Liwanag Ojala bridges gaps of communication
When you hear the words “social network,” platforms like Instagram and Facebook may come to mind. But a social network that predates them all is right here in the Twin Cities: CaringBridge, a platform focused on health journeys.
Residing at the unique juncture of digital, health care and nonprofit, CaringBridge isn’t where CEO Liwanag Ojala saw her career taking her, but the organization quickly became something special to her. Approximately 215,000 people visit a CaringBridge website daily. A new site is created every six minutes, and around 30 million unique visitors come to a CaringBridge site annually. This social network isn’t merely a nice-to-have. For many, it’s a need-to-have, and that gives Ojala her fiery fuel as the platform’s intrepid CEO.
In the short time we spent with Ojala, she shared with us difficulties she faced rising to the top, the importance of enrolling your family into your journey and how we can all make the workplace better for women.
Studio/E: You’ve held many leadership roles. What’s something you’ve learned from leading?
Ojala: Sometimes you have to take a moment to digest before you respond. There are times when it’s easy to quickly react, but sometimes the best thing to do is pause, digest and think before acting. It’s a good tip for personal life, too.
Studio/E: You said you didn’t envision yourself at a nonprofit given your experience. What has surprised you about this role?
Ojala: When I started with CaringBridge, I was clear on the need for the service and was excited about the opportunity to use a digital experience to adjust human behavior around a health issue. What I didn’t expect was the connectivity between business and humanities.
Knowing that I’m helping people every single day is personally fulfilling. It’s a constant reminder of myself as a human being, not just a leader or businessperson. I just have such a cool job.
Studio/E: You refer to your team as “small but mighty.” How does your 40-person team successfully manage a social network?
Ojala: We have a good combination of skill, will and the desire to be here. We have to have great people and be very focused on the capabilities we bring, because we can’t do everything. It’s important to build a dynamic with your team that propels success. You can’t build a culture by saying it has to be built; you have to build it by driving and nurturing it. If CaringBridge is about activating communities, then we have to mirror that internally. We have to have a healthy community here.
Studio/E: What does CaringBridge mean to you?
Ojala: Last year was CaringBridge’s 20th anniversary, and 20 years ago last year my mom passed away. When I think about what we did when she was in the hospital, then in a coma, then subsequently passed — that looked very different from what I’d be able to do today. It was isolating and lonely, and I didn’t know how to activate the community in a meaningful way. Sometimes I think about where I was 20 years ago and how cool it is that CaringBridge was created at that same time.
Studio/E: Have you had any difficulties getting where you are today?
Ojala: Oh yeah. Many times in my career I was the only woman or the youngest woman in the room. What that did was fuel within me a high standard for my own behavior and how I show up. If you’re competent and you show up well, you have a better chance of getting through the tough situations. Other people’s behavior isn’t going to define who you are. It’s what you do that defines who you are.
Studio/E: How do you think we can make things better for women in the workplace?
Ojala: Men have to be part of the solution. Women aren’t going to solve some of the workplace issues on their own. They need strong men who are willing to create spaces for women to be successful. If you’re a businessperson, you might think about it in terms of nurturing your assets: Women will not stand for poor treatment. They will leave your organization, go start their own business, and they are fully empowered to do that these days. If you want to nurture your assets, you have to set the stage for what kind of behavior is okay and not okay.
Studio/E: What advice do you have for women in business?
Ojala: Be present when you’re there, forgive yourself when you’re not. Early on in my career as a mom and wife, so much of my energy was focused on what I missed that I was sucking the energy away from the things I wasn’t missing. Don’t beat yourself up; just be deliberate about being fully present.
Put yourself first sometimes. There are things I like to do that my husband doesn’t, and I’m not going to not do them because he doesn’t like them. An example is modern art. We love art, but he goes crazy when we go see modern art. So sometimes I say, “This is a love I have that I’m going to nurture because it’s part of who I am. I’ll do it without you, and that’s okay.”
Take people along for the ride. When I think about my journeys — personal and professional — what stands out is that it takes your family, friends, spouse and kids being supportive of what you do. You can’t do these things alone. You need someone walking along with you to do things well.