Still Watching... Caryl Stern

After 13 years leading UNICEF USA, a 2014 Women to Watch honoree reflects on a career spent changing the world.


As you look back, what are your most meaningful achievements as CEO of UNICEF USA?

One of my greatest achievements was leading my team through UNICEF USA's growth from a $240 million organization to a nearly $600 million organization, taking great care along the way to make it one of the best places to work. Another thing I’m most proud of is the book I wrote, I Believe in Zero. I feel so fortunate to have met so many inspiring children and professionals all over the world, and to have been able to put my experiences in writing. And lastly, I'm so proud of building a board of amazing, successful, caring people who are passionate about UNICEF’s mission.

Is women’s leadership different from men’s?

Absolutely – I think women tend to be more relationship- and process-oriented than men, meaning that they’re not only concerned about the final product, but also the journey. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t men who attend to those things, too, or that all women necessarily fit this model. But in my experience, it’s been more women who lead like this than men, and it’s almost something that we as women expect of each other. Separately, there was a time when it was said that women don’t build each other up in work settings. I don’t think that’s true: In my experience as a woman leader, there have been a number of women who have pulled me up and helped empower me. I can only hope that I’ve done as good a job helping lift up the generation of women behind me, because I think it’s really important to foster that support.

How do Jewish values continue to show up in your life?

My Jewish values are who I am and a part of everything that I do. I was raised in the spirit of tikkun olam, believing I have a responsibility to leave the world better than I found it. I also think the Jewish value of education as the most important thing you can give a child is core to who I am both as an individual and a professional at a children’s organization. Perhaps even more importantly, I think that Judaism is very much steeped in tradition, and that cultural value has given me a profound respect for other traditions – something that has been hugely valuable in my time at UNICEF. As an organization, we work in more than 190 countries and territories, and it’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to learn about other cultures, and in turn have a deeper connection to my own.

What advice do you have for young women seeking to build a career in non-profit management and leadership?

I didn’t set out to build a career, I set out to change the world. I took my first nonprofit job because I was really passionate about the organization. So if I had one piece of advice for young women, it’d be to think about what’s important to you in a job and not just about what the title is. I believe that if you do something you love, you inherently do it well. Another piece of advice is to just breathe and enjoy the ride. When I first started working at UNICEF USA 13 years ago, I was already in my 50s and had enough perspective to be able to understand the importance of this. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I wasn’t able to take a step back and appreciate it all, so I think it’s important to remind younger professionals of the importance in this.

Caryl Stern’s “Pearl of Wisdom” speech from the 2014 Women to Watch awards:

Every day, I am inspired by two photographs. The first shows a six year-old girl, holding the hand of a four-year-old boy as they prepare to board a ship – little children bound for a foreign country where neither had been before. They had only recently learned that they would be leaving their parents behind to travel to this new place, where people spoke a different language.

The year is 1939, the little girl is my mom, and the little boy is her brother. They are being sent to America with a family friend, because the Nazis have come to Vienna and it is the only way their parents can ensure their safety.

The story of this friend who stepped forward to help taught me an invaluable lesson: That one person can indeed make a difference. My brother and I exist because this one person cared enough to shepherd my mother and uncle to the United States.

In stark contrast to this loving act of humanity, the second photograph captures a darker side. In it, my grandfather is seen aboard another ship – the SS St. Louis. Known to many as the Voyage of the Damned, it was bound for Cuba where my grandfather intended to seek refuge, send for his children, and begin a new life.

Upon arrival into Cuba’s harbor, the 973 passengers learned that their entry documents were fraudulent and therefore, entry to Cuba was not possible. They sat in that harbor for forty days while the world debated their fate. Ultimately, the ship was forced to return to Europe, where many would perish at the hands of the Nazis. A difficult lesson I learned as a child, about what happens when the world turns its back… when no one cares.

These photos and the stories behind them compel me to dedicate myself to UNICEF. I am blessed to be part of saving the lives of children in 190 countries and territories around the globe.

So my Pearl is: Do we care or do we turn our backs? Think to yourself each day, will I remain uninvolved and detached while people in trouble need help? Or will I immediately know that I must step up – like that friend – and board the ship sailing forward, holding the hands of children who need me?