Relationship-Oriented Leadership: Caryl Stern After 13 Years at UNICEF

Caryl Stern (Image credit: Jessie English for UNICEF USA)

The second interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Caryl Stern, the CEO of UNICEF USA who recently announced she will be leaving the organization after 13 years. 

What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

I wish I had known that I would succeed. I don’t think in my wildest dreams I thought I would end up as CEO, and it would have been great to know that from the very beginning! And, I wish I had known from the very beginning to just be yourself at work. I grew into that and it’s something that I learned from experience in my role – it definitely served me well.

What is your current greatest professional challenge?

Work-life balance has been a professional challenge throughout my entire career. I got married late, so I reached a point of serious responsibility around the same time that I had my family. I think learning how to make my family a priority and still fulfill my obligations at work has been challenging at times, though greatly important for me both in a personal and professional capacity. 

I also think setting priorities is its own challenge in this job in particular because every country, every story and, above all, every child feels like a priority. In my time at UNICEF USA, it has been a matter of juggling those priorities to make the biggest impact for the world’s most vulnerable children. 

What inspires you most about your work?

What inspires me most are the kids and field workers. I am awed by the sheer tenacity of children who can find moments to have fun as they go through some of the most challenging obstacles anyone could face in their lives. From my time in the field, I’ve seen kids who still find a way to play soccer in a refugee camp, and those are the moments that stick with me. It has been amazing to learn that the measure of happiness is not how much you have but the eyes through which you’re willing to see the world.

Second, I am inspired by the staff on the ground. Every time I think of a particularly frustrating aspect of my job, I think of those who are so selfless that they’re working in the field, often putting their own lives at risk, working away from their families and doing whatever it takes to help children they’ve never met before. 

How does your gender identity inform your work?

Beyond my gender identity and experiences as a woman, I have another important aspect of my identity that I carry with me, and that is being a mom. For me, the most important job I have is being a mom, and my job at UNICEF USA is second to that. Especially within the context of a children’s organization, I have seen first hand how unifying that role can be. Every mom has the same hopes for her children to be safe, protected and loved, and it is something that has allowed me to connect with UNICEF USA’s mission on a deeper level.  

Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?

Aside from my role as a mom, I also think that my experiences as a woman have affected the way in which I have chosen to lead and manage the organization as a whole. There is ample research on the different management styles across genders and based on that, I am a relationship-oriented leader, meaning that I am concerned with the process, not only the product. I think that is traditionally a female-driven approach to work, and it has enabled me to embrace interpersonal relationships that are necessary to maximize our impact as an organization. 

How can philanthropy support gender equality?

Philanthropy can support gender equality in two ways. One, I think this can be done through direct support of programs and services that are putting gender equality at the forefront. At UNICEF, we see that in our work to empower girls and uphold their rights to education, as well as in working with LGBTQ+ communities, ultimately to ensure that all groups have access to vital services regardless of their gender identities. 

Second, I think we have been seeing this through the emergence of women’s funding coalitions over the past few years, similar to the way that men’s funding coalitions have traditionally been present in the philanthropy space. As the number of women who either acquire their own wealth or inherit family wealth continues to grow, we are beginning to see the ways that these women-led groups are approaching and collaborating on different philanthropic and humanitarian issues through a more holistic lens. 

In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?

It is difficult to predict, but I hope we are approaching a place where the successes of individuals are not contingent upon their gender identity. I think it’s equally important to fully embrace differences in gender identity because it shapes the lenses through which we interact with the world – to ignore that role and responsibility is also harmful, especially when it comes to truly uplifting a marginalized or under-represented group, including women.    

This interview has been minimally edited for length.

More on Caryl Stern:

Caryl Stern is an activist, author, executive and public speaker. Since 2007, she has served as President and CEO of UNICEF USA, an organization that supports UNICEF’s lifesaving work to put children first. She is a frequent speaker on the topics of children and philanthropy, anti-bullying and international development.

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Philanthropy Women covers funding for gender equity in all sectors of society. We want to significantly shift public discourse, particularly in philanthropy, toward increased action for gender equality. You can support our work and access unlimited and premium content with one of our subscriptions

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Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.

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