Caryl M. Stern, President & CEO, U.S. Fund for UNICEF


On how sports can change the world, one person at a time

  • The power of sports is phenomenal. I do believe children need to play, I believe that the skills we get from being on a team are skills that follow us for the rest of our lives
  • The first baseman doesn’t have to like the second baseman, but he needs to be able to throw the ball to him
  • People who can be part of a team and who can put their needs to the side as they examine what really is in the best interest of the team are the ones who will thrive
  • I’ve seen the power of sports as a development tool, as the ‘great equalizer’, and in changing the world


You are a leader in the sport industry because of the impact that UNICEF has through leveraging the power of the sport world.  Tell us a little bit more about how you ended up where you are today, and how you became engaged in sport.

After receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree, I decided to get a Master’s degree in student personnel administration, which was all around student activities, organizing events, and student development.  While I was getting my masters, I ended up teaching, and running the university’s craft center, which taught me how to run a business, how to order supplies, how to manage a business, and how to get kids to come in and do craft workshops.  It was an opportunity to do events and student activities, but also apply my art skills.

After the Master’s program I got a job at Northwestern University to take their 100-class co-curricular programs, and grow it.  I took it from 100 classes to an excess of 1000 classes over the course of a year, and I did it in what was probably the most fun job I’ve ever had in my life.  Eventually, I ended up back at New York, working for the Dean of Polytechnic University, and soon after ended up as the Dean.

After that, I applied for a one year job with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for a new anti-bias campaign called “A World of Difference.”  I ended up staying with ADL for eighteen years.  I took the campaign national in 24 cities, and then went international.  We took this curriculum and made one for children of all ages, and then after decided to start one of the first diversity management programs with corporations all over the world.  Today, around 18 million people have gone through this “A World of Difference” program training in 18 EU countries, Russia, Japan, Latin America, and the US.  I ended up the COO of ADL as a result of that, then UNICEF provided this amazing opportunity, and here I am today.

How has sports influenced your life and your career?  Why do you find sports to be so important?

The power of sports is phenomenal.  I do believe children need to play, I believe that the skills we get from being on a team are skills that follow us for the rest of our lives.  The first baseman doesn’t have to like the second baseman, but he needs to be able to throw the ball to him.

That’s the same thing that happens at work.  Those who have learned that lesson and understand that you don’t have to like everybody you work with but you have to know how to work with them, are far more successful.  People who can be part of a team and who can put their needs to the side as they examine what really is in the best interest of the team are the ones who will thrive.  And all of this comes from team experiences.

I’ve seen the power of sports as a development tool, as the ‘great equalizer’, and in changing the world.  The power of sports leadership shows us that it’s not just being skilled at the game; it’s using the game for good.     

Tell us about a time when you had faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge or a failure, or a moment of great self-doubt; and what did you do to overcome it?

I love this question because I have put together a piece that I use during women’s leadership month where I go out and talk to a lot of young girls.  I’ve gone out and interviewed over 100 women at this point and tried to find common things that have happened to us.  I have tried to figure out if there is something in our DNA somewhere along the line that made us all blessed with success.  One of the things that I have found is that we all do have one of those really big failure stories.  I think it’s the tenacity that you get from getting through it that makes you a stronger leader.

For me, that happened at a very young age.  I graduated high school and was headed off to college when I was only sixteen years old.  When I went to look at colleges, I was your typical teenager; where my parents looked at the academics, class ratios, etc., while I looked at the campus, the student center; and I picked a school because it was located on the beach.  I also picked it because I was an art major, and the school had a great art reputation.  I was also the first woman in my family to go to college; all the men had gone but the women had not, so it was a pretty big deal for my family and me.  I got to school, but only lasted three weeks and one day until I realized that I was miserable and wanted to go home.  So I packed my stuff and came home, but my family immediately told me that I had 24 hours to be either employed, or back in college.  I spent the next morning looking for a job, and when I didn’t have a job by noon, I started calling colleges that I could live at home and go to, to see who still had registration open.  The local community college still had registration open, so I registered for an art class, a music class, a gym class, and a writing class, and I joined the swim team.

I came home later that afternoon and told my father that I was back in college.  However, I felt like the failure of the family because I didn’t succeed at my original college, and I had let my family down.  I had always been this very outgoing kid who had never questioned myself, but suddenly, I had serious anxiety attacks, I had no confidence left, and I realized that I had no idea who I was, where I wanted to be, what I should do next, or whether I was able to do it.  It took a full semester at community college to put myself back together.  I do attribute a significant part of finding myself to two experiences: one, being a part of a swim team where I found the place that I fit in, where they didn’t know me before, where I wasn’t living up to some reputation, and where I was just being who I was; and two, being part of a theater group that gave me my confidence back.

I had just never experienced a failure before, especially not one that was tied to social skills.  I had gone to sleep-away campus, and I had traveled before, but I had never gone away and not been able to hack it.  I realized that suddenly here I was at school, homesick beyond belief, realizing “oh my God I made a mistake, I shouldn’t have left high school at sixteen, I’m just not ready to do this.”  Somewhere in the process of giving it up and coming home, I lost a piece of myself, which I found back through the experience of being at a community college and being part of a team.

For me, this was the first time my reputation for myself was shamed.  Now, I don’t think my friends thought less of me, but I thought they did at the time.  It was a really interesting experience to find myself in that process of what I perceived to be complete humiliation.  However, once I suffered it, I never feared it again.  What I think is one of my greatest skills is, I am very much “what you see is what you get.”  I’m very direct and very blunt, and if you don’t like me that’s okay.  But, I believe I got that strength out of the experience of being a sixteen year old who was so humiliated that I didn’t even want to come out of the house.

I came from a generation where nice girls didn’t mess up.  Girls did what they were told, and girls didn’t act out; the boys were the ones who dropped out of college or came home drunk.  The ‘nice girls’ didn’t do that.  In my generation, girls had no idea how we were supposed to be, or what we were supposed to do.  We knew we had to be those nice girls, but at the same time there were career opportunities slowly opening to us.  I had as many girlfriends that I grew up with who right out of college got married and had kids and never had a career, as I do girlfriends who are CEO’s.

You’re a mother of three children, and you have an incredibly demanding career.   How do you balance the two, and what advice could you give to working moms who are struggling to do both?

My automatic answer to this question is always: some days are better than others.  I think it’s really important for people to understand that none of us do it perfectly, and that we all mess up.

There’s always that day where I should have been in the office but I was with the kids, and that day where I should have been with the kids when I was in the office. The greatest skill I think you need to acquire if you’re going to be a working mother in a really demanding job is guilt management. I think if you can get to the point where you can at least rationalize to yourself that you’re going to feel this way, and you better find a way to accept this, that’s half the battle right there.

I have done math homework, while standing in the middle of a camp in Darfur on a satellite bump with my son, who doesn’t really care that I’m in a refugee camp, because he’s 8 years old, his math homework is due tomorrow and he doesn’t understand it.  I have also negotiated supplies for Haiti in the middle of a ten year-old’s birthday party.  You’re going to have to do both at times, you’re just going to have to hope you’re doing the best you can, and you’re never ever going to end your day saying “I did everything I should have done today;” that’s just not plausible.

At some point in my career somebody told me: “sit down with your kids, and tackle it head on”; and that’s exactly what I did.  I say to my children flat out “I have this really demanding job, and I am going to work really hard to put you guys first, but sometimes I’m going to mess up.” We’re really good at telling our work colleagues that we’re going to put our family first, but we don’t always tell our family that.  But I think it is important to tell them that because it’s important for them to know that they come first.

My team here at UNICEF knows that if I’m doing something that my kids can be included in, they’re going to be included, and I don’t apologize for that.  If I get a great opportunity to meet a celebrity, go to a game, sit on a bench, etc., I am always going to ask if my kids can come, so they reap some benefit of the perks my job brings.  I’m also going to turn to a colleague and say, “you can take this one because it’s my son’s birthday, or his school play, and I need to be there.” But I’m going to make sure my kids know I’m making those choices, and I’m going to talk to them about it.

I also think you have to have good supports around you, whether that’s a partner, a husband, a brother, or a friend.  I am very lucky that as much as my husband and I drive each other crazy, I do have someone who had supported my ability to travel a lot, be away a lot, and to keep our family running in our absence.

How would your husband describe you as a leader?

My husband follows a linear logic in his life: things are neat, everything has a place, you do this before you do that, and here’s how it should be done.  My desk is a mess, while his desk is spotless.  But to describe me, he would say that I’m a very people-centered leader; I put the people who work for me at the center of the decisions that I make.  That doesn’t mean that their needs top the mission, but he thinks at times I am overly concerned that the work experience be a good one.



Caryl joined the U.S. Fund for UNICEF in 2006 as Chief Operating Officer and served as Acting President for a short time before assuming her current position in May 2007.

Previously, Caryl served as Chief Operating Officer and Senior Associate National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) after a 10-year career in higher education, most recently as Dean of Students at Polytechnic University in New York.

Caryl is a member of the boards of the United Nations International School, Mercy College, WE ARE FAMILY Foundation, and the Martin Luther King Memorial Project Foundation, as well as a charter member of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF Kiwanis Club and an advisory board member of the WNBA. She is the author of I Believe in Zero: Learning From The World’s Children, and co-author of Hate Hurts: How Children Learn and Unlearn Prejudice (Scholastic, 2000) and Future Perfect: A Model for Professional Development (NACA, 1987).

Caryl has received numerous honors and recognition for her work. She is a recipient of the 2012 Leading Lights Award from the National Multicultural Institute and the FutureWork Institute. In 2011, Caryl was included on Working Mother’s list of the “Most Powerful Moms in Nonprofits” and was named to The Jewish Daily Forward‘s “The Forward 50,” a list of the most impactful Jewish leaders. In 2010, she was selected as a “Role MOMel” by Moms and the City on, and in 2009 was honored with the “Empowering Woman Award” from the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the “Woman of Influence” award by the Jewish Women’s Foundation. In December 2000, Caryl was named one of “25 Mothers We Love” by Working Mother magazine.

Caryl holds a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Oneonta, where she was named “Outstanding Alumna,” and has a master’s degree from Western Illinois University, where she was also recognized with an Alumni Award. She completed the course work towards a Ph.D. in higher education at Loyola University in Chicago and was awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters from Mercy College in 2012.

Caryl is married and has three sons and two grandchildren.


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