Alejandro Weber MIDP/MBA’17 and Daniela Peñaloza MIDP’15 are a married couple and both are pursuing careers in public service. Peñaloza is the Mayor of Las Condes, a region with around 300,000 people, where she works on community development with a social focus. Weber is the Undersecretary of Finance for the Chilean government. They answered some of our questions about their life and career.
Tell us about your career path.
AW: I am an organizational psychologist from the Pontificia Universidad Católica of Chile, and hold a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Master of International Development (MIDP) from Duke.
In the public service, I was Deputy Director of People Development in the National Civil Service between 2011 and 2014; and advisor to the Ministry of Health. Previously, I worked at the Measurement Center (MIDE-UC) of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and in consulting for the private sector (2005-2010).
I've provided international consultancies on State reform and capacity development for countries such as Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Peru, international entities such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the German Cooperation Agency (GIZ), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
In the academic field, I've been a professor of Economics and Business of the University of Chile and of Law at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.
I served as president of the Council of the High Public Management and as the National Director of the Civil Service between March 2018 and November 2020. Since then I have been the Undersecretary of Finance of the Chilean Government. I´ve participated side by side with the President in all public policy decisions during the pandemic. That includes pensions, social policy, initiatives to support families and SME´s, modernization of the State and the construction of all the digital transformation platforms that the state requires in order to deliver better services.
DP: I am also a psychologist from the Pontificia Universidad Católica of Chile and hold a Master of International Development (MIDP) from Duke.
Fifteen years ago I decided to dedicate myself professionally to public service. I worked at the Jaime Guzmán Foundation; first as Deputy Director of the National Youth Institute and, later, advisor to the Minister of Education. I have a deep vocation for public service and I was the first woman to lead the Jaime Guzmán Foundation's “Youth in the service of Chile” Program, where I did community work in the municipality of Coyhaique, in the south of Chile. Since then, I have always been linked to the development and progress of the communities, hand in hand with the neighbors and civil society.
Upon returning from my studies at Duke, I served as Director of Education in the Municipality of La Reina. In 2018, I entered of the Municipality of Las Condes and started working as head of the Community Development Directorate, directing and implementing social programs in matters of safety, senior citizens, employment, middle class, disability, sports, culture, environment among others. That gave me a solid foundation and great knowledge to my job as a Mayor of this commune today.
What has been the most interesting assignment or project that you’ve had so far in your career, not just at your current job?
AW: Undoubtedly, as a public authority, it was really challenging to face the development of public and social policies in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the greatest social and economic crisis in recent decades. And that crisis has meant spending US$ 28 billion on direct transfers to families and SMEs from April 2020 to the end of this year and raising public spending to the highest level since it has been registered, always looking out so that this money reaches those who most need it. Likewise, we are carrying out an economic reactivation agenda to boost growth, promote investment and recover more than 1 million jobs lost during the pandemic in Chile.
DP: As a mayor I was definitely to be able to give rapid answers to the neighbors during the crisis, such as coordinating for the first time social aid to the middle class, a sector that had not needed that kind of state support before. It was challenging to build a strategy to help neighbors, entrepreneurs and provide sanitary conditions for the operation of the commune and doing all of that from the perspective of local governments.
As a couple that came to Duke at different times for different graduate programs, can you tell us a bit about how you handled that as a family?
DP: I was selected first for the program but that was not an impediment as a family to start studies and move abroad. In this initial stage, Alejandro dedicated himself to taking care of our first child, who was only 10 months old at the time. When Alejandro began his studies a couple of years later, it was my turn to stay with our son. Thus, with a lot of companionship, we were able to carry out both programs and live a family life in the United States.
Can you tell me about a specific course or professor from your time at Sanford that is still influential for you now?
AW: Poverty Reduction with Professor Phyllis Pomerantz and Policy Analysis with Natalia Mirovitskaya. Those two courses taught me to see public policies in context, to develop a deep critical analysis, study the strategies and the impact on different stakeholders and take action measures based on evidence that allow the implementation of good public policy designs, reducing the gap between the design and implementation.
DP: Governance and Development-Selected Topics by Professor Phyllis Pomerantz and the Fiscal Decentralization and Local Government Finance course by Professor Roy Kelly. Those two courses gave me a real sense of the importance of local governments, transparency and participation. All of them relevant variables in the exercise of my position as mayor.
What is a highlight or memory of your time at Duke? At Sanford?
AW: Duke has an active learning community made up of teachers with a lot of practical experience and students with a lot of field experience, coming from many parts of the world, which allowed us to share real learning about how to generate transformations in developing countries. That is a particularly relevant memory that allowed me to develop a series of fundamental skills to implement good public policies.
DP: There are few things that we always remember about Duke and the life we had there for four years. The first is the technical and academic depth of the faculty. The fact that the MIDP had small groups and small courses allowed us to delve into the topics and into the experiences along with our classmates and teachers. We became very close with the other students and teachers: It felt like a family. That allowed us to learn about North American culture with the teachers but also about the cultural diversity of our colleagues from other countries.
What is the most important skill that policy students should learn?
AW: In my opinion, there are two central skills: first, the analysis based on evidence of all the data and all the possible information that allows the articulation of a good design of public policies. Questioning data and argumentation are important skills to learn in order to make better decisions.
Second, the ability to generate influence on public and political communication. The political case for decision-making is key for those who really have to have the last word in the implementation of a public policy in whatever area: health, education, transportation, housing, etc.
DP: We consider that one of the most important things for those who want to deepen public policy and then exercise it, is not to remain only in theory or in comparative experience, but also to seek that what is being designed has support in practical reality, in the community, in the territory. A public policy measure cannot be standardized for an entire country and it cannot be standardized for the different communities that are part of a territory as diverse as Chile.
What do you think were the keys to your success?
AW and DP: For both of us, we can answer that the key to the success and development of our careers has been to focus on merit as an engine of development and to always have the social seal in the development of any public policy.
Also, active listening: understanding very well the need of all actors and having the ability to communicate transversally with people of different socio-cultural and economic environments, of different hierarchy, and that has allowed us to influence and occupy positions of power that are fundamental to generate changes.
What is the most surprising thing about your job, the thing that you didn’t expect when you started?
AW: There are two things. One is the multiplicity of public policy content that we carry out in matters like public works, social policies, transportation, education, etc. The Ministry of Finance is the last link in the chain before the final decision of the President and the second is the enormous impact that the definitions that we adopt in the Ministry of Finance generate on citizens, such as the social policies that have meant that during 2021 direct transfers for about 10 points of GDP to about 85% of the country's population.
What would you say to a current student at Sanford – a word of advice or something you wish you knew when you were graduating?
AW: Leadership, commitment to the community, the ability to influence or exercise power are skills that are developed in practice. And there is no better practice or experience at Duke than to actively share with people who come from different contexts, countries and realities. With teachers who have multidisciplinary experience and exposure to these different points of view allow enriching decision-making and developing skills that are fundamental such as public communication and the ability to make decisions based on evidence. For students, we say: take advantage of the process because it is a unique experience that really transforms the way one sees public policy problems. For example, at Duke I realized that inequality was a central problem that had to be fought, not just overcoming poverty. This transformation was thanks to the vision of so many people who contributed so that I had a different insight on such a central issue in Latin America.
DP: One of the greatest assets of the Sanford program is the multiculturalism of all students and also the vast experience of all its teachers. Many of them have years of experience in the field, in organizations, solving problems where they happen. To future students I say: take advantage of that value of multiculturalism. Go out to explore, learn and embrace that diversity.
Any last words or comments, awards you want to mention?
AW: I was elected one of the 100 young leaders of Chile during 2018, when I was still at the Civil Service. I´m also the youngest Undersecretary of Finance since the recovery of the democracy in Chile in the 1990s.
DP: I am proud to be the first female mayor elected of the Las Condes commune since the return to democracy. This commune is one of the most important in the country because of its large population, with a high concentration of older adults, an increasing number of female households, and a growing middle class, and because of its budget.