD in Higher Education. Gabe is looking forward to starting his dissertation work and researching what support looks like for undocumented students at community colleges within the San Joaquin Valley.

Rosalyn Clark, Ph.D.

Site Director | SMASH UC Davis

Dr. Clark worked as Site Director for SMASH Pathways at UC Davis in 2015. She received her Ph.D. in School Organization and Educational Policy from UC Davis, and M.A. from San Jose State University in Educational Counseling. Dr. Clark has worked at both CSU and UC campuses to enhance college pipeline programs. She has over 10 years experience in working with college access, gender equity, and STEM related institutional frameworks. She has previously taught K-12 courses and undergraduate courses at UC Davis. Dr. Clark currently serves as the Director of the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) K-12 Schools Program at UC Davis that provides support to over 1200 students in the greater Sacramento Region.

Jennifer R. Cohen, Ph.D.

Site Director | SMASH UC Berkeley

Dr. Cohen is a native San Franciscan who earned her associate’s degree from City College of San Francisco and her B.S. in biology from Howard University. In 2010, she earned her doctorate in biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology from the Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine. Dr. Cohen is passionate about changing the stereotyped image of STEM professionals. Having first-hand experience inside the STEM education pipeline, she understands the challenges and resources needed and brings a valuable skill set to leverage energy and intelligence with information and results. Drawing on her science background, she brings a highly analytic, data-driven and perceptive approach to solving problems. Not your stereotyped science geek, Dr. Cohen is a vibrant advocate with a unique talent for generating synergy.

Catherine Douglas

Site Director | SMASH UCLA

Cathy joined LPFI in 2012 as the Site Director for SMASH: UCLA. Additionally, she works as a the Associate Director, Pre-College Programs for the Center for Excellence in Engineering and Diversity (CEED) in the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science (HSSEAS). In this capacity, she is responsible for the academic year coordination of Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) preliminary and regional competitions for middle school and high schools, professional development activities for teachers, and college planning workshops.

Janessa Harmon

Sr. Development Operations Associate

Janessa Harmon joined LPFI in 2015 as the Development Associate. Janessa earned her B.A. in Political Science from the University of San Francisco in 2013. Janessa’s passions include education, art, business development, team building, and fitness. Prior to joining LPFI, Janessa worked at Kaiser Permanente IT in Oakland where she provided logistics support for Kaiser’s partnership with organizational consulting company, The Energy Project. Janessa is excited to be a part of an organization that is committed to the advancement of youth.

Laura Hinton

Program Operations Associate

Laura Hinton grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from Harvard with a Bachelor’s in Sociology and a minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Prior to joining LPFI, Laura worked as a college counselor in the Bay Area and as a high school teacher in Detroit, Michigan, where she taught reading and teen leadership. She has also worked and interned for several education nonprofits in the United States and abroad, including Breakthrough Collaborative and the Future Leaders Institute.

Frieda McAlear

Research Associate

Frieda brings her skills as a social science researcher and her passion for working with and for underserved and indigenous communities to her research associate role at Level Playing Field Institute. She has nearly a decade of experience managing projects, developing evaluation and research methodology and building nonprofit technology capacity with socially progressive organizations in the Bay Area, Europe and Southern Africa.

Samantha Smart Merritt

Corporate & Foundation Relations Officer

Samantha Smart Merritt joined LPFI in 2016 as a member of our Development Team. With three decades of experience in fundraising, social justice organizing and nonprofit management, Samantha brings a diverse skill set with a focus on connecting organizations with the resources they need to flourish. Prior to LPFI, Samantha served as Executive Director of InnerCity Tennis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a social enterprise serving youth through education and physical fitness programming. A happy new resident of Oakland, Samantha is originally from Minnesota, lived in Cambridge and Boston after graduating from Harvard University with a degree in Government and spent seven years in Union Island in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Samantha’s passions include travel, tennis, seeing her three children thrive and conjuring up solutions to systemic injustice.

Ashleigh Richelle

Communications Manager

Ashleigh Richelle shares a personal history with LPFI as a 2009 alumna of the SMASH Academy. After SMASH, Ashleigh attended the University of Chicago, where she graduated in 2014 with a B.A. in Cinema & Media Studies and a minor in Human Rights. She has interned at CBS Interactive as a social media intern, and worked in University Recruiting at LinkedIn before joining the LPFI team in 2015. Outside of work, Ashleigh is passionate about documentary film and production, ballroom dancing and advancing opportunities for youth of color to succeed.

Nyjeri Whipps

Individual Giving Officer

Nyjeri joined LPFI in 2016. She is responsible for cultivating and securing gifts from individual donors. At the start of her fundraising career, she quickly fell in love with the challenge of raising money for causes dear to her heart. Almost a decade later, Nyjeri is an experienced development professional, who most recently served as director of development for Coaching Corps and First Place for Youth and as the annual campaign manager for Girls Incorporated.  Nyjeri has a strong record of developing effective donor cultivation and outreach strategies, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications from UC Berkeley and a Master’s in Broadcast Journalism from the University of Miami. On the weekend Nyjeri enjoys all of the outdoor food, music and street festivals the Bay Area has to offer with her family. One Saturday a month Nyjeri and her husband participate in a STEM Steps program with their daughter.