By: Jackie Ogburn

When Sean Knierim (MIDP ’08) imagined his career path, his vision looked very different than the reality turned out to be.

“Every time I’ve been confident about what I was going to do next, I’ve been wrong,” Knierim said. The alumni speaker for Duke Sanford School of Public Policy’s 2015 master’s and PhD graduation ceremony, Knierim had originally planned to be an academic. He now works as the chief of staff at the Jeff Skoll Group, which includes media and entertainment companies, several philanthropic groups and an investment company.  

“I had always wanted a PhD and was working on a degree in comparative literature at Carolina,” he said. He became interested in the connections between culture and economics, especially with the work of the World Bank in Latin America.


“I sought out (Professor of the Practice) Francis Lethem, because I needed a better grounding in economics and policy in carrying out my research,” Knierim said, and enrolled in Sanford’s Program in International Development Policy as he worked on  his doctorate. He finished his dissertation, “Literatures of Urban Development:  The World Bank and Chronicles in Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro,” and began applying to university teaching positions. But a recommendation by Professor Joel Fleishman led to his taking the position of chief of staff at the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago.

One of the nation’s largest independent foundations, MacArthur distributes nearly $250 million annually in grants. The foundation is renowned for the MacArthur Fellows Program, or “genius grants,” five-year fellowships awarded to people who are extraordinarily creative in their fields.

Knierim supported the president, and “created an environment where people could get their work done.”  During his five years there, the foundation integrated new strategy and assessment approaches into their grant process. MacArthur took on projects “based on a thoughtful, strategic, long-term view,” very much within the typical model for foundations, Knierim said.

He wasn’t looking for a change when he was approached by an executive search firm about the position with the Jeff Skoll Group. “But if you have asked me five years ago to describe my ideal job, this would be it,” he said.

While many of the duties are similar, in his current position, “the real difference is working for this living, dedicated person,” he said. “My first responsibility is to support Jeff. The work starts and ends with Jeff’s vision for a sustainable world of peace and prosperity.” The focus is on the work, whatever will advance the goal, as opposed to the institution.

His experience at Sanford was great preparation for his current job, in which he engages with people from all over the world who represent many different types of organizations.

“It was wonderful to represent a minority perspective in my classes, with all these mid-career folks that understood the subjects so much better than I did, to be able draw on their knowledge, viewpoints and skills,” he said.


Finding new ways to support and nurture social entrepreneurs requires the same “constant balancing of competing priorities I learned in the policy school.” 

Part of his personal balancing act is making sure that he can also be a good husband and father.

“I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think I could also achieve those personal goals,” he said. He has two children, a son and a daughter, both born at UNC Hospital. His wife, Nina, attended Duke Law School while Sean studied at Sanford.

“I’ve learned the importance of tackling problems in all parts of life with both pragmatic urgency and a sense of humility,” he said.

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