Walton Family Foundation director says ‘can-do’ attitude attracted her to Northwest Arkansas

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 2,709 views 

Graham Cobb moderated a panel discussion Monday (Feb. 24) that included, from left, Caryl Stern, Mayor Stephanie Orman, Debbie Jones and Kalene Griffith. Also on the panel but not pictured was Kourtney Barrett, 2020 chairwoman of the chamber's executive board.

Bentonville welcomed Caryl Stern to the city as the new executive director for the Walton Family Foundation by having her take part in a panel discussion on Monday (Feb. 24) at the 93rd State of the Chamber Luncheon held in Bentonville and attended by more than 600 business professionals.

Stern, previously the president and CEO of UNICEF USA for the past 12 years, was announced in September as the Walton Family Foundation’s new executive director. She started the job last month.

Stern was joined on the panel by Junk Brands founder Kourtney Barrett, Visit Bentonville director Kalene Griffith, Mayor Stephanie Orman, and Dr. Debbie Jones, superintendent of Bentonville Schools. Their discussion was moderated by chamber president and CEO Graham Cobb.

As one of the newest executive leaders in the region, Stern has been living in the Bentonville area for just five weeks. She expressed her appreciation to be part of a community “where everyone will be loved.”

Stern said her world travels have taken her to 45 countries and she has noticed there are a few constants in the world. She said one of those is there are always kids playing some kind of ball —kicking it, batting it, throwing it or bouncing it.

“Also if you sit on the ground long enough, some kids will come and sit in your lap. That’s a given,” Stern said.

She said being part of a foundation that supports kids, inclusion, education, cleaner streams and greener earth is an exciting proposition. Stern said her travels also reinforced the notion that everyone wants to belong to something.

Jones said the Walton Family Foundation’s continued support of the Bentonville School District’s Ignite Professional Studies program is invaluable. Ignite combines technical training with professional development and business education.

Because Bentonville is one of the fastest-growing school districts in the state, Jones said having partners like the Walton Family Foundation help prepare top technology talent ready to join to the workforce upon graduation is critical.

Stern said this year is one of strategic planning for the Walton Family Foundation as the organization formulates its 2025 goals. While she said this is a time for listening and learning, she is confident the foundation will stay true to its mission to tackle tough social and environmental problems with urgency and a long-term approach to create an opportunity for people and communities to flourish.

Stern said one of the things that attracted her to the job and to live in Northwest Arkansas was the “can-do” attitude of the leaders who embrace change, but also work to maintain tradition and culture.

“Too many communities try the spear approach to change and think they have to give up something. This community knows better,” she said.

Stern was asked what was next for the foundation, to which she said, “Stay tuned. You will have to have me back.”

Stern has been described as a visionary leader motivated by passion with a healthy urgency to impact change. When Stern was leading UNICEF, members of the Walton family said she displayed an unwavering commitment to carrying out the organization’s work to provide better education for children, delivering critical health services to high-risk populations and organize emergency relief during times of crisis.

Her prior work also includes 19 years in leadership roles at the Anti-Defamation League as well as work in higher education.

Members of the Walton family said they were struck by the urgency which Stern approaches her work, and the absolute passion she possesses for improving lives while also working for broad, lasting change.

Those characteristics align perfectly with the mission of the Walton Family Foundation. Members of the Walton family said they were also impressed by Stern’s strong track record of working across of all sectors, including government, business and philanthropy in dealing with complex issues.

UNICEF Board Chairman Peter Lamm said Stern’s “leadership skills, vision, charisma and importantly, her humanity will serve her well in this exciting new role. I expect that her broad nonprofit experience will translate seamlessly into the mission of the Walton Family Foundation.”

In Stern’s role with Walton Family Foundation, she leads a team of more than 100 across the U.S. She is responsible for all aspects of the day-to-day operations including grantmaking, evaluation, strategic planning and board relations.

Stern holds a bachelor’s degree from State University of New York College (SUNY) Oneonta, a master’s degree from Western Illinois University and a doctorate of philosophy from Loyola University in Chicago. She is the mother of three and has two grandchildren.

Stern is also a board member for The Container Store, a publicly traded retail company based in Texas.