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America Magazine on Carolyn Woo: The Continuing Mission

January 11, 2012 by

Kevin Clarke of America magazine, the national Catholic weekly published by the Jesuits, this week profiles Carolyn Woo, the new president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.

Some things about Carolyn Woo are very “un-Chinese,” as she puts it. Joining a debating team as a teenager coming of age in Hong Kong was “a very un-Chinese activity,” she says. And her career in strategic planning? It was “an unlikely field for a Chinese person when I was young,” she says.

Perhaps Ms. Woo’s exposure to Maryknoll sisters from the United States, who educated her throughout her childhood in Hong Kong, had something to do with it. Even as a child she was impressed by the faith, creativity and enthusiasm of the sisters. “They were always joyful; they had great humor and great spirit,” she remembers. “Things were always fun, and they were not easily intimidated.”

Ms. Woo watched the Maryknoll sisters build schools and clinics and find ways to support the Vietnamese boat people then landing in Hong Kong. “The word cannot does not exist in their vocabulary,” Ms. Woo says. “When I look back, I think, ‘What entrepreneurial people.’ Every time there was any type of barrier, they found a way to overcome it and actually lead to a better outcome.”

Her experience with the Maryknoll order proved a lifelong inspiration. She devoted herself to understanding and promoting that entrepreneurial spirit as a student, then as a professor at Purdue University and, since 1997, as the Martin J. Gillen Dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. This month, she will bring what she has learned about entrepreneurialism into a new role when she replaces Ken Hackett as president and chief executive officer of Catholic Relief Services. Mr. Hackett is retiring after 18 years at the helm.

Ms. Woo expects to bring her entrepreneurial expertise to her new job. “My role,” she says, “has always been looking at the future and seeing how an organization could be better positioned to be successful.” Ms. Woo says she has done that not only on the job at Mendoza but also as an advisor to corporations and not-for-profits and as a long-time member of the C.R.S. board of directors.

“Catholic Relief Services is a well-oiled machine in terms of day-to-day operations and its ability to deliver humanitarian relief,” says Ms. Woo. The agency is great “heads down,” working in disaster response and poverty mitigation in the field. The agency could benefit, she thinks, from someone who remains “heads up, looking at the major changes in our environment…to think about how do we need to position this organization, what new capabilities do we need to develop or restructure in the most optimal way to support the people’s work in the field?”

Clarke notes one interesting aspect of Carolyn’s story: that in coming to CRS, she has in a sense “come full circle:”

“I was born in Hong Kong to parents who chose to leave China because of the Communist government, so in some ways I was born to refugees; Hong Kong was a city of refugees.” Her appointment, she suggests, signals missionary work that has now “come full circle.” The American church sent the Maryknoll sisters across the world to help a generation of children disoriented, like their parents, by the rapid political changes that drove them to an emerging metropolis. “I was the beneficiary of their work,” Ms. Woo says, “and today I am to lead the humanitarian relief agency of the U.S. Catholic Church.”

This is the “whole idea of the global church,” she says, and an expression of the opportunities life in the United States and the U.S. church has offered to her. Her personal success and the talent and skills she returns to the church through this new role, she says, are the “fruit of the missionary work of the Catholic Church”—work she is committed to continuing as she moves from South Bend to this next important chapter in her American journey.

Read the profile in America.

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