Sean Knierim Alumni Spotlight


Sean Knierim earned his PhD from the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC in 2007. He is the founder of SidePorch, a firm that supports organizations and individuals focused on driving positive impact as part of operational strategy.  Sean is also CEO of Estabrook Investors, a fund of funds platform with offerings focused on absolute return and food/water/energy systems.


Previously, Sean served as Chief of Staff to both the MacArthur Foundation and the Jeff Skoll Group. While working on his PhD, Sean researched the connections between urban development and cultural development in Latin America through a thematic analysis of the World Bank’s documents describing loan preparations and the works of Latin American cronistas. The interdisciplinary work of his dissertation trained him to pull disparate information together, a skill that he has used to navigate complex systems in a number of industries. Sean highlights the importance of a pragmatic approach to completing his dissertation and earning his PhD. One of his primary goals as a student was to quickly and efficiently navigate the program and he credits faculty support at UNC for helping pull this off. That pragmatic, results-oriented drive, accompanied by a passion for working in service to higher ideals, allowed Sean to succeed in his positions post-UNC.


Reflecting on his time at Carolina, Sean recalls that he chose UNC because he liked the interdisciplinary nature of the comparative literature program, the reputation of the department, and the benefits of a Teaching Fellowship. Growing up in Chicago,, he had heard of the university (Michael Jordan!), and as a senior in high school, he even wrote a letter to his future self anticipating that he would teach English and coach baseball at UNC. Sean knew when he visited UNC’s campus that it was a special place, and he still remembers it with fondness and gratitude.  Sean speaks highly of his mentors at UNC, a list that includes Monica Rector, Glynis Cowell, James Peacock, Gregory Flaxman, and John McGowan, as well as several of the professors he worked with from Duke. His favorite memory of his time in Chapel Hill was witnessing the birth of both of his children at UNC’s hospital.


Sean continues to draw on the experience he gained from his research at UNC. He uses these skills to work across languages, tell stories, navigate foreign countries, and translate ideas to an actionable timeline. Sean is proud that he had the opportunity to hold positions in which he can be of service to others and create environments where others can create a positive impact. For students interested in a career similar to Sean’s, he emphasizes that it is important to translate your skills to a relevant audience, develop a wide network of knowledge and people, nurture skills that are useful in a variety of professions, and take the time to understand and take advantage of the system you want to enter. The paid, part-time work Sean took as a student that used and developed his skill sets also helped him when he began searching for full-time jobs. His final piece of advice for current students is to keep perspective, take advantage of the wealth of opportunities offered at the university, and be grateful for the chance to follow your passions as a student.


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