Lessons in Leadership

A Double Eagle reflects on living the BC motto, “Ever to Excel”

Joanne Caruso on the suspended bridge she helped build in southern Rwanda.

Joanne Caruso ‘82, JD’85, didn’t set out to be the first woman president of the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC). But when the candidate she’d campaigned for was disqualified just two weeks before the election, his team turned to her to carry their platform forward. Shut out of the debates and left off the ballot, they nonetheless mounted a successful write-in campaign and secured her place in BC history. 

Now a top executive at Jacobs, a multinational professional services firm, Caruso says that what worked at BC is the same thing that’s propelled her career ever since: work hard, don’t be afraid to take risks, and use your success to serve others. 

“I’ve always looked for challenges and for opportunities to work with great people who want to make a difference,” says Caruso. “That’s what I found at Boston College and what I’ve gravitated to ever since.” 

One of four siblings, Caruso grew up in Trumbull, Connecticut, serving as class president for two years in high school and working part-time as a waitress, babysitter, and even in a hospital laundry and an aerosol can factory. 

Caruso at the Falmouth Road Race with husband Tom Zaccaro, JD’84, and daughters Carolyn Zaccaro, JD’25, and Christine Zaccaro ’16

As president of the UGBC, Caruso was a formidable voice for the student body, advocating for new diversity programs and student representation on the Board of Trustees. Along the way, she developed strong—even though occasionally contentious—relationships with University leaders such as then-President J. Donald Monan, S.J., William B. Neenan, S.J., and then-Trustee Wayne Budd ’63, learning invaluable lessons in how to lead and to serve. 

“BC was really a transformational part of my life. Not only the education, but also, and probably more significantly, the Jesuit values and mission and the people I met there,” says Caruso. “Whenever I think about BC, it’s ‘Ever to Excel’, ‘men and women for others.’ Those things are with me all the time.” 

After graduation she continued on to BC Law, got married, and moved to Washington, D.C., where she joined a law firm that focused solely on litigation, which was her passion. Life threw her a curveball when her husband was offered his own dream job in the US Attorney’s Office—in New York City. “It wasn’t what we were expecting,” she recalls. “But we said ‘Okay, we’ll figure this out,’ and we made it work for six years.”  

She took another chance when the firm asked her to help lead their California expansion, moving her family to Los Angeles where she rose to managing partner. Eager for new challenges, she joined Jacobs in 2012 as vice president for global litigation, a role that put her in the room with the firm’s top executives. Impressed by her breadth of knowledge and her passion for people, the CEO asked Caruso to take over as head of human relations, a field she’d had no prior experience in. 

“I knew it was a risk, but my CEO said ‘You don’t have to be an expert, it’s really a matter of leadership. So, I jumped in.” A period of rapid growth followed, and Caruso rose to chief legal and administrative officer—breaking another glass ceiling as the first woman executive vice president at Jacobs. 

For Caruso, the call to lead has always been entwined with the call to give back. From her first days as a lawyer, she’d taken on pro bono cases on behalf of homeless, disabled, and other marginalized people. Now, she amplifies her impact by using her seat at the table to advance diversity and inclusion, humanitarian aid, and social justice initiatives that make a difference for Jacobs’ 55,000+ employees and the communities in which they work.  

She helped launch a global giving and volunteering program that has sent teams of Jacobs engineers and other experts to build bridges; organized donations of time, housing, and money to help the people of Ukraine; and has led to donations of millions of dollars to organizations that serve communities around the world. She’s also a sponsor or member of multiple affinity groups within Jacobs and helped launch company-wide listening sessions for staff to help process major cultural and political events, such as the murder of George Floyd in 2020. 

“There’s a lot of emotion in these sessions, but one of the things I’ve learned is you really have to be willing to listen, to hear the pain, without judgment, and to understand that people’s experiences can be so different.” 

She credits the CEO and other top executives for creating such a welcoming culture that champions their people unequivocally. 

“It’s really special, and it has to start at the top,” she says. “But people have to put it into practice all the way down, right? It can’t just be the CEO and leadership team, it’s got to be everybody, throughout all layers of the organization. That’s what makes it a safe place, a place where you can actually be your whole self.” 

Looking ahead, she says she loves what she does, but does miss being in the courtroom: “I love trying cases, so I keep thinking there’s something in the pro bono world, where I can get back to the courtroom but have a broader impact.” Until then, she says, she will keep looking for ways to make a difference for others—and for her next opportunity to say “Yes.”

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