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The Interview: Carolyn Y. Woo

As a teenager attending a Catholic school in Hong Kong in the 1960s, Carolyn Y. Woo never imagined that her studies were helping prepare her to one day lead Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, one of the world's largest international humanitarian relief agencies.

Woo took over this month as CRS' chief executive officer and president, replacing 18-year veteran Ken Hackett.

Woo, 57, brings an academic and business background to her job, having most recently served as dean of the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. Before that she was an administrator at Purdue University, where she also taught and earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Woo's academic research focused on strategy, entrepreneurship and organizational systems.

Today, Woo oversees a relief agency with an annual operating budget of $823 million and a 5,000-member staff around the world, including about 400 employees in Baltimore.

Nonprofits are major employers in Maryland, with just over 260,000 workers at the end of 2010. In Baltimore alone, the sector accounts for one-third of all private-sector jobs.

Catholic Relief Services helps more than 100 million people in nearly 100 countries, offering programs focused on emergency response, health, education and peace-building, among others.

Woo recently spoke with The Baltimore Sun about her history, her first-year focus at CRS and the challenges facing the organization.

Having moved from Indiana, how do you like Baltimore?

I love Baltimore. I grew up in a city, Hong Kong, and it's been a long time since I've been in the city and [been a part of] city living. I love walking to work and I love the harbor. Hong Kong is a harbor [city], too. … I just am very happy to be here. Baltimore is beautiful, and I'm a big fan of crab cakes.

How did you get involved with Catholic Relief Services?

I've been Catholic all of my life. I was invited to be a board member from 2004 to 2010, and that really got me engaged to the point it transformed me.

What sort of insights did you gain from your experience as a board member?

It allowed me to understand the [organization's] scope. It's a big footprint. It opened my eyes to how effective the work is [that's] done by our people. The third thing that it did for me is it made social services real; you sometimes think it's something that someone else does.

When you see other people doing it on the ground and living in these countries away from home … they're so committed and engaged. That created a question for me: "Are you doing enough?"

You grew up in Hong Kong and attended a school run by the Maryknoll Sisters before coming to the United States for college. How do you think your personal journey informs how you will approach your job?

The first is that probably the seed of missionary work has been sown a long time ago. I was a beneficiary, and I watched [the sisters] work not just for a day or two years but [for] 12 years. … In high school I participated in various student groups … and assisted the sisters working in clinics.

I gave English lessons and a did lot of translation. Growing up, I was part of the work without realizing that I was part of that work.

The second thing is having been part of the work and being a beneficiary, it raises the whole issue of how do I give back. For a long time, it was enough to give money and tell my students to give back. It became not enough.

Tell us about how you came to the U.S. as a student at Purdue University.

When I was 16, I decided I wanted to come to the U.S. I wanted to have an education, and I wanted to have an American education.

I did not want a marriage of convenience. I have three older sisters and none went to college, and the Chinese way was to marry well.

Two of my three sisters married by the time they were 21. I wanted something else. [Woo married her college sweetheart and has two grown sons.]

I read a different type of literature and had exposure to American culture. I decided I wanted to come to the U.S. My parents were against it; my father was completely against it. I spent a year raising my own funds. I had one year of funding.

At Purdue, I applied for a scholarship. There were two scholarships for international [undergraduate students].

I never thought I would get it.

I would say because I knew I had one year of guaranteed funding, that year I packed a lot of content into my curriculum. That was a blessing. It makes you realize how much you could do if you know how little time you have to do it.

I ended up with a scholarship for three extra years, and at the end of two I was finished with my bachelor's.

How do you think business experience will help you in your new role?

I think actually there is a lot of transferable experience. … I worked a lot with industry people, [worked as a] consultant, did executive teaching and served on boards.

I did a lot of not-for-profit work, served on the CRS board for six years and the Catholic Charities board. I was blessed in the end to have a number of years in these sectors.

Good management practices — they transfer: How do you create an environment where people enjoy their work, where people are effective, where the work ends up in the successful performance of organizations?

Do you have a focus for your first year?

I don't have experience in the core operations of the organization, so what I bring is [attention] to the strategic viability and strategic vitality of the organization. While everyone is working hard every day, my role is to make sure that the direction we're going is viable and vibrant.

I'm not doing the day-to-day work, working on a sanitation project or advising communities on water issues. My role is to create an environment that allows other people's work to add up in a good way.

What are some challenges facing CRS, especially during this tough economic time?

I would say like all agencies in economically challenging times, there are two things you want to attend to: You want to make sure the work you do is excellent and relevant. … The organizations that survive, whether you're a business or not-for-profit, the key is, are you best at what you do and is what you do relevant? If you are, you will come through the difficult times.

The second piece of this is you need to diversify your sources of resources so you're not tied up with one major source. … What we need to do is develop more options for funding and options for expertise.

Speaking of money, how has the fundraising environment changed for CRS?

A majority of funding comes from the U.S. government and 30 percent comes from private sources. … With the U.S. economy the way it is, and the U.S. government interested in reducing the deficit … it will have implications for us.

The key is the area of private funding. We could raise that to a higher percentage. … Strategically, being excellent is very important because there is still funding, there are still needs, there are still opportunities in this area. It will go to the organizations that do the best work. … It's not good enough to do good-hearted work. We have to do it really well.

There are so many countries and people in need, particularly with the natural disasters and emergency needs we've seen over the years. How do you mobilize donors and create a sense of urgency?

We try to maintain our expense ratio at less than 10 percent. Every dollar we receive from a donor, we don't want more than 10 cents to go to our expenses and operations. We're running at 7 percent.

I think organizations which are excellent are like a magnet. … Despite challenging economic times, I have to emphasize that people don't stop caring. They still do care. Sometimes, we see more people volunteering in difficult times. They still give donations.

See more business leaders interviewed by The Baltimore Sun

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