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Meet UNICEF’s Caryl Stern, The World’s Jewish Mother

The CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF uses her “mom skill” of cooking to bond with family, colleagues, and impoverished mothers worldwide.

Caryl Stern is something like a Jewish mother to the world. Following several decades in nonprofit and education, Stern became President and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, where her mission is to save and protect the world’s children. (She and her husband have also raised three boys of their own, in upstate New York.) And like many a Jewish mother before her, Stern has a favorite play in her playbook: food.

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“What cooking is about for me, in all honesty—it sounds corny, but it’s the truth—is it’s the way that I show that I love you,” she says.

Stern may be one of the first people on a flight to the latest far-flung catastrophe, but that doesn’t stop her from finding the time to do something that enriches and relaxes her: cooking. She calls it “a mom skill,” and says that she learned to cook from her own mother. She can still remember the smell of tomato rice soup in her grandmother’s house.

“The process of cooking, to me, is as important as the end product. If I find a little alone time, that rare hour in the day, I get lost in it,” she says. “When I have a day off now, I spend it cooking.” Every Sunday, she makes scrambled eggs for her dog, then bakes cookies, biscuits, or muffins to mail to her son at college.

And though it might seem incongruous, even frivolous, to liken disaster aid to baking a cake, Stern insists that her style of cooking mirrors her style of running the U.S. Fund—with improvisation layered upon basic principles. She’s not a firm believer in rigid adherence to recipes. More important is to know the basic ingredients, then decide how to put them together on a case-by-case basis.

Stern also uses cooking to express who she is in the workplace. “There’s a mold for how you think about a CEO: You expect her to wear a suit, you don’t expect her to swear. There’s a certain formality, a distance from her staff.” She pauses for emphasis. “That is not who I am.” Stern isn’t interested in projecting a certain image, but simply being herself. “I want my employees to know who I am, warts and all, and if they see my warts, they’ll be less afraid to show me theirs.” It’s the same way when she cooks: “When I cook, it doesn’t have to be perfect. The cake can be a little lopsided. I’m gonna serve it anyway.”

Caryl M. Stern signing copies of I Believe in ZERO at the 2014 Millennium Campus Conference, where she was presented with a 2014 Global Generation Award.

An added perk of a job like hers is that the world becomes your kitchen. Acquiring recipes abroad has long been a staple of Stern’s traveling style. While on a homestay in New Zealand, she begged her host to teach her how to make a pavlova in the pre-dawn hours before her departure. Now, with UNICEF, village mothers will take her into their homes and teach her how to make favorite dishes: fish stew in Senegal, mofongo in Puerto Rico. In Peru, famous for its wide variety of potatoes, Stern went on a mission to sample them all. In restaurants around the world, she’ll invite herself into the kitchen to learn recipes: thin-crust dough in Malawi, dumplings in East Berlin. “I have no qualms about saying: ‘This is really good. How is it made? Will the chef show me?’”

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Not long ago, Stern hosted eight male colleagues from around the world in her home in upstate New York. It was proposed that they hire a caterer—but Stern insisted they cook together. “If we cook together, we’re going to be much more brilliant,” Stern recalls saying. Half of the men had “never cooked in their lives,” she says. One tried to peel an avocado with a knife, rather than cutting into it. Ultimately, the event was much more homey and productive, though the avocado-peeler still gets ribbed from time to time.

Stern will use food to ingratiate herself with colleagues in the field, too, even if she’s never met them before. If she’s packing up for the bush, she stuffs a suitcase with cookies, candy. “It’s just to say to them, we care about you.” But her travels don’t always take her to food deserts. She recalls with embarrassment the first time the UN sent her to someplace that felt far-flung: Mozambique. “I went and bought all the bug-repellent clothes, and enough bug spray to last a lifetime,” and she stuffed her suitcase with saltines and peanut butter, since surely she was leaving civilization behind as she boarded at JFK.

Far from it: Her first night was in something like a four-star hotel, where she was treated to a multi-course dinner and a fine bottle of South African wine.

But if that first night was deluxe accommodations, she has since learned to rough it, dusting off skills she’d learned as a Girl Scout decades ago. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m a princess, too,” she says. “When I took this job, my friends laughed.” But she has risen to the challenge, and become so moved by her work as to write a book, out last fall. I Believe in ZERO: Learning from the World’s Children, is based on the emails she wrote her family each night from whatever far-flung place she’d landed in. It draws its title from the UN’s ambition to reduce preventable child deaths to zero. (Sixteen thousand children still die daily from things we know how to prevent, says Stern, a number down from 26,000 per day a decade ago.) She credits her own mother—-a Holocaust survivor who took Stern marching for liberal causes through the ’60s—with imbuing her with a spirit both tough and maternal.

When she travels, even if she doesn’t share another woman’s spoken language, she knows there’s something they’re likely to have in common: “Amongst all cultures, the mom is responsible for the provision of the food, so we relate to each other that way,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking to me, when a mom can’t provide something as basic as food.”

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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