Being Carolyn

Author: Sally Ann Flecker


Back in the mid-1990s, when Mendoza College of Business Dean Carolyn Woo was working at Purdue University, she was invited to be on the board of a Midwestern seminary. She has no idea why she was asked to be on the board, she says. She always says this. It’s not false modesty. She knows exactly what she brings to the table—honesty, insightful intelligence, determination to see a project all the way through, heart. She serves on boards of organizations as varied as Circuit City, NiSource and Catholic Relief Services. Still, somehow she’s always surprised when her name comes up. It’s likely that the seminary didn’t know exactly what they were getting into bringing Woo on. Her first board meeting was an introduction. When she studied her board book, she could see the problem. A big problem.

The school’s graduate program for lay and divinity students was thriving. The same couldn’t be said for the undergraduate program, which was for young men only. Enrollment fluctuated wildly—sometimes dropping below 20, other years going up to 32. The school couldn’t charge full tuition for each student they recruited, so they were underwriting—sometimes as much as $40,000 to $50,000 a student. As a result, graduate program resources were subsidizing the undergraduate program.

When the second meeting rolled around, Woo still didn’t know anyone well enough to know what the sacred cows were, didn’t know yet what wasn’t supposed to be said. So she simply said what she saw.

Woo is telling this story as she leads a session this afternoon for teams of executive directors and board members of Catholic Charities organizations that are at Notre Dame for an intense, three-day leadership and development workshop. Woo’s presentation is on strategic management, and she’s had each team evaluating the balance of their emerging, mature and declining programs. Her message today is about developing a plan that is sustainable in terms of finances and resources. It’s also about asking the hard questions and making the hard decisions.

Her manner is conversational. She has been moderating the conference from a table in the back of the room for two days, but for this session she’s occupied a worktable smack in the middle of the room. The story is very “Carolyn,” which is something I’ve heard people say before, as though she is a quintessential, the perfect example of herself. Today, it also seems to me as I watch her that the perfect distillation of Carolyn Woo is where she has chosen to sit. She finds her way to the center and then reaches out from there.

She might not have been so bold, she tells the group now, if she had known the administrators and other board members at the seminary better. “Am I reading this correctly?” she asked them. “This is disastrous. Every student you increase, you dip further into your reserve. Is this what you want to do—because this is a form of liquidation. If you do want to liquidate yourselves, this is certainly the way to do it.” Everyone today laughs. But at the board meeting, her question was met with stone silence until the abbot said, “That’s a good question.”

“I think they were waiting for someone to ask it,” Woo says. "Because at the next meeting the board decided we should close the undergraduate program. Of course, they allowed everyone to finish. But they pulled the plug within three meetings.

Gift wrapping a life

By one estimate, there are 42 armed conflicts happening around the world. The threat of nuclear annihilation hasn’t really abated, although who we’re afraid of has shifted. There are people in the world so full of hate that they blow up themselves, and as many men, women and children—_children_—as they can. There’s Darfur, Rwanda, Somalia, Haiti and tsunamis, cyclones, earthquakes: Hatreds and disasters of such a ruinous scale that the only sane thing to do is try not to think about it. It’s too big, too much, too hard. We’re too little. That’s the danger of globalization—complete and utter paralysis. It’s hard to believe, for many of us, that what you do matters, that you can make a difference beyond your immediate, physical world and the people who inhabit it.

On the other hand, what would happen if you lived your life as if everything you do matters?

I think that’s the logical extension of what it means to be “Carolyn.” The evening before, I had been at Carolyn Woo’s house when she hosted a group of Notre Dame students. It was early March. I had come to Notre Dame to spend some time with Woo and learn more about work she is doing in conjunction with the United Nations.

March is Women’s Appreciation Month at Notre Dame. This year’s theme was “What Women Want,” and what these young women had decided they wanted was dinner with Dr. Woo. They had arrived at the door giddy, laughing and chattering away after somehow prying all 11 of themselves out of two small cars. Woo drew them out, making introductions and peppering them with questions while ushering them to the kitchen where she’d set up an informal buffet.

After they’d all eaten, they sat together in Woo’s living room, sipping coffee and balancing dessert plates. These are eager young women, full of life and with lots to say. But when Woo began to talk, a hush settled, the kind of hush that comes when you listen with your whole body. Woo, 54 and the mother of two sons, talked to them about how important it was to have deep friendships, about how to craft a married life that works with a career. She talked about the trap that women fall into of never feeling like they measure up, no matter how accomplished they are. Better to let go of that sooner than later, she told them.

Woo shared stories about herself—how coming from Hong Kong to America for college was a “dream come true,” how she felt she had to work so hard that she never learned how to go to bed at night properly. She would get ready—put on her nightgown and brush her teeth—then be pulled back to her desk where she would study until she fell asleep with her head on a book. She talked with them about their experience at Notre Dame. “You learn community and a sense of grace only when you’ve been on the receiving end of it,” she told them. “Notre Dame’s gift,” she said, “is that it allows you to see the better side. It prevents cynicism. You’ve seen goodness, you can believe in it, you can blossom because you have been loved and cared for.”

Before the women left, Woo loaded them down with leftovers to take home, a fresh flower arrangement she had made of pink tulips and spring blooms to take back to their residence hall rector. Then she turned her attention to me. I was supposed to be interviewing her, not the other way around. But she asked me to tell her about my two young boys, and I found myself leaning against the doorway to her kitchen, describing my kids, unexpectedly pouring my heart out about my worry du jour. And the thing was, she was listening. It was getting late. She was tired from a long day. But if one of the earmarks of Carolyn Woo is her ability to speak from the heart, the other is that she is equally a profound listener.

“Have a sense of what a complete job is,” she had told the students earlier, which struck me as a shade different from “Finish what you start.” I found myself mulling that over as I walked out into the bracing night air and a star-filled sky. Woo’s husband, David Bartkus, had told me that one of the ways Woo finds to relax, besides arranging flowers, is by wrapping gifts. She has a little workbench where she keeps all her supplies—fancy bows, patterned papers. She might work for a half hour on one present, he says, the presentation an important part of the gift.

Graciousness, it occurred to me, is part of Woo’s sense of a complete job. I left feeling warmed by a special and generous evening. I carried that back home.

Earning rabbits

By all accounts, Carolyn Woo is atypically humble. She doesn’t place value, I was told by one of her colleagues, on public recognition. In fact, single her out for acknowledgment and she is likely to bow her head. Still, among the possessions she has hung onto over the years is a good-conduct medal she won in kindergarten. The medal, inscribed in characters with her Chinese name, Woo Yau Yan, is a thin, soft gold, and bears her teeth marks because she would chew on it sometimes.

She won that medal because every day when she went to school, her nanny, a beautiful, strong woman named Fung Yau, would make sure her uniform was spotless and crisp, her homework perfect. Even the little towel she was supposed to bring to wipe her hands was pristine. At the end of each day, her teacher would put a little mark on her report—a rabbit if you did a good job, a pig if you didn’t. “Bring me home a rabbit,” her nanny would tell her. She had done her part, she’d say—when she sent the little girl out the door, everything was perfect. The rest of the day depended on Woo.

Fung was more mother than servant to Woo, who was born fifth out of six children. In fact, in 2001, after her mother died, Woo formalized the bond between herself and Fung with an adoption ceremony. Woo often says she is living out a set of blessings, that her career is made up of a lot of people who took her to the next level. But the foundation was built on that early relationship with a woman who had been sold as a servant girl at the age of 9, who carried the books of a rich man’s children to school, who taught herself to read as she stood outside the classroom, who chose not to marry rather than suffer an arranged marriage. She believed in doing the right thing, believed in doing the hard thing, believed in Carolyn.

When Woo failed the verbal portion of a practice SAT exam, Fung handed her a dictionary to read through every night while Fung ironed. When Woo was accepted at Purdue, her older brother and two sisters gave her some money to help pay for the first year. The breathtaking sacrifice came from her nanny, who gave her the gold pieces that comprised her life savings. If Carolyn Woo is humble, you understand why.

Money and violence

The earlier the better if you’re trying to squeeze into Woo’s nonstop schedule, so I met her the next morning at 7 for breakfast. At her house the evening before, she had talked to the young women about her decision last year to accept a third five-year-term as dean. It was not one made lightly. She spent five days in a silent retreat at a monastery near Portland, Oregon, turning things over in her mind. The average tenure of business school deans now is six or seven years. And Woo is an expert in strategic management. She was all too aware of something she used to say when she was younger—people often overstay leadership positions.

“But this is where I derive my passion,” she had told them. “If I went to another school, what would I talk about—how much money I raised, how many awards we won?” She stayed, she said, because this is the time. She has a window. There is big, important work to do.

No one had asked that night what that big, important work is. They might have been surprised to know how far it goes beyond the usual focus of a dean. Business for Good, Woo calls it. Waging peace through commerce.

In 1999, then-Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan laid down a challenge to global political and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In earlier years, he had spoken of his hope for what he called a “creative partnership” between the United Nations and the private sector. But here for the first time, he came armed with a formal proposal, the Global Compact Initiative.

“He made the comment that business can play a very, very important role in stabilizing unrest and also contribute to economic development and the rebuilding of a country,” Woo tells me. “This is an unusual statement in the sense that the U.N. had never really worked closely with business. So for him to make a declarative statement that business needs to be involved in an agenda of peace is a major step.”

How do you make armed conflict undesirable? One political scientist found that economic freedom is 50 times more powerful than democracy in predicting a decrease in violence. And here’s something I found startling: In the developing world, democracies where the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is above $6,000 are pretty stable. Those that fall between $3,000 and $6,000 are vulnerable to coups and civil wars. Those that fall below $3,000 are pretty much doomed.

When countries are important trade partners, they are unlikely to go to war with each other. That’s not a new observation. What is new is this global economy where multinational corporations may wield as much influence as traditional governments. The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development counts more than 70,000 multinational companies in the world. Three hundred multinational corporations control an estimated 25 percent of the world’s assets. As much as 40 percent of world trade now occurs within multinational corporations.

“These corporations determine the development of economies, consumption, pricing and development of natural resources, as well as winners and losers in different economies,” Woo says. “Their products embody social values and influence culture and the quality of life.”

The U.N. Global Compact is a set of 10 principles based on international treaties that pertain to human rights, labor rights, the environment and anticorruption. Signatories agree to abide by those principles and to audit their practices annually. Associating your company with the Global Compact is sort of like having a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to the nth degree in a time when corporate social responsibility is something consumers and shareholders alike are looking for. To date, more than 4,000 businesses, both large and small, from 120 countries have signed on. Especially encouraging is the fact that over half of all Global Compact participants are from developing countries.

The investment community is so on board that it has taken the idea a step further and developed its own set of Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). “The U.N. was very smart,” Woo says. “They reached out to the financial markets, because if you control money, money talks. Money has a way of driving the agenda into the companies that these investment managers invest in.” PRI was launched in 2006. In its first year alone, 183 investment managers, asset owners and professional service partners, representing $8 trillion in assets, signed on.

Critics call the Global Compact misguided, a partnership that could allow corporations to “greenwash” their images without really walking the walk. But the beauty of peace through commerce goes beyond the moral precept that business and industry have a responsibility to the societies that enable their success. Social and environmental accountability is good for the bottom line as well. The investment giant Goldman Sachs produced a report on the principles of the compact and found that companies which rated well on social and environmental factors tended to be well managed in other areas and performed well financially. Business for Good, it seems, is also Good for Business.

On a mission

When Carolyn Woo speaks, she tends to look above the crowd. Her eyes might close a bit. So she might not have seen the eyes rolling when, in 2005, she addressed her fellow business school deans, her colleague John Fernandes told me. Fernandes is executive director of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the organization that accredits business schools worldwide. “The board chuckled when Carolyn suggested that business schools assist in the Peace through Commerce initiative,” he says. “They thought, ‘Oh, that’s Carolyn just being Carolyn.’”

But Carolyn, being Carolyn, was on a mission. And Carolyn, being Carolyn, wasn’t concerned with how anyone looked at her. More important was her sense that she had a responsibility to press this issue. Courses in ethics aside, the thinking behind Peace through Commerce wasn’t in the nucleus of most business schools. At best, it was a niche topic. “Even nowadays it may not be at the core,” she says. But she got the ball rolling.

AACSB put together a task force, which she headed, to look at cases of what business schools had done and could do. Then Woo played the key role, according to Georg Kell, director of the Global Compact, in bringing AACSB to the table to work with the United Nations and other partners on what became the Principles for Responsible Management Education. That initiative was announced officially last summer at the Global Compact Leaders Summit in Geneva, Switzerland. One hundred schools, to date, including Notre Dame, have signed on.

Woo has more work to do. Remember, this is a woman who has a masterful sense of what a complete job is. (She vowed not to marry until she had finished her dissertation. She turned the dissertation in at 2 p.m. the day of her wedding and made it to the church with time to spare.) She’s a woman who has always brought home “rabbits.” She’ll need the remaining four years as dean, she says, to convert the responsible management education principles into pragmatic and explicit practices. She can rattle a list off the top of her head of all the questions that will need to be documented, measured and then translated into the curriculum. Her agenda is not complicated, she says. Just large.

“This is the moment,” she says. “Nobody is promised forever. You are just promised now.”

“What do you want for yourself?” a young woman had asked Woo the evening of the dinner. “To never stop growing” was her answer. That’s very Carolyn.

Sally Ann Flecker is a freelance writer and writing coach. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two sons.
Carolyn Woo photo by Matt Cashore