Q&A with CaringBridge CEO Liwanag Ojala

Before nearly a quarter of the world population was on Facebook and 100 million photos were posted to Instagram daily, there was a social network called CaringBridge. CaringBridge is the platform dedicated to helping people communicate with and support loved ones during a health journey — and it is officially the original social network. A kind and brilliant woman by the name of Liwanag Ojala runs this Minnesota-based nonprofit organization, which, 22 years after inception, attracts 30 million unique visitors annually.

It’s as surprising as it is inevitable that Liwanag would end up spearheading an organization such as this. What began as a career as an attorney with Briggs & Morgan, PA found her later running two different online grocery delivery services, and eventually landed her as the COO, then CEO, of CaringBridge. The marriage of technology and community has been a theme throughout her career, which renders her a great fit in her current role.

Liwanag is bringing her unique experiences and perspectives to an upcoming panel discussion at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Along with Chief Creative Officer of Target, Todd Waterbury; polar explorer Tyler Fish; and rapper and spoken word artist, Dessa, Liwanag will share how and why she uses exploration as a practice for business and life.

Ever the gracious partner, she took the time to answer questions about remaining optimistic during dark times, the thread that weaves humanity together, and what she’s planning for her next exploration.

CaringBridge CEO Liwanag Ojala

What do you strive to contribute to the communities you’re a part of?

I approach everything from a position of compassion, rational thinking, collaboration and encouragement. I am very fortunate to work on a mission that leverages these personal attributes.

Why do you explore?

Understanding humanity is a lifetime pursuit. You must keep doing it in multiple dimensions to understand people. That takes deliberate effort to place yourself in situations that are distinct – even when its uncomfortable or difficult. And it happens over a lifetime. I’m still exploring. There are many things I still don’t understand, but I sure am going to try.

You run a global social network. What thread weaves humankind together?

Everyone needs to be loved. At the heart of what we do at CaringBridge, there is love. We work hard to ensure no one goes through a health journey alone, because we know people need love. When people show up for each other when it matters most — that’s love.

Water is to survival as exploration is to:

Living. Being alive, and Living are very different. For me, it is not enough to be alive, but I want to be Living in a way that I’m experiencing life to its fullest.

What fuels exploration is the desire to be curious, to imagine what’s possible. Without a sense of curiosity, there are no relationships. I care deeply about quality relationships – for myself, my family, friends, but also for the people we serve at CaringBridge.

What are you reading?

My son is now in high school, so I’m reading books I read in high school again, with a new lens now that I’m in my 40s. NOT Beowulf, but To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, The Pearl, The Great Gatsby. It’s reminding me why I love to read.

I also consume a lot of media, because I’m interested in seeing how media consumption and content creation has changed over the years. I care deeply about the truth and today’s media environment requires deliberate exploration to find the truth.

What scares you about having influence on others?

I am not readily spooked about things that really matter… but there is a responsibility I feel when someone asks for advice or I give guidance to others. The goal is not to tell someone what to do, but to help them find their own answers in a way that is productive for them, but also honest and open. As a leader there is a greater sense of responsibility, because your title compels others to listen to you more closely. I try hard to be thoughtful about the counsel I provide.

How do you remain optimistic when feeling your most hopeless?

I believe in the good, power and resilience of people. We keep on, as humans. I studied history, and so there is an ebb and flow to civilizations, which is analogous to the continuum of life. I am loving becoming older, to bear witness to the continuum in my own life. What is old is new again. What is new will be old. We must learn from the past to inform the future, and that is over longer time frames than we typically want to view things. Optimism needs to be viewed over a much longer period than we typically view things in life.

Another way to answer this question? I surround myself with people that love me, and I love.

What is the next adventure you plan to embark on?

Professionally – how do we reach more and more people, to become aware that CaringBridge is a place of help and healing.

Personally, my husband and I want to show our kids Spain. Spanish culture had a deep influence on my personal history, as my parents were from the Philippines. I want to explore it with the lens of understanding how it influenced my parents, and what remnants continued in their parenting. (Also, to eat the food and drink the wine.)

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Come hear Liwanag engage in a dialogue about exploration with Tyler Fish, Dessa, and Todd Waterbury on Thursday, January 17, 2019. Mia’s Third Thursday: Exploration with Studio/E is free and open to everyone.

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