two people listening to their leader

Leadership and Strategy in Global Health

As we sit down with David Alejandro Schoeller-Diaz, an adjunct professor at National University and a force to be reckoned with in global health and humanitarian initiatives, we're reminded of the power of diverse experiences. David's journey, which spans South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia, offers a rich tapestry of cultural insights, shaping his understanding of public health threats and instilling in him an empathy that is truly infectious. David takes us back to his transformative volunteering experience in the shanty towns of Guatemala City, illuminating how it fuels his commitment to uplift vulnerable communities. This episode is sure to inspire as you learn about his work in preparing students and professionals to become transformative leaders, drawing strength from their diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Peeling back the layers of global project management, David provides a detailed account of his strategies for effective allocation of funds, ensuring they create a significant impact. We grapple with the challenge of vaccine acceptance in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and delve into the crucial role of data in humanitarian initiatives. As we pivot towards the second part of our conversation, you'll be intrigued by David’s belief in the power of data and technology and how he employs these tools to enhance humanitarian projects. From his systematic approach and emphasis on genuine partnerships to his strategic thinking around project objectives, David sheds light on the best practices for global health project management. Prepare to be drawn into a thought-provoking discourse that not only enlightens but challenges the way you perceive global health and humanitarian initiatives.

Show Notes

  • 0:03:05 - Interview with David on Global Challenges (142 Seconds)
  • 0:11:47 - Managing Diverse Global Teams Effectively (181 Seconds)
  • 0:25:41 - Challenges and Misinformation in Global Health (155 Seconds)
  • 0:30:04 - Information Management and Peace Building Experience (171 Seconds)
  • 0:39:36 - Global Project Management in Health (190 Seconds)

0:00:01 - Announcer

You are listening to the National University Podcast.

0:00:10 - Kimberly King

Hello, I'm Kimberly King. Welcome to the National University Podcast, where we offer a holistic approach to student support, well-being and success - the whole human education. We put passion into practice by offering accessible, achievable higher education to lifelong learners. Today we're discussing global health threats and, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, some of the global health threats on the horizon are long COVID, mental health, the impact of climate change, cardiovascular disease, lower respiratory infections and poverty's role in health and the entire health care system, diabetes and dementia Some things to ponder as we get started on today's program. On today's episode, we're discussing public health threats and how to avoid them, and joining us is National University's David Alejandro Schoeller-Diaz, and.

David is an adjunct professor at NU and has dedicated over 15 years to leading global health and humanitarian initiatives with a deep-rooted commitment to community-centric responses. His journey, which began in the diverse landscapes of South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, instilled in him a unique cultural sensitivity and empathy. This foundation led a young David to volunteer for at-risk children in the shanty towns of Guatemala City, where he found that most of his meaningful impact was in nurturing hope and confidence. Throughout his career, David has spearheaded over 15 global projects, managing teams of up to 70 members and handling budgets of up to $12 million. His leadership at IMAP, three Gimbals LLC and Heartland Alliance International have been instrumental in driving strategic intelligence, expanding community-based health initiatives and fostering peace. Notably, he has raised $3 million to bolster psychosocial support in Colombia, initiated programs promoting social dialogue and enhanced the strategic posture of US officials with over 50 intelligence products.

David's academic credentials include an executive master in international business from ESCP Business School and a master in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He graduated cum laude with a bachelor's in political science from the University of San Francisco and has completed programs at Université Sorbonne, American University and Hebrew University of Jerusalem and in English and Spanish, with proficiency in French and German. David is also technically adept in information management and data analysis. Currently, David channels his experience to prepare students and professionals to be transformative leaders and making a difference in the global community. We welcome David to the podcast. How are you?

0:03:08 - David Schoeller-Diaz

I'm doing very well. Thank you very much, Kimberly. It's a pleasure to meet you.

0:03:13 - Kimberly King

Thank you. What an impressive background. Thank you for all you've done and what you continue to do. Why don't you fill our audience a little bit on your mission and your work before we get to today's show topic?

0:03:26 - David Schoeller-Diaz

It's an interesting and complex question just because I've had such a dynamic trajectory, somewhat eclectic and when I look at this path that has covered public sector, nonprofit organizations, multilateral international organizations, private sector, companies, across fields, as you can see, looking at global health, humanitarian action, international business, data analysis and data science so these are very different yet, in my view, overlapping and mutually reinforcing sectors. What I see throughout this path is a commitment to developing partnerships between diverse community-based maybe senior decision makers or marginalized and affected communities, and generating and managing information, trying to deliver new insights that may enable more impactful decision making. Whatever the challenge that we're facing is, I'm especially concerned about some of the most complex challenges facing vulnerable populations, such as pandemics, different kinds of social, natural and natural disasters, protection and strategic and social security issues, among other, threats to health, well-being and safety of populations across different global contexts.

0:05:22 - Kimberly King

Wow, boy, what a relevant topic this is right now, with everything going on in the world. Just from your background, your global involvement really does make you an expert, and today we are talking about public health threats and how to avoid them. And so, David, your upbringing spanned multiple continents, and how have these diverse cultural experiences shaped your worldview and the approach to global health and humanitarian action?

0:05:49 - David Schoeller-Diaz

I've been conscious of the lifelong path of nurturing one's cultural sensitivity, awareness and competence, realizing that these are not checkboxes that one can simply mark off and be done with them, but instead it is a matter of having an openness, a curiosity, a sense of humility and a growing adaptiveness to engage with a diverse population, realizing that one will and should always be learning from that interaction.

I think that is a crucial aspect. We often use the word expert and in my case, what I perceive, especially in terms of engaging with diverse communities, is simply a commitment to that engagement. Realizing that individuals who are affected by health threats and by other types of threats have inherent rights, have agency, have resources, have a voice that should be heard, that should be recognized, that should be at the center of decision making and everything that takes place to change their environment, and that it's more of an art than a science and one should be open, respectful and committed to that constructive engagement. I do feel that there are certain life experiences that may enable me to connect differently to a Rohingya person who is emigrating from Myanmar, or a young woman who is threatened by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, or a young family trying to respond to the lack of sufficient nutrition food in northern Ethiopia. I have personal experiences that may enable me to better understand and to express a sense of empathy, knowledge and some resources to collaborate, but mostly what I have is an interest to learn from them.

0:08:24 - Kimberly King

Which that right there, just because that is your interest and you have that compassion and now taking it forward and being able to really teach others. I think that's so important, especially in today's environment. Volunteering in Guatemala City, shanty towns at a young age must have really been a transformative experience for you. Can you share a story or a lesson from that time that still resonates with you today?

0:08:50 - David Schoeller-Diaz

Thank you very much. This brings me back 22 years to my adolescence, when, when asked what I most wanted to do during the summer break, it was to travel and be in a place where I may be needed. And I'll confess, when I arrived to some of the shanty towns of Guatemala City, I made a strong emphasis on what hard skills or knowledge I could submit to children and adolescents, that myself in these environments as a youth counselor, tutor and teacher, and over time I realized that what was most powerful was not how much I could teach somebody how to add, subtract or read, but instead how I could gradually instill a sense of confidence and hope in what they could achieve in the future.

I had one particular experience with a child who was struggling at school. A young child may have been seven or eight years old, and he had a very negative discourse on himself, on his inability to learn basic things, and I could sense that he received a lot of negative pressure at home and from his peers. I invested a lot of time to work with a child and to show him that with a bit of creativity, with a bit of care, he could in fact do things that were far beyond what he expected and he had such a sense of awe of pride that it really inspired me. Then I visited his home and unfortunately, when I met his caretakers they were very dismissive of his capacities and I had to fully show them what he was able to do, and I hope I don't have proof of this. But I hope that I was able to contribute a bit in that early age of 17 to that family that are recognizing what their young child was capable of and hopefully giving him some more resources and support to achieve his dreams.

0:11:35 - Kimberly King

Wow, thank you for sharing that story and, yeah, hopefully he has enjoyed your mentorship and understood how important you know that is to move forward. Over the years, David, you've managed diverse teams across various continents, and how do you navigate that cultural nuances and then to ensure effective communication within such teams?

0:11:59 - David Schoeller-Diaz

It is a challenge and I want to avoid giving overly simplistic responses.

I think there are a series of technical lessons that are useful.

I have been compelled, and I've thought, to leverage virtual and hybrid technology, as well as newer methods of project and program management such as agile methods, and extract those innovations of the tech startup sector and see which ways that can be applied to global health and humanitarian, peace building, development and other spheres.

However, apart from all of those aspects that I do think are valuable and would merit a whole discussion just on that, I think once again that the openness to learn and to forge meaningful alliances with diverse people demonstrating a genuine interest to build something together, and how we can mutually reinforce each other in order to have a greater contribution on issues that interest us. I think that if the most powerful way to manage large, diverse, remote or dispersed teams and I'm speaking of how to work with Afro-descendant or indigenous populations in remote areas of Colombia, or how to work with culturally diverse members of different ethnic groups and religions in Ethiopia in each of those cases there can be a lot of lessons and even after years of working with such groups, you can still learn new things, but it's through that genuine commitment to do things jointly and to say I believe we can learn from each other and mutually reinforce each other so that we can make a difference in this territory or in this community. I think that is the most important part.

0:14:45 - Kimberly King

I believe that is true too. What personal values or beliefs drive your commitment to placing communities at the heart of humanitarian response?

0:14:58 - David Schoeller-Diaz

It's a great question. There is a growing discourse on community engagement in humanitarian action, and I am cautiously optimistic on how that can drive a genuine transformation in how communities are heard and taken into account. But I think it has to be much more than a discourse or tactical or procedural changes, and instead what we need to do is have a profound commitment and make a number of systemic and systematic changes to ensure that we recognize the, the inherent voice, the resources, the agency of community members themselves to drive about change, so that external actors can strengthen what community members already have, instead of replacing or accidentally weakening, thus causing harm to the community itself. So I think it is a matter of justice of recognizing what communities and community members deserve, and it's also a matter of efficacy of having different approaches that are values-based, that are people-centered and that can drive more impactful and sustainable change.

0:16:45 - Kimberly King

I love that. How do you think your hands-on experiences in global projects complement your academic background?

0:16:53 - David Schoeller-Diaz

I don't want to be repetitive, Kimberly, I say a very good question. I appreciate it. I do think that, especially when engaging with the diverse students and professionals who make up the student body at National University, it is very exciting to facilitate an open platform of discourse where students from all around the world, with very different life experiences, can feel comfortable to question and to engage in a dialogue that can help inspire, channel and nurture. And. I often ask questions very rarely I just had an experience a few days ago. I started by saying that I was unable to respond to such a question, but I could offer some helpful parameters that I've acquired through academic learning, while also offering some reflections based on life experiences that, if they don't answer the question itself, they can further the thought process of the students so that they can come up with their own responses and address some of the complex challenges that we face in a better informed, more nuanced, more reflexive way.

0:18:58 - Kimberly King

Got it. In your journey, you’ve overseen significant projects and budgets. What is your philosophy of ensuring that those funds are used most effectively to really make a difference?

0:19:11 - David Schoeller-Diaz

I have been a critical observer of global efforts to respond to humanitarian crises, help bring about peace and spur development, especially in complex or least developed environments, and I firmly believe in our shared responsibility to do more, beginning with the recognition on the inherent rights of every person and how we have a stake in the health, the well-being and the safety of this rock that is rotating in the universe, and that goes beyond our civic duty to one nation or another, and it has to do with how we care for our human species and for nature.

I know that I'm making a number of very ambitious or vague comments, but I do think that that should remain a driving force for us. As much as I have seen global challenges and had to sort through many a spreadsheet to review a budget and ensure that everything was being allocated correctly, there were no technical or moral issues in those expenditures… it's also a matter of what is driving us to act. I think we need to do more, but at the same time, I think that we need to engage in a more profound examination of what is working and what isn't, because many aspects of the status quo are not working properly. I'm referring to global migration, to our pandemic preparedness to our response to chronic and recurring social natural disasters that are related to climate change, etc. We do need to invest more, but we also need to engage in some in-depth examinations that would lead us to new solutions. I hope to participate and contribute to some of those processes.

0:22:14 - Kimberly King

Something tells me, you will be able to. David, you've been deeply involved in data analysis related to global health. How do you believe data can help be a game changer in humanitarian initiatives?

0:22:26 - David Schoeller-Diaz

I think data is hugely important, especially with decisions that involve human lives and the prevention or alleviation of human suffering. We need to take data a lot more seriously. The landscape of data usage is quite irregular. It is very advanced in some contexts for diseases that are widespread and that affect segments of the population that may result in more patients or greater public interest. It remains very scarce in some of the least developed nations. That is something that should concern all of us, because diseases do not recognize national, ethnic, racial, religious or any other boundaries.

I do think data is crucial. We need to have a greater recognition of it. We need to ensure that the government agencies, the nonprofit organizations, the multilateral entities that are working on a broad array of diseases have access to and have the technical expertise to manage and to extract insights and act upon data. It is crucial. We also need to remember that data is only part of the process. We need to work on everything that is around the data, and it has to do with the moral commitment to care for those marginalized or affected communities and to ensure that they are at the center of the session making. We need to ensure that we are also considering the different aspects that need to be addressed jointly.

Health crises are often related to political and economic crises, for example, addressing the growing impact of climate change most likely going to result in chronic and protracted emergencies in the Horn of Africa due to drought and the lack of portable drinking water and food for millions of people. These are health crises, but they also have to do with many other systemic issues. It means that we need to work in a very interdisciplinary, multilateral, cross-functional way to ensure that we have more strategic solutions for some of the world's most pressing challenges.

0:25:41 - Kimberly King

Wow. With your extensive experience, David, what is one challenge in global health or humanitarian action that you believe still needs more attention?

0:25:53 - David Schoeller-Diaz

There's a lot of challenges. I think that there has been a historic caution and fear toward vaccines, which essentially is the use of foreign bodies to inoculate or to teach our immune system to be better prepared in the face of otherwise unknown viruses. But that is not necessarily an intuitive message for people and it hasn't been for centuries. And I do think that the COVID-19 pandemic was a stark reminder and also a novel awakening for us in terms of our collective capacity to develop vaccines in record time and to deploy them in a generally widespread way despite some limitation. But it was also a reminder of how much rumors, misinformation, and understandable human instinct of caution and fear - how much they remain obstacles, and this isn't only an issue in the US or other highly developed nations.

It is an issue worldwide. So I'm speaking of COVID-19 vaccines, but in reality, I'm referring to public health, education and how to address rumors, misinformation, how to better manage information, how to communicate it more effectively and how to collaborate with communities to ensure that they feel taken into account and in the driver's seat of meaningful transformation.

0:28:19 - Kimberly King

Well, this has been some great information and you have such a really varied background, and thank you for everything you're doing. We need to take a quick break, but stay with us. We have some more information in just a moment. Don't go away, we'll be right back. And now back to our interview with National University's David Alejandro Schoeller-Diaz, and we're talking about public health threats and how to avoid them, and it's been very interesting. David, your efforts in Colombia, especially in advising peace negotiations and expanding community-based psychosocial support, are commendable. What drove you to focus on these issues?

0:29:01 - David Schoeller-Diaz

I had very special opportunities that I would not have foreseen years before, so a part of it was simply being fortunate to be there in the right place at the right time. I feel very honored to have been able to support the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas. That constituted the longest armed conflict in the Americas, one of the largest armed conflicts in the world. Colombia still has a lot of very pressing security and other challenges, but at least partially the country has been able to pass the page and I feel deeply honored and humbled to have been able to contribute to that.

My role was in information management and analysis, and it was taking tens and hundreds of thousands of proposals from civil society and analyzing them to provide advice to the Colombian government delegation so that they could engage in negotiations that were more reflective of public opinion and specifically, of the valuable proposals that communities were putting forward, and that led me to gain an understanding of a lot of different issues - world development, justice, community radio stations, psychosocial support - and many others that were crucial for a comprehensive peace building process.

So that was one very important experience for me, after I had a very different experience as the National Director of Heartland Alliance International. This is an international nonprofit organization based in Chicago that has been spearheading mental health and psychosocial support that is community based in Colombia and in many of our countries, and they had the opportunity to lead their operations in the country, helping to more than double their funding and their geographic scope across the country, providing support to thousands of indigenous and afro-descendant populations. I did see that as one of the most painful and durable wounds of the war, and so helping to heal at the psychosocial level with active engagement from communities, I believed was one of the most significant and overlooked areas of health and the overall building of peace in this war-torn country.

0:32:46 - Kimberly King

Wow, just to have those experience firsthand and then being able to transpose that into something that you want to do in the future to make a difference. How do you approach fostering dialogue and building bridges between different communities or stakeholders?

0:33:02 - David Schoeller-Diaz

I think dialogue is absolutely crucial to so many aspects of global health and global initiatives, be they humanitarian, peace building, conflict resolution, security and others, and that dialogue should be built on mutual respect, on some parameters that would enable trust building. I think that that trust building is a longer term endeavor. For dialogue to lead to agreements and, even more, to results, it needs to be sustained and it needs to be strengthened by results. However, a lot of the most important transformations, at least the type of transformations that I've been engaging with and that I hope to see in the world, do require that dialogue between different parties. So it's something that we need to learn and continuously improve. I would advise learning skills that emerge from the international negotiation field, from conflict resolution, from mediation, from facilitation, but it's also a matter of having the cultural humility and, increasingly, the cultural competence to engage with diverse people and to build trust and bring about durable changes.

0:34:57 - Kimberly King

Yeah, that makes sense. And you talked about skills. How do you believe your technical proficiency has enhanced the effectiveness of your humanitarian projects?

0:35:08 - David Schoeller-Diaz

It was a more recent discovery for me because, I'll be honest, even though I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the midst of very exciting technological transformations, I was not at the heart of those changes. I was not an especially technically adept teenager, or at least I didn't view myself as such. I was more interested in art and humanities and understanding people and their history, and I realized that being in that environment and seeing the world continue to change, data and technology were absolutely critical to innovating and ensuring that whatever we did was more agile, was more responsive, was more impactful. So I have become a true believer and an evangelizer of the power of data and technology in different kinds of global initiatives, and I truly enjoyed-

If I could say something to my earlier self, I would say learn to program and to really see it as another language that is as important, if not more, than your second or third language. So it's something that I would say to younger students to overcome their fears and to learn technical skills that are likely going to be a key part of their line of work across very diverse areas. So it's been very important for me. It's been a common thread, essentially knowing how to manage information rapidly learning and mentoring others on the use of emerging technology and ensuring that I can visualize, communicate and make decisions based on data. It is absolutely critical.

0:37:30 - Kimberly King

Which I mean. It's so great that it is considered another language you know, so you have been able to equip yourself, and I think it's probably never too late, right, David? As an adjunct professor at National University, how do you draw upon your real world experiences to inspire and guide your students?

0:37:48 - David Schoeller-Diaz

I truly love teaching. I am taken aback by how rewarding the experience is after every session because of the rich sometimes surprisingly rich questions, comments and discussions that I'm able to witness and to support during the classes. So this is a bit of a truism, but it's something that I sincerely believe that if I can be an adept promoter, facilitator and champion of our joint learning in these virtual and hybrid classrooms, I will feel very pleased with the work that I'm able to do and, of course, the real world life experiences are key to that because I'm able to engage with students, to share potentially significant experiences and to encourage that back and forth that will enable all of us to learn, to improve our skills, our knowledge and to hopefully become the professionals and leaders that we ought to be.

0:39:32 - Kimberly King

That's so great. You're in a key position for that. So, with your extensive experience in administration and being the professor that you are, what are some best practices that you would recommend for effective project management in the global health and humanitarian sector?

0:39:49 - David Schoeller-Diaz

Apart from everything that I've said before and I think that a lot of it is pertinent to global project and program management I would say that having both a systematic, detail-oriented approach, not being afraid to dive into the nitty gritty of how things are done be it how life-saving food is packaged, transported and delivered, or how measurements for different types of malnutrition are made, or how data is being cleaned, as messy and arduous as that process may be so getting into the nitty gritty and building rapport with your teams, based on an understanding and a recognition of what they do, and working to bring together talented, diverse individuals to collaborate more effectively so that is more of the human aspect of partnership building.

I think that is quite important. And finally, it is the ability to think at a systemic level, being more strategic about what changes we're trying to bring about, understanding what are the purposes and the obstacles of that, and communicating with your teams, with your partners, in a way that can inspire collaboration and more meaningful and durable transformations. So I think those three things systematic and detail-oriented thinking, getting into the weeds, that human aspect of forging genuine partnerships and enabling collaboration, and thinking at a systemic or strategic level about what is the relevance of your work and communicating that in a way that can inspire that meaningful and durable change.

0:42:34 - Kimberly King

All of those are really important. I think and again because you have seen it from boots on the ground it's just amazing that you've been able to really transfer all of this to your students and inspire others. So thank you for sharing your knowledge today, David. If you would like more information, you can visit National University's website at And really we thank you so very much for your time today.

0:43:00 - David Schoeller-Diaz

Oh, it's been a great pleasure. I hadn't thought about some of these things for some time, so having the opportunity to reflect and to share has been a joy. Thank you very much, Kimberly.

0:43:14 - Kimberly King

Thank you. You've been listening to the National University Podcast. For updates on future or past guests, visit us at You can also follow us on social media. Thanks for listening.

Show Quotables

"I think data is hugely important, especially with decisions that involve human lives and the prevention or alleviation of human suffering. We need to take data a lot more seriously. - David Schoeller-Diaz," Click to Tweet
"We need to work in a very interdisciplinary, multilateral, cross-functional way to ensure that we have more strategic solutions for some of the world's most pressing challenges. - David Schoeller-Diaz," Click to Tweet