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JO LUCK: Global Humanitarian.

At the end of World War II, Jo Luck spent almost a year of her preschool life in Japan. Immersed in the culture, she learned the language but wasn't allowed to play with or speak to the Japanese children she encountered, which broke her heart. "On Sundays, I got permission to hand out cookies or candy to the Japanese children in the community, and I thought, 'When I grow up, I'm going to make sure children of all colors in all countries can play together,'" she said. "That was going to be my goal."

After her parents divorced and each remarried, Luck spent half of each year with her separate families. There were many different locations and she became adept at traveling alone at a very young age. She also learned flexibility as she moved from family to family, place to place and school to school. "As a child, I felt the need to make each family happy," she said. "I learned a lot about diplomacy and how to read body language, determine their needs and understand them."

Luck's mother encouraged her to pursue a degree in education because 'she could always support herself teaching.' Her own ambition was to become an international teaching missionary, hoping to make a difference on a global scale. She attended Hendrix College, then took graduate courses at Kansas State Teachers College and earned her degree from David Lipscomb College in Nashville, Tenn.

Luck was a natural teacher. She started at the first grade level around the time when kindergarten was just becoming more common in public schools. In addition to teaching, she helped develop courses and lesson plans and wrote grants to benefit parents in the community. She and her family settled in central Arkansas and, while teaching first grade, she also became involved in David Pryor's campaign for governor and later served as assistant director in the Governor's Office of Volunteer Services.

In 1978, she became the first executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. And in 1979, she was chosen to be executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism as one of Gov. Bill Clinton's first three cabinet appointees. At that time, the main players in the hospitality industry believed the State Park lodges and cabins were competing with private hotels and resorts. Luck knew both were needed for a thriving tourism industry so she asked the hotel and resort owners to visit parks' lodges and cabins and the parks people to become acquainted with the private facilities so that they could all learn from each other. Jo Luck understood that the natural wonders of the state were key to everyone's success. Under her direction, the economic impact of tourism in Arkansas doubled.

She cared about her job at Parks and Tourism but to indulge her love of teaching she also taught a motivational course at a community college where she asked students to provide a picture of where they'd like to be in five years. One semester, the students turned the tables on her and enthusiastically requested that she do the same on the spot with no preparation. As her students looked on, she drew a circle of women sitting on the ground with babies and men walking past and said, "That's where I'm going to be in five years: In a rural village."

A few days later, she relayed that story at a "power breakfast" where she met with influential women in the community and added, "1 want to work in rural global villages, but I'm not sure I have the skills or knowledge to make a difference." Two weeks after that, a headhunter sought her out for the Global Services Director position at Heifer International. She learned later that three of the five women at the breakfast had been contacted and each had given her positive recommendations for the position.

Within seven years Jo Luck found herself in Africa, in a situation almost identical to her classroom drawing. She sat on the ground with a circle of women, most of whom were young mothers and was especially touched by the story of one who was denied an education and forced to become a child bride. Tererai Trent was reluctant to speak up but Luck prodded her to share her hopes and dreams. She tells the story in her book, The Awakened Woman. Fearing the other women would consider her foolish, Trent said, "I want to go to America to get an education. I want to get an undergraduate degree, a master's degree and a Ph.D.' This was the first time I'd uttered aloud the dreams I'd harbored,'" she wrote.

Luck told her, "If you truly desire those dreams, they are achievable. Your hopes can be realized--they are Tinogona (the Zimbabwean word meaning achievable)". Today Dr. Trent is celebrated as founder of an organization to build a school in her village, an inspiring speaker and a professor at Drexel University.

By 1992, Luck was the president and CEO of Heifer International where she served until 2010. She expanded the nonprofit's annual budget from $7 million to $130 million. Luck had a knack for gathering the ideas of her team and factoring the team's thoughts into the final decision. "I asked staff members: 'What would you do if you were the new CEO? What would you do if you were the head of program?' Then I'd write down their ideas, and follow up and we worked as a team," she said. "They wanted to have a voice in the decision-making, and when we made a decision, it was their decision, too."

She used the same tactics on the ground around the world when getting traditionally patriarchal communities to buy into the idea of including women and children in the decision-making process. "We learned that the women were better at taking care of the animals and paying back loans," she said. "So, we'd draw a grid in the sand, and say, 'Add stones to convey who does the work, who feeds the animals, who spends the money,' and it turned out it was women doing the work and men making the decisions, so why send the men to training when the women were caring for the animals?"

Being a woman in a high position was important to her work and led to the success of her program. "I didn't come in as the boss, but that's how I was seen because I was the President. I was treated as the VIP because they'd never before had a woman with such a position in these villages," she said. "That fascinated the women in the villages and gave them permission to be confident." When the men saw the success of the program, they'd feel very proud of the women, she said. "I never felt you had to push anything down anyone's throat. Just give them the resources and let them own the idea. That's how our country was built."

In the mid-2000s, the sustainable, LEED award-winning headquarters building and campus in Little Rock was designed and built under her leadership. It was created using her tried-and-true, participatory decision-making style. "I once said the building was so green ii was edible. I'm so proud of that building. One month, in our first year, we only spent $99 on a water bill because the design created such saving protections," she said. "It took a long time to finalize the design, but it was well worth it, and every director, every team around the globe had participated."

Ardyth Neal, director of the Heifer Foundation, nominated the retired CEO to the Arkansas Women's Hall of Fame. In a letter supporting the nomination, Mary Dee Taylor said Luck's work has made an enormous difference in the lives of adults and children in Arkansas, in the U.S. and around the world.

"Jo Luck has devoted her life to empowering women and enhancing the lives of their children," she wrote. "She has fostered creativity among youngsters and convinced women in Africa, eastern Europe, Asia and the Americas that their dreams are achievable. She has broken proverbial glass ceilings and led exponential growth in the nonprofit sector. Her work has provided food security to impoverished people in the U.S. and more than 50 nations around the world."


1941: Born on Dec. 5

1963: B.S. in Education from David Lipscomb College after completing most of her undergraduate work at Hendrix College

1978: Became the first executive director of the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families

1979: Appointed by Gov. Bill Clinton to serve as Executive Director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

1989: Hired as Global Services Director of Heifer Project International

1992 - 2010: Served as President and GEO of Heifer International

1992: Served as official delegate to the U.N.'s Conference on Environment Development in Brazil and as an official participant in the PVO/NGO Earth Summit; the only individual listed as a participant in both gatherings

1999: Graduated from Harvard Business School's Executive Education Program

2008: Earned the Forbes Executive Women's "Trailblazer Award"

2010: Named World Food Prize Laureate

2011: Appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the U.S. Agency for International Development Board for International Food and Agricultural Development

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Author:Tucker, Melissa
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 12, 2019
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