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Miriam Twaalfhoven


A problem solver finds her purpose by helping ‘one child at a time’

Published 14 March 2023 in Leadership • 5 min read

Miriam Twaalfhoven, an advocate of non-profit organizations in education, explains why she turned to secondary education after a career in business and prefers to support one child at a time.  

My career path never appeared to be defined. As for many people, it has felt accidental.  

I had a classic marketing career with a Fortune 500 company before ending up with the US clothing company Levi Strauss in the former Soviet Union. I left the firm in 1992 to start a market research and consulting services firm with a group of Russian academics. Most of my time was spent consulting, headhunting, and working for the family office. But after I had sold the market research business, the question became: “What do I do now?” 

If my career had a theme, it had been that of fixing problems; my problem was that I was still looking for a purpose in my life. So I started to think more and more about what I could do. I had become increasingly fascinated by education – I love working with children – and the more I thought about it, the more it became clear.  

If I can look back and say that I have helped 35 children to have a better life, knowing that many of them will continue to assist their communities, then I know that my life has had a purpose
- Miriam Twaalfhoven


My first move into education was onto the board of Marymount International Schools to help the network move away from being a religious to a lay organization. One of the nuns had come to me as an alumna and pointed out that the youngest nun was currently 70 years old. “Soon there will be no nuns left,” she said.  

Founded by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, the network runs 24 secondary schools around the world as well as five colleges and universities in the US. I joined the board of a school, and learned an enormous amount as we made the group financially solvent again.  

No secondary education 

I was always inspired by education, but the trigger for what I do now was Melissa Fleming’s conference talk at TED Global in 2014. Then Head of Global Communications for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, she spoke about the need for education in refugee camps. It highlighted the fact that just 3% of money spent on aid goes on education in emergency contexts, which made me realize how pressing access to education for refugees is – and the impact it could have in dealing with the refugee crisis.  

If you look at the world of refugees, what little educational budget there is is spent on primary education. There is almost no secondary education in refugee camps at all., meaning that, once these children reach 11 or 12 years of age,  they are left without a chance, with no vocational training or anything like that at all. I decided that if I wanted to give back, I wasn’t going to be able to get people on rockets to Mars or eradicate malaria – let’s face it, I am no Elon Musk or Bill Gates – but I could help, and I would do whatever I could. 

Miriam Leading women

To begin with, I had all kinds of grand schemes, but I have now come to realize that it comes down to helping just one child at a time. I know this sounds like a low barrier – and I do get into arguments with people sometimes, especially when they tell me that, instead of giving $10,000 to just one child, I could feed a whole school in Kenya for that sum. My answer is to say that person could go on to become a teacher at that school and will go on to teach many children to come.  

People also sometimes ask if we give a scholarship to a refugee from South Sudan to study medicine in the US, how do we know that they will go back home? My answer is that we would be lucky to have them, but that the people I support will always help their people no matter where they are.  

A life with purpose 

An important starting point for me was discovering United World Colleges (UWC), an international network of schools and educational programs which, together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), set up an initiative in 2016 to give 100 scholarships to refugees to come to their schools. 

The past few years have seen youngsters from Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Western Sahara, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Tibet, Colombia, and Guatemala, all educated at one of UWC’s 18 schools. I have been lucky enough to mentor some of these children. 

Typically, I will put some of my own money to help pay for a child’s education or to support an educational project. I may then get the Bilthoven-based Stichting Careduca Foundation, which aims to advance the education of children locally and internationally, and of which I am Chair, to put in a donation as well. I may also convince other organizations, such as UBS Optimus Foundation, to multiply the sum, resulting in a considerable amount of money available to help with specific projects. 

The benefits of giving

  • Giving is enormously powerful. One small gesture can have a life-changing impact.  
  • Choose your passion for a social cause and use your talent as well as resources to make an impact. Make it personal, and make a meaningful difference to the lives of those you are helping. 
  • Invest in projects in the field, with high local content and with good governance. These have the greatest impact. 
  • Providing people with possibilities for the future through education is a great investment. 
  • It empowers people to live independent lives, driving economic growth. 


Miriam Twaalfhoven

Miriam Twaalfhoven

Chair of the Careduca Foundation

Miriam is an advocate of non-profit organisations in education. She is currently the Chair of the Stichting Careduca Foundation, which aims to advance the education of children locally and internationally. She is a former member of the Supervisory Board of Indivers BV, the Board of Governors of Marymount International School, London, a former Trustee of the American University of Paris, and Partner and Founder of Business Analytica in Moscow. She completed her IMD MBA in 1988.  


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