Monthly Employee Spotlight: Interview with Nicole Brown Director of Grants Management – Operations 

Q. So, first question I have: How long have you been with NJII? 

A. I celebrated six years this month. 

Wow. Congratulations! How do you feel about that? 

A. Thank you! I feel great! It has gone by incredibly fast, and since I have contributed to different areas of the organization over the last six years, I think I have a good pulse on NJII as a whole. It has and continues to be a dynamic experience. 

Q. How did you first get started here? 

A. My first role here was as an NJHIN onboarding coordinator in the healthcare division. I had recently finished my Master’s Degree in Public Health and was looking to jump in to an exciting “think tank like” organization that was passionate about improving the healthcare system. This was in 2018 and I was fortunate to work on the beginning of the New Jersey Health Information Network. 

Q. What kind of work were you doing at first? 

A. We were mainly working with hospitals to get them to sign up and join the NJHIN, which NJII manages on behalf of the State. So, it was traveling out to the hospitals to explain to them the value of joining and how it would make them more interoperable and enable them to access important information about their patients to improve care. There are so many public health initiatives at the state and federal levels, and it was a good experience to be a part of implementing such an important one, interoperability. Within a few months of beginning at NJII, I was promoted to Operations Manager for the NJHIN, leading and growing the team of coordinators that I was part of, which was exciting. I continued that journey for a little while, and then explored a few new opportunities within NJII based on the organization’s needs, ultimately leading me to my current role today as the Director of Grants Management, which is really another way of saying “restricted funds”. 

Q. And now you’re doing Grant Management, which sounds different from what you we’re doing before. 

A. It is different! I moved from the operational side of things in the healthcare division to the financial side of NJII in support all divisions, managing the finances, compliance, and regulatory management of the grants and federal contracts, some of which I was previously working on, as well as the other restricted funding sources that we have at NJII. It was a full circle moment for me, and I really was able to jump in to establish and develop the role into what it is today, based on the evolving mission of NJII. At NJII we have a lot of restricted government funding to carry out various initiatives at the state and federal levels, and many of those contracts are passed through NJIT to us. There is a lot to manage, and the role digs into so many areas – contracts, finance, operations, regulatory compliance, you name it. That has always been an exciting aspect of the role for me.  

Q. Did you have any experience doing grant work before? 

A. I did not. I come from a corporate compliance and healthcare/public health background. So, it was a nice progression, but I didn’t necessarily expect to end up here. The opportunities for advancement and growth within NJII – I am sort of the perfect example of that here. If you’d asked me five years ago if I would now be a main financial resource to this organization, I would believe you, but I would not have expected it. 

Q. The process of receiving a grant from first seeking it out, all the way to closing it. Can you briefly share that timeline? 

A. Sure! I like to think of myself and Cheyenne Cohen (Grants Analyst at NJII) pre-award through post-award, all baked into one. I don’t directly write grants, we have a grants/proposal writer in the Healthcare division, Julie Beites, and another coming on soon to seek funding opportunities for the Defense, LDI, and Entrepreneurship and AI divisions. We continue to develop the “grants office” under President Johnson and Joe Cauvin’s leadership. We work closely with the business teams and grant writers to make sure their proposal makes sense, has all the regulatory and compliance pieces built-out, financial forms, etc. And BUDGETS, we create and adapt a LOT of budgets and help the teams understand how to budget as accurately as possible. Upon receiving an award, that’s where we really dive in to our work in terms of managing the funds, spending, reporting, billing and reimbursement. We carry out all post-award management activities through closeout. 

Q. It’s a long process, so what complications come about? 

A. I would say mostly on the accounting side, there are always challenges. Most of them are due to timing of awards, contracts being signed, work beginning. That sort of thing. Timing can has been shown to be pretty impactful to NJII’s operational and financial management of restricted funds – so there are always challenges to navigate, and it’s been great to bring value to our leaders and teams in that way. I was not an accountant before – to a degree I am one today. Charlene Nicholson as our Controller and Tom Nehila as our CFO have really helped me gain a deeper understanding of the bigger picture of NJII and how our leaders are shaping that in this new era of growth. 

Q. How satisfying is it, after all that time and effort, to receive a grant? 

A. Oh, very. To be supportive to healthcare and defense for example, help them understand their numbers, how their revenue is impacted by the different types of expenses, where there’s a gray area, where there isn’t, it’s very interesting. 

Q. So you wear a lot of hats in your job – compliance, budgeting, finance, People – Do you have a favorite? 

A. Being a problem solver. challenges come across my desk every single day. I would say that’s my favorite part, the problem solving. That ultimately brings value back to the divisions who are bringing in the revenue and carrying out the work, and that’s where I’ve found my sweet spot.  

Q. NJII – There’s been a lot of significant changes and developments over the past 6 months or so. How has this affected your job? 

A. I think this is a very pivotal time for NJII! In terms of growth outlook, it’s more exciting than it’s ever been. With President Johnson’s onboarding, there’s a new vigor and energy, with a strong emphasis on tying the business with the vision of innovation. More emphasis on growth, including increased collaboration between NJII and NJIT, and how to best leverage that, are all things I have seen more of over the last few months. 

Q. The relationship between NJII and NJIT in terms of your role. How is that leveraged? 

A. I’m very much a liaison between the two entities on the restricted funds side. I work very closely with my counterparts in the NJIT Office of Research, Finance, and Procurement. I’ve learned a great deal from them, especially when I first stepped into the role and we have developed a great rapport, which I believe is crucial to the success of NJII’s grant portfolio. There is so much at play between the two entities 

Q. One more question: Your favorite thing about working for NJII? 

A. I love the energy and excitement of the workforce – of my colleagues! I work with some tremendously talented people. I also appreciate the emphasis of work-life balance, team work and the overall tone of productivity.  

Q. One word to describe your experience. 

A. I would say dynamic!