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In every stage of his life, Estuardo Pineda has packed in a substantial amount of achievement, making big, bold decisions, and overcoming obstacles in the process. He waded through all the work and challenges confidently because he’s long believed he has a purpose in life—one that involves helping people. He shares that belief, and his vision for life, with his wife Lucia, who’s been alongside him for much of his journey to his current status as a Duke alum working for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in Guatemala, his home country.

“Even if things don’t always happen as we want, [my wife and I] try to follow the path of our vision and purpose,” says Pineda. “Every decision we’ve made and are going to make in the future is based on that purpose.”

Pineda first manifested his pursuit of purpose when, after completing high school in 1995, he became a teacher. He wanted to help impart principles and values upon young students. But at the same time, Pineda was interested in using technology for development goals beyond the classroom. So, he began simultaneously studying information systems at Francisco Marroquín University, teaching during the day and attending night classes.

Though that juggling act is common in Guatemala, Pineda took things one step further. Not only did he complete a degree while working, but he also made a career change within that time frame, transitioning from teaching to the Information Technology (IT) world. He joined a company that worked with the private and public sector to create technological solutions to various problems using Microsoft technology. He was so successful that he quickly won an award from Microsoft, and in the fall of 2000, Microsoft recruited him to their own team, as a technology sales account manager.

Marriage, Microsoft, and a Mission

Having completed college and a sweeping career change in just five years since graduating high school, Pineda spent the next decade rising through the ranks of Microsoft, before moving on to work for Citi Bank for three years. Along the way, he married Lucia, and in 2009, they launched a nonprofit “Abrazando mi Guatemala” (Embracing My Guatemala). Pineda says they wanted to do something for their country, and Guatemala’s primary social issues include youth malnourishment and teen pregnancies. Recognizing that teen pregnancy was linked to a lack of girls’ participation in secondary education, they thought they could prevent pregnancy by empowering girls to pursue education, so they established scholarships.

Children standing in front of landscape with Estuardo standing with group on right.
Pineda (right) in Guatemala. 

But Pineda faced challenges in this endeavor, too. Scholarships didn’t address the cultural factor that communities in Guatemalan villages intentionally only sent boys to school, because they believed girls were meant to help around the home and with caring for younger siblings. Moreover, Abrazando relied on limited volunteer time from people in Pineda’s personal network, and that wasn’t enough personnel resources to sufficiently manage the scholarships and educational and nutritional programs they wanted to provide. However, Pineda and his wife eventually created the organizational infrastructure and secured the financial resources to bring on three full-time staff to operate the nonprofit. That has enabled Abrazando to survive and thrive outside of Pineda and his wife’s involvement (though they remain engaged from a strategic leadership standpoint).

I remember some nights I was with my four-month-old baby singing a lullaby and at the same time with my phone reading, for class the next day, about poverty reduction

Estuardo Pineda

Coming to Duke was an easy choice, but a tough transition

And while Abrazando was built to make an impact on Guatemala, building it greatly impacted Pineda’s own life, too. Because Pineda and his wife wanted to know how to reach more people with Abrazando Mi Guatemala, the endeavor partly inspired his move from the IT stage of his life to the next stage: pursuing a Master of International Development (MIDP) degree at Duke. Pineda also became interested in graduate school because he had developed a sense that he could make more of a direct impact—and go beyond providing dollars—if he worked in government or for an international nonprofit than he could by continuing to work in the private sector. So, after some thought, he applied for and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to obtain a degree in the U.S. and return to Guatemala afterward. Enter a bold decision: To the surprise of friends and family, Pineda and Lucia quit their comfortable jobs at Citi and the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala, respectively, so that Pineda could pursue a graduate degree.

College student soccer team posing for team picture.
Pineda (bottom right) played intramural soccer with other Duke students. 

With that came another big decision: which school to attend. His options included Duke and two schools in Texas. Pineda had family in Texas, and there is generally far more of a Latin American presence in Texas than in North Carolina. Yet despite these reasons to choose a Texas school, Pineda confidently chose Sanford, believing its curriculum was the best fit. He was especially drawn to the ability to concentrate in social policy, since his primary goal was to connect his technological expertise to development efforts that would improve social justice. So it was that Pineda and his whole family—his wife and their three children, including an infant—moved from Guatemala to North Carolina in 2015.

“It was a tough transition—it’s very different when you go to study abroad alone than when you’re moving with your family,” says Pineda. “When we first moved to North Carolina, we lived in a hotel for three weeks [while searching for housing].”

Along with house-hunting, Pineda notes choosing to invest so much financially into this academic pursuit was difficult, especially given the uncertainty of what would happen once he received his degree. He also acknowledges the struggles of being a parent and student.

“I remember some nights I was with my four-month-old baby singing a lullaby and at the same time with my phone reading, for class the next day, about poverty reduction,” says Pineda.

Still, he managed to find a house with plenty of room for his kids to play outside like they had in Guatemala, and even as a busy parent, he managed to immerse himself in student opportunities at Duke, including service as a student representative to the Sanford Board of Visitors. (To make all this work, he credits support from the MIDP staff, and especially his wife).

While at Sanford, Pineda relished learning from professors who were also practitioners and learning from his classmates, who typically had their own extensive professional backgrounds which Pineda says provided valuable insight.

“Learning from the experiences of other countries was very important—what were the best practices, what things to avoid, what didn’t work, why it didn’t work—and sharing the cultural factors from my country, too,” says Pineda. “Because not all the initiatives created at the global level can be replicated 100 percent at the country level, so we have to take in mind the factor of context.”

Sanford International Development program opens the way

For his summer internship, Pineda landed an opportunity that would further define his future. He interned with Duke’s World Food Policy Center, working on projects in collaboration with the Center for International Development. During the internship, he helped produce a primer on the food justice policy gaps in the Carolinas. He continued working with the Duke Center for International Development (DCID) beyond the internship period, helping to conduct a cost-effective study on different interventions the Mozambique government was using to reduce chronic malnutrition—the same issue Pineda was fighting in Guatemala.

As graduation drew near in 2017, Pineda’s DCID involvement resulted in his third bold decision in as many years. The Fulbright Scholarship allowed him to stay in the U.S. for one year after graduation only if he had an official job offer, and DCID didn’t have the funding for that. So Pineda gambled with his financial circumstances by spending three months—two months beyond the Fulbright funding cutoff—working with DCID to secure funding for him to be hired into a formal position. In August, a non-Duke entity signed on to support the project, which was using technology to connect stakeholders working on nutrition interventions in Guatemala, to improve efficiency by better aligning disparate efforts. Through December of 2017, Pineda worked on the Guatemala and Mozambique projects, as well as a cost-effective study for USAID and a program and needs gap assessment for WHO.

Pineda returned to Guatemala in August of 2018, formally finishing out the DCID job in December. He quickly landed a three-month consulting job, and then in February, accepted a permanent position with a company that was creating development alternatives. However, enter another turning point/big decision. Just after he accepted that job offer, he received an offer for a UNICEF position he’d applied to in December. Pineda felt bad about the timing, but with UNICEF having been among his initial ideal landing spots, he pulled out of the other role, and in March 2019, joined UNICEF as a Guatemala-based Innovation and Technology for Development Officer. He’s been there ever since.

Something will happen if you believe [in what you’re doing], and if you do your best. It’s consistency and passion…so continue believing, because even if one door, two doors, three doors are not opening, maybe the fourth door will open.”

Estuardo Pineda

Living his purpose today came from his time at Duke

Pineda with his wife Lucia posing for picture in front of Guatemala.
Pineda works with his wife (Lucia) with their non-profit organization in Guatemala. 

In the role, he leads an innovation and technology arm and a private fundraising and partnership arm—both of which cut across all issue sectors, including education, health, nutrition, and social policy. From this work and all he’s done previously, Pineda notes some particular challenges facing the overarching global development sector and necessary actions to be taken: organizations must be better aligned on interventions, so implementations are more effective; organizations must be more willing to try new, unconventional approaches and “fail fast and forward”; To ensure that governments can sustainably manage interventions beyond international involvement, more attention should be paid to strengthening government tax systems to provide necessary investment funds; and solutions must be considered in more localized contexts for effectiveness. Despite all the room for improvement in the development sector, Pineda is optimistic about the future, and he’s enjoyed his work with UNICEF.

He believes he wouldn’t have ended up in that space, doing the work he so deeply values, if not for his time at Duke and experience with DCID. To that effect, one of his key takeaways as a Duke alum, that he presents as advice for current students, is to be patient.

“Something will happen if you believe [in what you’re doing], and if you do your best,” says Pineda. “It’s consistency and passion…so continue believing, because even if one door, two doors, three doors are not opening, maybe the fourth door will open.”

Pineda asserts that the twists, challenges, and tough decisions involved in a path to a policy career are worth it.

“You’re pursuing your purpose in life, so it’s good.”


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