Grace in a Competitive World

Meet this year’s commencement speaker, Carolyn Woo, leader of Catholic Relief Services worldwide.

Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), will be the featured speaker at Santa Clara University’s 2016 undergraduate commencement, June 11.

CRS is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States and operates in more than 100 countries. Before joining CRS, she led the University of Notre Dame’s business school to a No. 1 ranking in undergraduate education.

We asked her what she plans to talk about at commencement, the refugee crisis in Europe, why businesses should support the call from Pope Francis to protect the environment, and more.

What was your reaction when you were asked to give this year’s commencement address and accept an honorary doctorate from Santa Clara?

I was humbled and greatly appreciative of being recognized and being invited to be part of the Santa Clara family. The Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship is a great partner in Catholic Relief Services’ work and helps us a lot. I was a colleague of [former SCU President] Fr. Paul Locatelli. He and I were both board members of CRS, and I still miss him today. Being a part of his legacy means a lot.

Without giving too much away, what do you plan to talk about at commencement?

I’m going to talk about grace in a competitive world, what the source of this grace is, and how it affects the way we live and the way we act.

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You were invited to the Vatican last year for the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’, On Care for Our Common Home. You gave a business perspective on the teaching. You said the public and private sectors need to work together to address climate change and move away from short-term thinking. How do you see that happening, given our divisive politics and the fact that public companies have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize shareholder value?

Let me take the second part first. Maximizing shareholder returns requires a company to manage its risks properly. That includes the firm-specific risk to a company’s reputation and its long-term access to resources. For example, we know water is a scarce resource. Figuring out how to use less, to recycle, to reuse water becomes a prudent business decision. Maximizing shareholder value also requires responsible behavior toward other stakeholders: employees, community, suppliers, and the places from which we extract resources.

When it comes to the public sector, regulatory policies are important because they set limits on the levels of harmful substances allowed into our air, our water, our soil. They establish the costs and feasibility of current practice vs. future options. Incentives like tax credits, subsidies, research funding, and public education can increase the practicality and affordability of alternative approaches and help bring about the transition to a low-carbon economy.

The Clean Power Act was lauded by many large businesses—28 companies went to the White House to support it—because it creates clear signals and pricing implications so companies can assess the investments they should make.

Laudato si’ talks about the need for humans to be stewards of creation. But some fundamentalists believe Genesis grants man dominion over all of nature. Is this a contradiction?

God gave us creation to till and to keep. It is a gift; we do not own it. We must steward it. It’s for the nourishment of not only us but the people who follow us. And it is not just for the rich. It is for the poor and the rich.

Nothing in God’s creation is superfluous. So when we destroy biodiversity, we are taking out genetic compositions that God has put into the earth. The encyclical makes it very clear: The value of that biodiversity is not for us to determine.

George Will has excoriated Pope Francis’ critique of capitalism, growth, and the use of fossil fuels, saying the combination has driven the reduction of poverty and improved standards of living for millions around the world. Doesn’t he have a point?

Capital markets can do both good and a lot of harm. Think about the financial crisis. If it had gone on completely unabated, we would all have lost our assets and retirement savings.

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict said markets are not good or evil in their own right; the key is the moral energies of the people who direct them. Economic systems, left to themselves and without proper regulation and moral impulses, would not serve society well. This is neither responsible nor legitimate to society, and it is not the teaching of our faith.

Catholic Relief Services started out by helping Polish refugees after World War II and has come to the aid of a million refugees from Syria and Iraq in recent years. Europe has now closed its doors to additional refugees from the Middle East and is directing people to seek asylum in Turkey. What is CRS’s opinion of this, and what is its strategy going forward?

Leaving people in Turkey is, at best, a short-term approach with inherent difficulties. The large number of refugees will change Turkey’s demographics and exacerbate its current challenges. So other countries can’t just say, “Turkey will solve the problem and we are off the hook, we won’t open up our borders, we won’t accept Syrian refugees.” Turkey alone is not enough. We have to work against the tide of nationalism and efforts to demonize the newcomers.

In our work at CRS to serve refugees, first of all, we are following the current paths of the migrants. We have opened offices in six new countries, following the immigration path—Albania, Bosnia, Greece, Macedonia, and so on.

Second, we need to look at the refugee question as a long-term issue. The estimate is that it will take 17 to 25 years for refugees to go back to their countries of origin, so support for the host countries is critical. CRS has been serving war-affected Syrians in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan and putting in programs for education and livelihoods to meet these long-term needs.

We desperately need peaceful solutions in Syria through the political process. All of us need to ask, “If the whole world worked together, what could reconstruction look like in Syria?”

You’ve traveled the world and seen CRS-supported programs in action. Is there a person or story that’s particularly touched you?

A mother I met in Afghanistan. She was in a group of women in an entrepreneurship program. We did a lot of training on how to start small businesses. These were women who already had their own housework—they had to gather firewood from the mountain for the winter. We had a group of 10 who wanted to start a bakery. They had three months of materials—sugar, flour, and butter—and an oven. They sold out in one week by selling to the Afghan police department. You know how police everywhere like donuts? Now they needed a second oven. They wanted more training so they could build a much larger operation.

When I visited, the leader of the women was breastfeeding her child, her baby, and I said, “How many children do you have?” She said, “This is actually my second; my first one died because I did not have enough milk.” So we helped make the difference with a mother having enough to feed her child.

A few years ago Foreign Policy magazine named you one of the 500 Most Powerful People on the Planet and one of 33 deemed “a force for good.” If you could change one law, what would it be?

I think our immigration system is broken and needs to be addressed in a systematic, humane, and practical way. There are 12 million undocumented people living in our country right now. They have brought up children here. We need a system that slowly moves them into proper citizenship.

The whole border question is not about building walls; it’s about addressing the factors in these countries that push people into desperate behavior. Nobody wants to leave her home if the homeland is stable, safe, and there are opportunities. But if your homeland is violent, if you face gang activities, if your life is being threatened, your children’s lives are being threatened, and you cannot make a living—these are the causes we really need to address and can address.

You’ve been an advocate for increasing the number of women in leadership positions in business and elsewhere. What advice do you have for women setting out on their careers right now?

Be excellent at what you do and go the extra mile.

Learn how to operate as an outsider and make contributions, and know what you bring to the table. I am such an outsider; I couldn’t even try to be an insider because I was a foreigner and a woman in a field where there were very few women. Do not be paralyzed by your own “self-consciousness.”

Do not give up your family for your career.

Have a sense of how faith can become the framework for how you live life.

Get more information about SCU’s 2016 commencement, including dates and times, on the commencement website.

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