UNICEF CEO on Saving Children's Lives and Helping her Own NY Kids Do Homework from Darfur

Caryl Stern tells working moms to accept that screw ups will happen

by Lesley Kennedy • MORE.com Reporter
Caryl Stern image
Caryl Stern says she's proud to work for UNICEF.
Photograph: Photo courtesy UNICEF

MORE: What’s the work environment like at UNICEF?
CS: There’s a significant number of people who work here who have done Peace Corps-esque kinds of experiences before coming here, so even down to the guy in the mailroom, if you ask them, “Why are you here?”—they’re here to save children’s lives. It’s a highly mission-motivated organization which lends itself to a more collaborative environment. Now, it’s not utopia—there is no utopia in a work place, we all have desires to get ahead—but it’s probably the most collaborative environment I’ve ever worked in.

MORE: You started out in art and theaterwhat brought you to the nonprofit world?
CS: I always say if the Metropolitan Museum had bought a painting, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I was always a very engaged volunteer in the nonprofit world. My mom is a Holocaust survivor, and she was brought to this country with her brother, without her parents, by a woman whose last name she knows, but she never even knew her first name, and who she never saw again. So we had it instilled in us from the moment we were born that one person really can make a difference in your life.

At the same time, my grandfather was on the ship the SS Saint Louis, on what is often called the Voyage of the Damned [in 1939]. It was a ship that passengers paid dearly to be on, to go to Cuba to restart their lives. When they got to Cuba, they learned that all their entrance documents were fraudulent, so Cuba wouldn’t take them. This ship sat in the harbor for 40 days while the world debated these people’s fates. Even the United States would not take them, though everyone knew sending them back to Europe, because most of them were Jews, would mean sending a significant number of them to their deaths. And so I also had the harsh lesson of what happens when the world turns its back.

I don’t think I ever had a choice but to be community-engaged and involved. From the time we could walk, we were at a rally, we were at a march, we were stuffing letters in envelopes. I had all the best training in the world at my dining room table for what I do right now.

MORE: And being a painting major helped, too?
CS: When you study visual arts . . . you learn how to look at everything from a variety of perspectives. You find where the light’s coming from before you start to draw it. And that’s definitely an approach I take to work. There is no singular answer—there’s a multitude of angles you can look at it from. You just have to decide what kind of light you want and where it’s coming from. The skills I learned studying art were so transferable and applicable to what I do, I’m awed by it.

Even the theater classes—half my time is spent at a podium these days, doing publicity campaigns, doing media events, doing speeches, fundraising pitches. And I definitely have a comfort at the microphone that comes as a result of taking acting classes.

MORE: What advice can you offer other women on managing their time and trying to find that balance between office life and home life?
CS: People always ask me, how do you do it? And I say, some days better than others. That’s my advice: Develop that attitude. I can honestly say that I don’t think I have found the balance. I have done homework in the middle of a camp in Darfur over the phone with my child, who was 10 at the time. I have done a full science project from a hut in Mozambique on the phone. I have gotten an iPad 2 so I can Skype so I can actually say goodnight with a face every night. And, in the end, my children call my BlackBerry my fourth son. They always complain that he gets a place at the table better than theirs, because he’s seated right next to me.

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