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Catholic Relief Services CEO speaks at St. Kate's

Carolyn Woo, Ph.D.
Carolyn Woo, Ph.D.
Photo submitted.

Carolyn Woo, Ph.D., offered two pieces of advice to the young women who came to hear her speak as recipient of the sixth annual Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity award at St. Kate’s.

“Don’t take your opportunities for granted,” she told the audience in The O’Shaughnessy auditorium on April 19. “Many people before you did not have them and paved the way. And be sure to bring the next generation along.”

As president and chief executive of Catholic Relief Services, and former dean of the Mendoza College of Business at Notre Dame, the Purdue-educated Woo has achieved more than her foremothers even dared to dream. “My grandmother had her feet bound,” said Woo, a native of Hong Kong. “My mother was home tutored. She never took an exam in her life. She hardly knew my father when they got married.”

Woo visited St. Catherine University only four months after taking the reins at CRS, a billion-dollar international relief service. Honored as a woman of both vision and compassion — as a leader, a role model and an “exemplar of cross-cultural solidarity” — she spoke on the topic “Common Good, Uncommon Excellence.”

The Myser Initiative event was co-sponsored in part by Campus Ministry and the School of Business and Leadership at St. Kate’s. Woo sat for an interview on the morning of her speech — attended by students, faculty, alumnae and friends of the University — after meeting with faculty and saying her morning Rosary in Our Lady of Victory Chapel.

What did you inherit when you accepted the awesome responsibility of running a billion-dollar international relief service?

CRS has grown significantly in the past 10 years. Now, depending on whether we have a large-scale emergency, our revenue is about $940 million.

More important, we operate in about 100 countries on five continents, serving more than 100 million people. We’re known for operational excellence in these countries. CRS has a keen focus on stewardship: 94 percent of our revenues go into the field. Our expenses are 6 to 7 percent of what we take in. For most nonprofits, an expense ratio of 15 percent is acceptable. Our goal is not to exceed 10 percent.

How do you manage that?

We have a very strong commitment to proper stewardship. Also, our work is made possible by working with a lot of local partners. The Catholic Bishops of the United States founded Catholic Relief Services in 1943 to serve World War II survivors in Europe. We are a part of the U.S. Catholic Church, and we work with the Church everywhere in the world.

We serve on the basis of need, not on the basis of creed. We serve because we are Catholics, not because others are. We go wherever there are people who are vulnerable, who need help —and we bring hope.

How do you maintain hope, for yourself and your colleagues?

I never go without hope. The work we do is the work of the Holy Spirit. This work is shared with wonderful people at CRS and all those who support it. God is with us, and God’s love is with us. It is out of this love that we do this work — that we see strangers as neighbors and neighbors as part of the same family, people who want safety and nutrition, a certain degree of self-reliance, economic opportunity and a future for their children.

I have seen entrenched conflict become workable relationships, in my lifetime. My parents lived in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation. Then the Japanese started doing business with China after the war. I have seen peace between Northern Ireland and South Ireland. I have seen apartheid give way to an integrated country. The Berlin Wall fell. I have seen Vietnam again engaging the United States after a bitter war. I have seen very poor countries emerge with greater economic opportunity, with an approach that lifts some of its people out of poverty.

It’s not even; the work is not done. Every generation has its own lessons to learn. But we cannot think only of the despair. Every one of us has some role to play. Am I without headaches? No. But hope was never the issue.

You enjoyed success at Notre Dame. You’d been an academic administrator at Purdue. Why did you decide to take this job?

Serving for six years on the Catholic Relief Services board changed me. It opened my eyes to the world of need. Even more powerful, it opened my eyes to the people who do this work. There are actually people like me who make choices to do this work.

Finally, it opened my eyes to how much this work really does bring results. This is not futile. We are not tilting at windmills. We see progress. After you have seen the need, it calls for a certain response.

Was it that your life was too comfortable?

My own life is so graced. I was educated for 12 years by the Maryknoll Sisters — missionaries who went to China and then were asked to leave, so they went to Hong Kong. I had so much fun, and they prepared me so well. The Sisters were joyful and had a can-do attitude. That’s what I learned from them. I got the best of what the Church had to offer.

Then I was nourished and supported when I was a foreign student at Purdue. I was taken in by the St. Thomas Aquinas Center, the Newman Center there. They rang the church bells when I defended my Ph.D. thesis. The Church landed me in a good career. I could use that success for my own ends. But it seemed like a less than worthy way of acknowledging these blessings. And I also wanted to carry on the work.

What is the balance at CRS between being proactive and reactive in your work?

The first stage of relief is food rations, water, basic needs. That’s the first response to a disaster. At a certain point, you move from relief to stabilization: getting people back into their homes, building shelters, reestablishing neighborhoods, providing education, training people in livelihood projects and small social enterprises, allowing life to return to normal.

Do you stabilize or rebuild life? That’s a difficult tradeoff. We want to go for sustainable solutions. We want people’s lives to progress. We are for integral human development, not just the immediate need but human dignity and empowerment. Development requires us to build up local organizations, to help people become leaders rather than followers.

What is the inspiration for the title of your speech: “Common Good, Uncommon Excellence”?

Father Ted Hesburgh, a legendary president of Notre Dame, said it is not enough to serve the common good; we must do so with uncommon excellence. Mediocrity is not the way we serve the Church, the blessed mother or the people who depend on us, he used to say.

If we want the privilege of serving people at Catholic Relief Services, we have to demonstrate that we’ll do our very best. Innovation is always a mark of our work.

Click here to learn more about Catholic Relief Services.

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April 26, 2012 by Amy Gage

See also: Alumnae/i, Business, Catholic Identity, Social Justice