Coffee & Doughnuts with Carolyn Woo

By Paul McMullen
The Catholic Review catches up with Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services and a parishioner of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
CR: What and where are your Catholic roots?
Woo: I was born and raised in Hong Kong. I was baptized Catholic. My father and mother were not Catholic. I was taught by Maryknoll Sisters in Hong Kong, who introduced me to the church.
CR: Did they have anything to do with you coming to the U.S.?
Woo: Yes, in the sense that American sisters gave me a picture of what women can do in the United States. I was always interested in the American educational system, and wanted to come to the U.S. for college. Of course, I didn’t have the money. When I went to Purdue, I had enough for one year; the rest is history.
CR: You came to CRS in 2011, after 14 years as dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza School of Business. Contrast academia with running a non-governmental organization.
Woo: Both begin with the same question. What does it mean to be a Catholic business school? What does it mean to be a Catholic development agency? All we do is to honor God.
I’m hard-nosed about higher standards, the ability to innovate and meet constituents – whether students or faculty, or beneficiaries in foreign countries – where they are today, and where they are going to be tomorrow. We cannot afford to be stuck in yesterday.
In development, the type of work, the pace, the accountability, are different. In research, in many cases,  we never ask the question, what is its impact? Outcomes are very important. How can we serve more people, in ways in which there is real benefit?
CR: Why give overseas when there is such need here?
Woo: In the U.S., there are large pockets of poverty and hopelessness, and people left behind. The problems here are real, but so are the problems in developing countries. The key is to support both, to not be blind to the need. The Gospel never said, “care only about the people in your ZIP code.”
Our lives are so intertwined. Do you know who picked your coffee beans, who caught the shrimp you eat? Are you aware of the quality of their lives? We’re all in this together, and not just because we live in the same ZIP code or go to the same church.
We’ve seen how problems can ripple through the world. Look at the violence in failed states, and what that means for the entire world.
CR: Is Baltimore a good home for CRS?
Woo: This is where the church started in the United States. (The Baltimore Basilica) is a reminder, this is where the American church took root.
I like Baltimore because of its diversity. Having our office two blocks from Lexington Market is a reminder of all the differences we see in economic and social class. Lexington Market is in the middle of universities and professional schools, but I haven’t seen everything mix. I wonder why.
That’s a reminder of the opportunity in front of us.
CR: Favorite saint?
Woo: I like the saints who are most imperfect, the ones who don’t always recognize the presence of God in their lives. St. Thérèse of Lisieux tried to be compassionate and patient, even when it was getting under her skin. St. Augustine was an unconstrained person. Thomas Merton had his issues; Dorothy Day her youthful indiscretions. 

Also see:

Coffee & Doughnuts with Ray Kelly

Coffee & Doughnuts with Mary Slicher

Coffee & Doughnuts with Pat Healey of the Baltimore Blast

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.