Save the Children CEO speaks at Rice on ensuring more kids live to celebrate their 5th birthdays

In 1919, when Eglantyne Jebb founded the Save the Children Fund in England to aid children in war-ravaged central Europe, she had “this very radical idea that children actually had rights,” said Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children. Almost 100 years later, the now global humanitarian organization’s purpose remains strong and focused, as Miles outlined in a presentation to students, faculty and staff at Rice’s Farnsworth Pavilion Feb. 16.

Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children, speaks to members of the Rice community about the importance of protecting and improving the lives of children worldwide. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

Rice’s Doerr Institute for New Leaders hosted the presentation. Miles is a member of the institute’s advisory board.

“By 2030 … we want to ensure that no child dies of a preventable death before the age of 5,” Miles said. “We actually have a lot of reason to be hopeful about this one, because in 1990 about 12 1/2 million kids died under the age of 5 and the 2016 numbers are about 5 million. But now we have to do the really hard part, which is to try to get the number to zero.”

Child survival is achieved “by making sure that we get to the most disadvantaged children and reach them with help on the ground in those places where they live,” said Miles, who stressed the importance of focusing on newborn health and lauded Rice 360° Institute for Global Health’s neonatal health care efforts in Malawi. “We’re getting to the point where we really have to reach the most deprived kids in the hardest-to-reach places, and we need to do it really early,” she said. “Saving newborn lives means that you have to back up … you have to work with mothers, you have to work on nutrition, you have to work on prenatal care … you have to work on family planning.”

The other two critical priorities for the organization, which today serves more than 157 million children in the U.S. and in more than 120 countries, include education and protecting kids from harm and violence, Miles said. “We don’t want kids to just survive; we actually want kids to thrive,” she said. “And a key to that is education. For us, the issue is making sure that every child gets a basic high-quality education, and for a lot of kids we work with, that means they get to the sixth grade, and they learn to read, they learn to write and they have basic literacy. Because we know what happens to children, including children right here in the United States that we work with, if they don’t get those basic skills.”

Carolyn Miles presentation

Miles noted that more children than ever before — at least 357 million globally — live in areas affected by conflict, according to a report Save the Children released Feb. 14. The report showed this number has increased by 75 percent since the early 1990s, with one in six children globally now living in impacted areas. “This was a key issue that Eglantyne Jebb actually started the organization on,” Miles said. “One hundred years later we have not made the progress that we need to make in this area. Because if you look at what happens in Syria — the bombing of schools, of hospitals, children used as soldiers, all of those things — we’re still very much in this fight.”

Prior to Save the Children, Miles worked in the private sector in Hong Kong for American Express and as an entrepreneur. While in Asia, she confronted the deprivation of the region’s children, which motivated her to dedicate her life to their welfare.

‘It takes sacrifice to get big things done in the world’

Miles was introduced by Doerr Institute Director Tom Kolditz. She was accompanied by her high-school-age daughter, Molly, who was making a college visit to Rice, and her husband, Brendan.

“It takes sacrifice to get big things done in the world,” Kolditz said. “Often we view leaders as people who have perks and privileges and somehow are advantaged, but the reality is it’s really, really hard work. This is a boots-on-the-ground leader who gets around all over the world, and that requires sacrifice not only on her part, but on her family’s part as well. Often the families of leaders don’t get recognized for the degree to which they provide support and the kind of commitment that allows leaders to get their job done.”

Kolditz said Miles’ success as a leader has a distinct feature. “If you get into the leadership literature and you study what makes leaders powerful, what makes them successful, it’s almost impossible to compete with a leader who has a strong sense of purpose for why they lead and why they make these sacrifices and why they do what they do,” he said. “Carolyn Miles has a stronger sense of purpose than any other leader that I’ve ever known.”

Fabiana Toro, a student in Rice’s Professional Science Master’s Program in Environmental Analysis and Decision-Making, said there was much to glean from Miles’ presentation. “Save the Children has learned to garner the help of local community health workers in all the countries they visit so as to promote their mission,” she said. “One organization cannot change the world, but a partnership between different institutions and organizations does have the power to make a difference.”

Rohit Kavukuntla, a McMurtry College senior majoring in biochemistry, said Miles’ work and career evolution provided a good case study. “Save the Children is an extremely large organization that pursues many different projects helping children concurrently in many different areas of the world, making the organization very unique,” he said. “With such a large organization comes multiple leadership challenges. Carolyn Miles’ experience leading in private industry seems to have given her the edge and the know-how to make Save the Children an effective, empowering nonprofit that can change the world. One aspect of her presentation that stood out to me is her emphasis that continuing the work of organizations, such as Save the Children, requires constant recruitment and engagement of the next generation of leaders. This is a problem that even the most experienced leaders are challenged with, and solving this issue is key to running a successful organization.”

Rice’s Doerr Institute was established in the summer of 2015 with support from a gift from alumni Ann ’75 and John ’73 Doerr with a mission to “elevate the leadership capacity of Rice students across the university.” It is a collaborative effort that exchanges techniques and ideas with other universities that engage in the development of students as new leaders. Providing a transformative undergraduate education that produces graduates who have the broad intellectual and international perspectives, critical thinking capabilities and creative problem-solving skills to be leaders and contributors to the world is one of the goals of Rice’s Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade.

For more information on the Doerr Institute, visit https://doerr.rice.edu.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.