Justice Education

PURSUING Vocation  |  Good Business


Our Love Story

Carolyn Woo

Artwork: “Intertribal” by Tony A. Tiger © 2015

About twenty years ago our son quipped with envy about how our generation, the Baby Boomers, possessed uncompromising clarity about what was important to us. My husband and I came of age in the era of Watergate, peace protests against the Vietnam war, the struggle for women’s rights, and advocacy for racial equality.

Even as a young teen then, though overestimating the commitment of the Boomers to a peaceful and just society, our son was already pondering his purpose and had a growing frustration with not knowing what he should stand for and give his all.

The search for purpose inevitably turns our sight outward to the needs of the world and how we can make life better for others near and far. Yet, ironically, the journey must start with a focus on the self. To figure out our calling, we must first probe what we wish to offer and why. Before attention to others, purpose is first and foremost the giving of self: of our talents, training and education, efforts and persistence, attention and discernments, imagination, aspiration, and passion.

For purpose to be true to and worthy of us, it has to come from within. It is the ballad we compose and offer to the world from the notes and melodies pulsing in our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls, whether harmonious, discordant, sweet, or jarring. These are the notes that won’t leave us alone, notes that only we can hear and turn into song.

My Notes and Melodies

Youth and Education

I was born in the British colony of Hong Kong shortly after my parents decided that they could not return to mainland China in light of the ascendancy of the communist government. My parents had fled to this tiny island during World War II to escape Japanese bombardment in southern China. They had always expected to return to their ancestral homes, which held much of their families’ assets. Uprooted, they would start all over again. Prior social position, financial security, cultural familiarity, and even fluency with the local language would be lost.

I was the fifth child in the family as my parents worked their way toward having two sons, an heir and a spare. Blessed for me, the “spare” made his entry after me. My brothers were to become a doctor and a lawyer. My sisters and I were simply to marry well.

Huddling around my mother, aunt, and their lady friends, I heard repeatedly the same story in different renditions of the vulnerability of women who were economically dependent on their husbands. Each of my grandfathers had four wives and concubines. The latter were considered fortunate to be provided for by men who claimed them. My biological grandmother had her feet bound, a torturous practice which somehow denoted the desirability of a woman for marriage in old China. My mother’s investment suggestions to my father were casually brushed aside as women could not possibly comprehend economic matters. By middle school, I rejected the path of my mother and foremothers and determined to seek a future with self-agency through education.

Twelve years of elementary and high school with the Maryknoll Sisters, a missionary order from New York, formed my voice. More importantly, I came to recognize the responsibility for using that voice. Hong Kong was a wealth-driven society where power and wealth were the currencies for all transactions. Principles of unbridled free market and competition reigned with little accountability to and concern for those left behind.

Guided by the Maryknoll Sisters, I came to understand privilege, its obligations, and the people who bore the costs. I learned from them that social justice mandates action. I saw how resources that did not exist at the start of the Sisters’ service programs would eventually emerge from passion, creativity, and persistence. They made the students a part of their work and prayed with us to trust as they did in the Holy Spirit. From their faces, I equated faith with joy. Because God was real to them, God became real to me.

I was compelled to seek a college education in the United States. My father was short on both funds and the desire to see me go abroad. By then, I had become his intended companion in old age. I begged that he treat me as a son with the freedom to pursue a profession. In return, I would assume the responsibility of a son to care for him and my mom. I would honor the name of Woo. From my older siblings, I raised sufficient funds for one year of tuition and room and board at Purdue University.

In college, I studied Economics for no better reason than a deep-seated notion that it is absolutely essential for women to understand business, markets, and finance. I had witnessed the precarious nature of women’s wellbeing and dignity when they could not fend for themselves financially. Every ounce in me rebelled against becoming the victims in the stories my mom and aunt spoke with lament and tremor.

For my Ph.D. studies, I went into the field of Strategic Management. It was a completely new area of academic endeavor. “What is that?” was the most common response when people heard of my life choice for a profession. The field examines the success and failure of organizations in light of their internal facets (mission, culture, distinctiveness, resources) interacting with external forces (social, political, technological, economic).

It was a totally illogical pursuit given my lack of any business experience and the field’s antipathy to assumptions in economic analyses and my natural strength of statistical modeling. Inexplicably, I was hooked by the prospect of systematically examining external change from different angles and delineating likely consequences so as to enhance adaptation, innovation, and ultimate success. I moved forward despite the need to develop a very different skill set and the risks of unknown job prospects in a nascent discipline.

In hindsight, the childhood trauma of living in a world turned upside down by war, revolution, changes in technology, more wars in Indochina, dependence upon other countries for water and food, and financial reversals that affected people close to me must have imprinted me with the desire to have a firmer handle on things. Irresistible was the lure of more explicit understanding of the environment, greater preparedness, viable options, and my holy grail: stability. Strategic Management was my answer for the next four decades: it has been my role and contribution in every one of the over fifty organizations I have served as leader, staff, consultant, or board member. My professional path filled not only the vacuum in me for stability and the avoidance of chaos, but also became my offering to my communities.

A Call to Leave

When Notre Dame invited me to serve as the dean of the business school, I flatly turned down the idea. I was prospering at Purdue University and felt that I owed my success, and therefore loyalty, to the institution that funded me through all my years of study. Many people personally invested in my professional growth and maturation. Purdue was family.

Shortly after I had given a firm “no” to provost Nathan Hatch at Notre Dame, I walked out of daily mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Center feeling very unsettled that God might have delivered a rather different missive. That day, Jesus in the Gospel reading of the parable of talents chastised the timid servant who buried his gift as a “lazy lout.” “Ai ya!” I exhaled the Chinese expression for all things calamitous. What did I miss?

At meetings with Notre Dame folks, I noted without hesitation that Notre Dame is uniquely positioned to define and demonstrate what is “Catholic” about Catholic business education. Business is often tolerated as a “necessary evil.” To me, that is wrong-headed thinking. Business is a necessary good, but it requires ethical leaders to unlock its potential. Done right, business honors human dignity, fosters co-creation with God, and offers the platform for channeling human ingenuity in the service of others. It stands to reveal and share the bounty of God for all, here and now.

Clarity, conviction: I had these. Comm­itment to act: that would be up to me. The call came into focus. After years of observing exploitative employment practices in Hong Kong, I knew business students need to be inspired and imbued with the commitment to lead ethically and to serve the common good. The Maryknoll Sisters had formed me in that vision and responsibility. By now I had decades of experience in business and business education. These gave me a sense of what was possible. The mission had my name on it, and it felt wrong to turn away from it. In my final year at Purdue, I was choked up at every function. It would be my last time. I would be leaving home.

Home Again

After fifteen years at Notre Dame, our mission of “business for good” had gained internal adoption and external recognition. The college received top ranking from the press. We stood on the message of an economy of grace and demonstrated its viability and veracity. As I felt my fingers around the brass ring, another call beckoned.

This time the invitation came from Catholic Relief Services, at which I had served as a board member for six years. On behalf of the U.S. Catholic Church, it was founded in 1943 to bring refugees out of war-torn Europe, provide emergency relief, and engage in humanitarian development. By 2012, CRS had grown into a ministry which served over a hundred million people in about 120 countries. It focused on the most vulnerable people living without the essentials for human flourishing.

Though a board member, I really did not have the expertise necessary to guide decision-making in life-and-death situations triggered by extreme poverty, gang violence, political upheavals, and natural disasters. As I took a mental inventory of my knowledge gaps and professional deficiencies, the advice of my beloved mentor, Purdue provost Dr. Bob Ringel, flooded my mind. He pointed out that organizations would not seek me out for what I could not do, but for what they saw in me that they needed. At that point, CRS needed strategic redirection in light of major changes in funding requirements and the scale of their interventions. Indeed, that strategic challenge was my wheelhouse.

Should I step forward? I had great difficulty coming to a decision. Using all the analytical frameworks in my toolbox, I made no progress. I sought out a priest for spiritual direction. When I offered to recount my analyses, he pointed out that matters of the heart could seldom be resolved on the wavelength of pros and cons. Instead, I was to pay attention to my joys and fears. These were not subtle, and they would make themselves known. “Just keep a notebook and pencil at hand,” he counseled.

Indeed, fears announced themselves in nightmares. Looming large was the forfeiture of tenure, the ultimate guarantor of financial security and stability which had driven me since childhood. I had to recognize that I was no longer the child with that hunger. I had kept and delivered on my promise to take care of my family. More was just for the sake of more. An incredible sense of freedom filled me.

I was also preoccupied with concerns about my husband’s health and the dangers I would face in my work with CRS. In prayer, I was reminded that death is not a punishment—it is our return to God. I had to trust that our coming and going rests in his hands. That fear lost its grip on me.

Joys kept coming, overflowing my net just as Christ had filled Peter’s. On my list: the possibility of working with dedicated and talented colleagues, joining arms with people across all religions, restoring home and hope, lifting people up, seeding new life, helping people believe again, forging unity among factions, promoting healing and peace-building, nourishing the mother who in turn nourishes her child, learning about cultures and the beauty of certain rituals, seeing communities come into their own, and many more.

Above all, I felt that I knew the people CRS serves—folks who were displaced, lost everything, forged new beginnings, endured risks and hardships for a better life for their children, persisted in the face of uncertainty, and relied on the goodness of other people. Looming large were the faces of women: their need for education, rights, opportunities, a chance to prove themselves, their dreams not only for themselves but for their children. I may not have known their names, but I knew them intimately. They were my people. I knew not only their struggles, but more importantly, their successes. By doing this work, I realized I would be going home.

Beyond Success

It is true that knowing and seeking to fulfill our purpose confers a certain efficiency and coherence. Most of us flourish with some degree of structure that delineates our pursuits and offers the reassurance that these add up to something. That something builds from learning, mastery, labor, and sacrifice to forge professional expertise, compose an identity, make a living, and also serve others. Along the way, we refuel and redouble our efforts as we lift our heads from weariness and catch a peek of the destination. All this is good, but purpose is more.

Purpose is putting our finger on the default button and pushing it to the “off” setting. We often live unknowingly in the default mode. With the best intentions, our parents prepared us to succeed by their notion of success. Awards, recognitions and tangible privileges reinforce these definitions, and peers devise and enforce the punishing scale for “not making it.” FOMO (fear of missing out) may elicit nervous laughter, but it is tightly woven with very real and terrifying questions: “Do I matter? To whom? Will I make it? How? Am I a somebody? A nobody?” Society’s definitions and rewards for success sure seem a proven, workable, and reassuring solution to the FOMO questions.

On the other hand, seeking purpose is elusive. The work is unfamiliar and uncomfortable—almost beyond our experience and vocabulary. I would contend that finding our purpose is less hard work than it is heart-work. It calls for time to listen to our heart, tune out the approval of others, and attend to our joys and fears. It draws from deep personal and visceral reservoirs of joys, fears, sadness, indignation, being loved, wanting to love in return, being rejected, promises made, promises broken, knowing goodness, witnessing cruelty, feeling blessed, knowing shame, living with disappointment, levitating with elation, healing, forgiving, or experiencing one’s own power and powerlessness. These experiences are as unique to each of us as our DNA, fingerprint, or gait.

It is not beyond us to know whom we love, what we love, and how we will love in return. It is our story—evolving, gripping, empowering, and sanctifying. When our son became a father, I asked him about his experience. “I finally understand what it means to pick up the cross. You just do it; you just want to give the care needed; your own fatigue or the sports program you want to watch just have no claims anymore.” Love is the language of God. Purpose is our choice to speak it and pick up the cross with joy.

While direction plots the steps to achieving our best, purpose leads us to become the best offering, the best gift. Focus may eventually deliver acclaim and recognition akin to a flower at bloom, beautiful and admired. Purpose takes us to seed—what we give life to when we fall to the ground. The mirror of success shows our happy and satisfied faces. The mirror of purpose shows the gaze of God. Determination and ambition can deliver a good life; purpose takes us home to the good life.

Purpose draws from God in us.

Carolyn Woo served as President and Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Relief Services (2012–2016). CRS is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. From 1997 to 2011, she served as the dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Working for a Better World, and Rising: Learning from Women’s Leadership in Catholic Ministries.

Spring 2024

From the Editor


Suzanne Shanahan

Part I: Pursuing Virtue

Sabrina B. Little

Kelli Reagan Hickey

Blest Be the Ties that Bind: Remembering a Purpose of Religio in Higher Education

Luke A. Powery

Interlude: Purposeful Pursuits

Part II: Pursuing Vocation

James Coleman, Jr.