Carolyn Miles spent much of her professional life championing the rights of children and mothers through Save the Children USA, an organization that offers empowerment programs, fundraising, and direct action. The CEO reflects on decades of service, and the importance of following your passions.

Carolyn Miles made many changes during her career, but she hadn’t expected to find her life’s purpose and a new professional path while traveling through Asia. With her young children, Miles traveled to different parts of Asia—including the breathtakingly beautiful Philippines, the luscious lands of Thailand, and mountainous southern China. Yet as they engaged with local families, Miles learned that these beautiful sites did not actually reflect the often ugly conditions of people who lived there. She was struck by the unbelievable hardships endured by children living in these countries.

“So many children…had very few opportunities in the world. They were living in deep poverty,” Miles said, adding that there were no inherent differences between those poverty-stricken children and her own kids. “They were born to a mother that was living in poverty. My kids were born to me, and I was a well-educated person who, by world standards, had lots of resources. And that was the difference.” 

Miles was struck by this inequity as both a mother and a professional, and has spent much of her professional life championing the rights of children and mothers through Save the Children USA, the stateside arm of Save the Children International—a $2 billion organization that serves 56 million children in 120 countries through empowerment programs, fundraising, and direct action. For the past 8 years, she’s led Save the Children as its CEO.

“This became a really huge passion and part of my life,” Miles said, yet her journey to actively combating injustice through Save the Children was circuitous. With an undergraduate degree in animal behavior, Miles initially thought working at a veterinary clinic was her passion until she fainted during a surgical procedure. Miles then made a career pivot, earning an MBA and joining American Express’ marketing team in 1988. Two years and as many promotions later, American Express whisked the Miles family away to Hong Kong. Although the move was meant to be temporary, the Miles made Asia home. 

While living among Asia’s diverse cultures and startled by its beauty and inequity, Miles developed a passion for the nonprofit sector. She connected with Save the Children upon returning to the states and was “really interested in taking the things that I had learned in the business world and seeing how they might apply to the nonprofit world. I thought I’d do it for a couple years and then probably go back into business, and that was 21 years ago,” she said.

Carolyn Miles with children at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, January 2000. Photo by Iane Hartill/STC

Miles has made many transformative achievements during her tenure at Save the Children—where she’s held roles as chief operating officer, CEO, and president—including doubling Save the Children’s budget and the number of children the organization helps. In August, Miles announced that she will step down as CEO in January 2020. “Can’t think of anything I could possibly have done that is more fulfilling than working to make sure every last child gets the chances they deserve,” she tweeted.

Her career path—from veterinary medicine to corporate marketer and then nonprofit leader—is a shining example of what happens when you let life and your true passions lead the way. Miles’ story undeniably connects to the path of Save the Children founder Elglantyne Jebb, a staunch advocate for children’s rights who felt compelled to balance inequities she saw in the world. Although Jebb established the organization 100 years ago, she and Miles continue to battle the same world issues. 

Establishing A New Movement 

While Miles was struck by the differences in lived experiences between her own children and those she saw while traveling, Jebb never had kids of her own and was compelled by the stories of children she had never met. A social reformer and organizer, Jebb was born into a family of activists an inherited their devotion to creating access and equity. Yet the close of World War I, the first global war in modern history, inflamed Jebb’s commitment to justice and put her on the path that would create a legacy. 

Just as those living in warzones today, children were caught in the crosshairs of WWI. Even after the war, many in Germany and Austria were malnourished due to British blockades which prevented food from passing into enemy lines. When Jebb saw unbearable photos of children starving in “enemy” countries, she could not not sit back.

Jebb launched a campaign on the streets of London’s Trafalgar Square in 1919, handing out leaflets which highlighted the effects that the blockade had on children.  She watched as passersby turned away with anguish, and the action led to the establishment of Save the Children. Jebb was later arrested for distributing the images and while acting as her own legal defense, she convinced the prosecutor to make a donation to the Save the Children Fund. She also took up a collection during a public meeting at Royal Albert Hall and, within weeks, Save the Children was distributing aid in Berlin and Austria. 

One of Jebb’s first actions with Save the Children occurred in fall 1921, when the organization chartered a cargo ship to aid children starving from famine in Russia. The SS Torcello carried 600 tons of life-saving food and medical supplies. “All wars are waged against children,” Jebb was quoted saying. “The only international language is a child’s cry.”

Save the Children’s work delivering food and supplies across borders led to an international recognition of the rights of children. In 1923, she wrote the Declaration of the Rights of the Child;  after some lobbying, was adopted by the League of Nations in 1924.

“Jebb was an amazing woman. The thing that ignited her passion was this idea that children had rights. Children have basic rights to survive, have an education, and be protected from harm,” Miles added. “To me, and to her, every child deserves those things, no matter who they are or where they’re born.” 

Yet as Jebb advocated for children, women in England and elsewhere in the world were still subject to unequal treatment and restrictive laws—including an inability to vote, own a home, or open a bank account. As Save the Children grew into a multinational organization, its employees and advocates would develop a strategy that centered on the empowerment of women—and, specifically, mothers—as the first step in securing rights for children. 

Save the Children founder Eglantyne Jebb. Courtesy of Save the Children.

Gender Equality and Girls’ Empowerment

A century later, Miles has followed in Jebb’s footsteps by focusing on issues such as hunger, education, and preventing child deaths—all of which are solveable issues, she noted. Miles is passionate about centering the lives of vulnerable women, whose well-being directly affects that of their children. “A lot of our work is empowering women, because it is one of the best ways to actually make change for children,” Miles said. “Once you have kids, you just naturally think about children and what their opportunities are, and how their lives are.” 

Save the Children works to make sure mothers, and pregnant women in particular, are healthy and able to feed their children, can protect their kids from harm, and can provide a means of getting to school. “We’re confronting the lowest education rates in the world right now, and literacy rates for girls are declining,” Miles noted. Save the Children International focuses on educating young girls in India, where great limitations are placed on women from a young age, and the organization as a whole is committed to providing high quality basic education to children the world over. 

Most deprived children are girls, and this war on female bodies is happening in front of us all. Brutal attacks against civilians in Syria have had devastating effects on women and children, while Yemen’s humanitarian disaster has received little coverage.  Miles speaks publicly about these issues, and unapologetically posts about it on Twitter.

The opportunities for girls in underdeveloped countries are significantly different than those offered to boys, and are further complicated by sexual exploitation, child marriage, and pregnancy. Save the Children is working to combat these issues by “trying to change behavior and culture to value girls in the same way boys are valued” through programs such as Every Last Child and campaigns to elevate girls’ voices. In recent years, Miles has also focused on how children are affected by war trauma.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of progress across the world—a decrease in child mortality, almost cut in half in the last 18 years, and tremendous strides in getting children into schools,” she said. “But the places where these things are not getting better for children…is in conflict. Over the last 15 years…there’s an 80 percent increase in children affected by conflict. It really has a huge impact on children’s ability to develop.”

Carolyn Miles visits with a mother and her infant son at a mobile health unit in India, 2013. Photo by Soumen Nath/STC

Yet this is not a lost cause, “by any stretch of imagination,” Miles added. She’s heartened by children themselves, who regularly fundraise for Save the Children by donating online, hosting bake sales, swim-a-thons, and even making hair scrunchies to sell in support of Syrian girls. “I think what a lot of children are drawn to is just making it fair for all kids.”

Celebrating 100 Years

In 2019, Save the Children is celebrating a century of helping children and putting women at the forefront. This year is also the 30th anniversary of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, a convention based on ideas ratified by Egalytine Jebb and tirelessly promoted by Save the Children. For Miles, 2019 is also a time to reflect on her more than two decades of service coming to a close. 

“I feel like it’s time for some new ideas to come into the organization, and it’s time for me to learn something new. I feel like I’ve done a lot of really satisfying things at Save the Children and have been very honored to be here and lead this organization for the last 8 years,” Miles said.

Janti Soeripto, currently STC’s president and COO, will step into the role of CEO in 2020. She “[has a] really as a deep appreciation for the places and people that we work with, and knows those countries well, and understands the challenges we have on the ground,” Miles continued. “She is Dutch-Indonesian, so I think will bring a very different view of the world, which I think is a good thing.” 

Although Miles isn’t sure what she’ll do next—likely something in the nonprofit sector “with purpose and mission”—she encourages women to follow their passions. You never know if that passion will eventually help millions of people, or create a powerhouse of volunteers striving to even the playing field. 

Miles has visited 90 countries with Save the Children, and occasionally brings her children to experience field work—which can be anything from observing a class held under a tree, to supervising the rollout of ultrasound technology used with a cell phone to diagnose pneumonia. “I always did feel like it was important for them to see how different the world is for kids, compared to here in Connecticut.” As Miles traveled and grew Save the Children’s efforts, her own worldview has evolved. 

“The biggest thing that I think has imprinted on me is that there is such diversity [in the world] and value in that diversity of people,” Miles said. “Here in the US, we don’t talk a lot about this idea of children’s rights because many kids do really have the things that most kids need. I visit children everywhere I go and I think all of these children should have an equal shot and a healthy, happy, productive life—and they don’t.” 

Epiphany Ciers is the content marketing manager at Rebel Girls. She is a Houston native with an obsession with traveling, taste buds that are always looking for good food, and a passion for creating beautiful content through words and art. She has written for Create & Cultivate and Local Houston Magazine exploring new self-care tips and discovering go-to destinations for Houstonians. She has earned a B.S. in Digital Retailing and a B.S. in merchandising from the University of North Texas. See what she’s up to on Instagram.

Elisa Macellari is a Thai-Italian illustrator and graphic designer based in Milan. She specializes in children’s illustration and editorial illustration. Elisa likes colorful things, wild animals, jungle, mysterious creatures, strange objects and tom yum soup. Her illustrations have been exhibited in Italy and abroad.