Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), visits with children who live in a Missionaries of Charity home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The home receives support from CRS and serves more than 1,000 children and adults who are orphaned or ill. (Photo by Jim Stipe/CRS)
The Greater Good
CRS president and CEO Carolyn Woo heeds the call
Krannert alumna Carolyn Woo believes there are no accidents in life. If you run into challenges, there are reasons and a way, she says. She should know. As head of one of the world’s largest relief organizations, a former vice president of Purdue and past dean of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, she has found her way by being a devoted and humble student of hard work.
Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official international relief and development arm of the Catholic Church in the U.S., now leads an organization that serves more than 100 million people in 91 countries on five continents with an annual operating budget between $700 and $940 million. At the helm since January 2012, it is her first full-time venture outside of higher education, and one that she says she didn’t seek out.
“The call was compelling,” she says of her position with CRS. “It was a body of work that was mine to do, given the experiences that I had. I did not see it as a job or a promotion. I saw the need and felt like it was my responsibility to do it. In my career I have had very strong pulls that took me out of my comfort zone.”
Woo (BSIM ’76, MSIA ’76, PhD ’79) grew up in Hong Kong, where her father hoped she would spend her life. Her dream was broader than marrying well and staying at home. An older sister worked for TWA, and through her, the younger Woo met a Purdue economics professor who was on sabbatical with the international airline. He encouraged her to apply to Purdue.
Except for two years, Purdue was home to Woo from the age of 18, when she enrolled at the Krannert School of Management, until the age of 43, when she left her position as Purdue’s associate executive vice president for academic affairs to become dean of Notre Dame’s business school.
Woo credits an undergraduate fellowship from the office of international students with changing her life. It was a life on warp speed. She packed undergraduate education into three years and continued for graduate studies in strategic management, completing 53 credit hours in 11 months.
“I had studied economics and a lot of mathematics and hadn’t learned anything but mathematical representation of theory,” she says of her choice of graduate studies. “I wanted to study something with as few assumptions as possible. Strategic management in 1975 was a very new field.”
Upon completing her doctorate at Purdue and working for two years in industry, Woo moved into a Purdue faculty position and eventually became the associate executive vice president for academic affairs. She was named assistant professor in 1981, became full professor in 1991 and directed Krannert’s professional master’s programs from 1993 to 1995. Woo also married a Purdue industrial engineering alumnus, David Bartkus, and from the very beginning found a home (both social and spiritual) at the St. Thomas Aquinas Center near campus.