Piyabutr Cholvijarn: A pillar of Thai education and economic development

Piyabutr Cholvijarn

It could be said that some people are naturally drawn to leadership roles. But in the case of Piyabutr Cholvijarn ’72, it would be more accurate to say that leadership roles are drawn to him. The economics alumnus has found success across numerous spheres, including the private sector, government, nonprofit, and education.

Some of his outstanding roles include president and CEO of Union Bank of Bangkok; chairman of Piyanarong Co. Ltd; vice minister of commerce at the Thailand Ministry of Commerce; vice minister of education at the Thailand Ministry of Education; and deputy minister of industry at the Thailand Ministry of Industry. His experience in government also includes two terms as a senator and one as a member of the National Assembly. Additionally, he has been called upon to advise and serve as a board member for institutions such as Mahidol University, the Stock Exchange of Thailand, and the National Research Council of Thailand, to name just a few.

Cholvijarn’s service has been recognized with prestigious honors, including the Knight Grand Cross (1st Class) of the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand, which recognizes outstanding dedication and service to Thailand.

Leadership philosophy

Despite holding so many prominent positions and honors, Cholvijarn remains humble, attributing his effectiveness across sectors and roles to a service-oriented mindset.

“You have to think about how you can improve lives,” Cholvijarn said. “If you think that way, you will find success. This is always the case in everything—education, commerce, industry—the question should always be the same, ‘How can I help people?’”

Kenan Foundation Asia

This philosophy has carried well into his current role as president and vice chairman of Kenan Foundation Asia. Kenan Foundation Asia is a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable development across Southeast Asia, focusing on education, economic development, and social inclusion. Their educational initiatives enhance teacher skills and promote STEM learning, while economic programs support the development of the workforce and small- and medium-sized enterprises. Social inclusion projects address community needs, gender equality, and public health. Beyond Thailand, their projects impact neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

Kenan Foundation Asia has undergone a strategic evolution since Cholvijarn joined in 2008. At that time, the foundation was heavily dependent on USAID funds, which also tended to drive the direction of projects. Cholvijarn set out to shift this dynamic, working with colleagues to identify the organization’s three pillars—education, economic development, and social inclusion.

“These three pillars we developed are consistent with the social and business needs of Thailand, especially disadvantaged people,” Cholvijarn said. “So now we have a focus, we have a direction for what we are aiming at.”

The shift toward these pillars also created greater alignment with the 17 sustainable development goals as defined by the United Nations, particularly on poverty alleviation. Cholvijarn explained that Kenan Foundation Asia enacts many programs that act as pilots, demonstrating to governments ways in which action can be taken toward improving the quality of life for all.

Connection to alma mater

Piyabutr Cholvijarn presented with Lifetime Achievement Award by Wisconsin Alumni Association Thailand Chapter in 2023. From left: Vice Provost for
Enrollment Management Derek Kindle, International Division Interim Dean Barry Gerhart, Piyabutr Cholvijarn, and WFAA International Relations Managing Director Lora Klenke.

Even with the success he has seen throughout his career and in his social contributions, Cholvijarn has maintained close connections with his alma mater. He served as president of the Wisconsin Alumni Association Thailand Chapter and is an emeritus member of the International Division Board of Visitors. His accomplishments and service have seen him recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Alumni Association Thailand Chapter.

“UW gave me energy and fire and passion to do well,” Cholvijarn said.

Cholvijarn chose UW for its reputation for excellence in education. Madison being a smaller city appealed to him as he was eager to get away from the distractions of big cities. Nonetheless, he found Madison to be a lively campus and quickly made friends, connecting with his “American parents” who lived on a farm with cows and horses, where he would occasionally spend his free time.

He fondly recalled his time in Madison, expressing appreciation for the atmosphere and the people.

“One nice thing about Madison being a university city is that many of the people you encounter on campus, State Street, and around the Capitol are students like yourself, so you don’t feel like an outsider,” Cholvijarn said. “So you feel the whole of Madison is fellow students. And I felt comfortable right away. That was my first feeling about Madison, not only that it’s a beautiful city, but you feel like you’re at home.”