Kenneth J. Knuckles, Chief Executive Officer

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Kenneth J. Knuckles is a prominent business and civic leader from the Bronx who has distinguished himself over the past two decades as an attorney and public servant. Prior to becoming the Chief Executive Officer and President of UMEZ, a position he has held since January 2003, Mr. Knuckles served on UMEZ’s Board of Directors.

Mr. Knuckles also spent seven years at Columbia University where he was the Vice President of Support Services. In this senior administrative role he was the university’s Chief Procurement Officer, responsible for providing administrative and support services to the faculty and administration of the historic Ivy League institution. His duties included management of the division responsible for more than $250 million in goods and services purchased annually.

Before joining Columbia University, from 1994 through 1995, Mr. Knuckles served as Senior Vice President for Economic Development at the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation; and from 1990 through 1993, during the David N. Dinkins mayoral administration, he was a Commissioner at the New York City Department of General Services. From 1987 through 1990, Knuckles served as Deputy Bronx Borough President during the first term of former Borough President Fernando Ferrer. He has also served as an Assistant Housing Commissioner, as well as legal counsel to several city agencies.

Mr. Knuckles is also a member of the New York City Planning Commission. In February 2002, he was appointed Vice Chairman of that body by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan with a B.S. in architecture and he also holds a Juris Doctor degree from the Howard University School of Law and is a member of the New York State Bar Association.

Mr. Knuckles cites as his top priorities the implementation of strategies to enhance economic development throughout the communities of Upper Manhattan. By expanding retail investment, supporting the growth of the culture and tourism industry, and providing greater assistance to small businesses, he believes the Empowerment Zone will continue to be the catalyst in the unprecedented revitalization underway in Upper Manhattan.

Blair M. Duncan, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer

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Mr. Duncan is the Chief Operating Officer for the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation (UMEZ), a federal initiative to revitalize underdeveloped urban communities.  He joined UMEZ as its General Counsel.  With extensive experience as a legal, finance, and nonprofit executive, Mr. Duncan draws upon his financial insights and community commitment, from previous roles as General Counsel to North General Hospital and on various not-for-profit boards, to develop financially healthy neighborhoods.

Prior to joining UMEZ, he was Vice President and Senior Counsel in the Corporate Law Department of Merrill Lynch. Before that, he was General Counsel at North General Hospital located in Harlem, New York.

Mr. Duncan practiced as an attorney with Winston & Strawn and Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander & Ferdon. Prior to practicing law, Mr. Duncan was a Vice President at Marine Midland Bank (now HSBC USA).

Mr. Duncan has served on several boards of directors and committees in New York and Upper Manhattan, including the Harlem YMCA, the Helene Fuld College of Nursing, and Lawyers Alliance for New York.  He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Wharton Club of New York.  He received a B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Michigan, an M.B.A. in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Gaffar Mohamed, Chief Financial Officer


Mr. Gaffar Mohamed is Chief Financial Officer for the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. He is a Certified Public Accountant and previously worked for the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, a non-profit that shares a similar mission to UMEZ: to promote economic development in underdeveloped and underutilized areas. Mr. Mohamed worked with the Brooklyn Navy Yard from 1991 to 2015 and retired from the Navy Yard as a Senior Vice President and Controller. During his time at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Mr. Mohamed designed and implemented accounting systems and accounted for funds in excess of $100M.

Prior to joining the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Mr. Mohamed worked as an Audit Supervisor at Mitchell Titus & Co., a Certified Public Accountants firm, from 1986 to 1991. At Mitchell Titus & Co., Mr. Mohamed gained experience in supervising and training accountants while auditing non-profit and commercial organizations. Mr. Mohamed attended Luton University in England and became qualified as a Chartered Accountant. He also attended the New York Institute of Technology, as well as the Baruch and York Colleges of the City University of New York, in preparation for his CPA certification. Mr. Mohamed is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and is a licensed Certified Public Accountant by the New Jersey Board of Accountancy.

Elizabeth M. Harris, General Counsel


Ms. Harris is General Counsel for the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. She most recently held the position of Assistant United States Attorney for the United States Attorney’s Office, District of New Jersey. In that position, Ms. Harris represented the United States in investigations and prosecutions of federal criminal laws including wire fraud, the RICO statute, money laundering, drug trafficking, firearms trafficking, tax evasion, and child exploitation.

Ms. Harris also practiced at the law firms of K&L Gates, LLP, and Duane Morris LLP, where she represented corporations and individuals in white collar investigations and commercial matters in both federal and state courts in New York and New Jersey. Ms. Harris clerked for the Honorable James L. Cott, U.S.M.J., Southern District of New York.

Prior to her career in law, Ms. Harris taught history and technology at the Beacon School, a New York City public high school.

She received a B.A. in Communications with a minor in Business Administration from Fordham University, an M.A. from Columbia University, Teacher’s College, and a J.D. from Rutgers University School of Law.


Verdery Roosevelt, Senior Vice President


Verdery Roosevelt was appointed Senior Vice President of Program and Nonprofit Investments in 2010. Ms. Roosevelt had previously served as Executive Director of Ballet Hispanico for over three decades, where, in partnership with Founder and Artistic Director Tina Ramirez, she led its growth from a community-based organization to become the nation’s preeminent ambassador of Hispanic culture. During her tenure, she produced over 50 new works for the Company, which performed in leading concert halls throughout South America, Europe, and the United States; built annual scholarship support to over $125,000 for the School of Dance; and expanded Ballet Hispanico’s educational program, Primeros Pasos, to serve 20,000 students nationwide each year.

Additionally, Ms. Roosevelt directed the initial $1.8 million purchase and renovation of Ballet Hispanico's permanent headquarters on Manhattan's Upper West Side, as well as the subsequent $9.3 million expansion, which doubled the size of the facility’s capacity.

She has also served as Chairman and Board Member of Dance/USA, the national service organization for professional dance. She has been a guest speaker at numerous arts administration seminars and programs, including New York University, the University of Wisconsin, and the Yale School of Drama, and has served as a panelist for national, state, and local arts agencies.

Ms. Roosevelt received a Women of Achievement Pacesetter Award from the New York City Council in 2004; the Arts Management Career Service Award in 2000; and a 1981 Management Achievement Award from ACUCAA, now Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

Ms. Roosevelt, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama and her master’s degree from the School of Business/Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Yahshaanyah Hill, Director of Workforce Development

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Yahshaanyah Hill serves as the Director of Workforce Development at the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (“UMEZ”). In this role, she leads the development and implementation of UMEZ’s workforce development plans and grantmaking strategy, in support of workforce development initiatives that generate economic benefits for Upper Manhattan residents and businesses.

With over 15 years of experience in the public and nonprofit sectors, combining her knowledge of workforce development and economic development with the ability to spearhead and manage large-scale initiatives that are linked to long-term community investments with successful outcomes and growth potential.

Before joining UMEZ, Yahshaanyah served as the Assistant Director of the Job Generation Unit, in the Office of Resident Economic Empowerment & Sustainability at the New York City Housing Authority (“NYCHA”). In this capacity, Yahshaanyah oversaw the creation and execution of standardized procedures that maximized job opportunities for NYCHA residents through NYCHA’s operations and contracts administered for capital projects and real estate development transactions. She also negotiated training and employment terms for NYCHA residents with contractors and developers of multi-million dollar contracts. Yahshaanyah was also integral in the establishment of a centralized enforcement model for NYCHA’s Administering Departments that leveraged the federal employment-related provisions of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968/Section 3 to generate economic opportunities for NYCHA residents.

Prior to NYCHA, Yahshaanyah served as the Director of New York City’s Workforce1 Manufacturing Career Center and NYC Business Solutions Manufacturing, as a key member of the leadership team responsible for conceptualizing, planning and executing the launch of the City’s first manufacturing sector-based career center aimed at addressing the workforce development needs of the manufacturing sector. She also held management positions in workforce development, research & policy and economic development with the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the New York City Department of Small Business Services, where she managed a portfolio of business incentive programs, business/workforce partnerships and sector-based workforce development initiatives.

Yahshaanyah currently sits on the Advisory Board of the Manhattan Educational Opportunity Center. She is a 2009 graduate of the Sectors Strategies Practicum and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Fisk University.