Alums Carolyn Woo and Kenneth Tan - Forces for Good

The child of immigrants from China, alumna Carolyn Y. Woo began her life journey in Hong Kong. At age 18, Purdue introduced her to America. She arrived in 1972 with only enough money to pay for one year of tuition plus room and board. In the next half-century, this determined student became the world leader and business conscience we know today.

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She left campus with a doctorate in strategic management but returned two years later to join the Krannert faculty. Those were early days for women in business leadership. She was only the second woman on the Krannert facu

lty to earn tenure and its first tenured woman faculty member from Asia. 

Woo made full professor in 13 years, led Krannert’s MBA program, and then was chosen as the university’s associate executive vice president for academic affairs. By 1997, though, she caught the eye of the University of Notre Dame, which was looking for a new dean. In her three terms there leading the Mendoza College of Business, it was recognized for its research and ethics education and achieved ranking as the  top undergraduate program by Bloomberg Businessweek.

While at Notre Dame, she also served on the board of the Catholic Relief Services, a global outreach ministry serving over 100 million people per year in over 100 countries. In 2012 she became its president and CEO and wanted to learn firsthand the plight of the poor and vulnerable people.

When most of Europe closed its borders to refugees, she sought out camps and detention centers in Serbia, Greece and Lebanon. There she found men and women desperate to find work. She found detainees in cells so crowded that they took turns sleeping and standing.

She also met hope. “Amidst this deep suffering, the spirit of goodness and resilience broke through,” she wrote.

Her contributions embrace ethics, peace, compassion and rebuilding of communities. Woo was the first female dean to chair the accreditation body for business schools — AACSB: Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business — and directed its Peace through Commerce Initiative. She helped launch the Principles for Responsible Management Education for the United Nations Global Compact.

Not surprisingly, Foreign Policy in 2013 named her one of the of the 500 Most Powerful people on the planet and one of only 33 in the category of “a force for good.” Such philosophy is captured in her book, “Working for a Better World,” which says business does and should play an important role in helping people achieve their fullest potential.

In 2017 her career came full circle when she brought her experience back to this university. She now serves as our Distinguished President’s Fellow for Global Development, leading many international collaborative efforts.

Woo, who lives in South Bend, continues to contribute in other ways, most recently as a speaker for Purdue’s Asian American and Asian Resource and Cultural Center’s 2021 International Women's Day panel discussion. She is living the message she gave at many commencements: “Success is, therefore, not what we accumulate, but what we give away; not how high we climb, but how low we bend to heal those broken down by life; not what we do for our own good, but what we do for the common good.”

Kenneth Tan: Engineering + Soft Skills = Success

While Woo is at the pinnacle of her career, alumnus Kenneth Tan is just seven years out from his Purdue degree. Thanks to his Purdue degree and internships, he’s now a global category manager for the oil field service giant Halliburton. His success, he says, rests on the perseverance he learned in pursuing a rigorous degree in chemical engineering, but also on his deep involvement with student organizations.

stories-tan.jpgGrowing up in Penang, on a small island in Malaysia, he received an education focused on the sciences, but he played violin so well that he was paid at age 13 to perform with the national orchestra in Kuala Lumpur. At age 19, he arrived at Purdue in 2010 and embraced the advice of a mentor, diving headfirst into life beyond academics. 

He transformed his musical talent into vocal performance with the Purdue Musical Organization and its ensemble Heart & Soul. He found a home and leadership in the Purdue Malaysian Student Association, producing the music video “One Malaysia.” Sung by the group in the four languages of his country, it encourages others there to become Boilermakers.

Calling himself a “church mouse,” he lived and worked at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church on the edge of campus and found time for several of its mission trips. He sat in early meetings that seeded what became the Asian American and Asian Resource and Cultural Center at Purdue. He led a student leadership conference, and in his senior year, he was active in Mortar Board. 

He admits that there wasn’t much time to sleep.

During his sophomore year, however, he met his match — ChemE 205. “I just could not conceptually get mass balances,” he says. For the first time, he wasn’t sure he could succeed. At the same time, he had to smile through seven-day-a-week practices for the Purdue Christmas Show. He didn’t give up on either and pulled out a C in the course.

That C dropped his grade average, but he still was honored with the Martin C. Jischke Outstanding International Student Award. Once he graduated in 2014, he took up supply chain management and now manages chemical suppliers around the world, an even greater challenge during a global pandemic.

As he looks back, he echoes what others say: “Purdue is a great engineering school. The way the curriculum is structured really prepares you for everything in addition to being an engineer. You learn to think like an engineer; you learn to solve problems.”

But beyond that, he says, his Purdue experience taught him critical soft skills: how to adapt and endure; how to lead and connect with different cultures; how to manage stress and build relationships. It taught him to help others and to reach out to others for help.

It also taught him humility.

“That there’s always room to grow, to learn from other people,’” he said. “I think it’s in the Purdue DNA.”

To pay it forward, Tan has contributed to Purdue, once as a speaker for the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers Midwest Regional Conference, hosted this year by the Purdue chapter. Tan also performed virtually for the Purdue AAARCC Fall 2020 Welcome Back.

Tan’s own growth is often expressed in music. His passion began with the violin, then was nurtured by PMO. Now he is writing and recording a debut single and shares music through his social media account @KennyTanMusic.



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