Percy Barnevik with a young Indian student.

Percy Barnevik

“Even when they’re undernourished, downtrodden and illiterate, [our entrepreneurs] have an enormous will. When they get a chance, they’re not letting it go by,” says Percy Barnevik. “These women can move mountains.”

At 76, the Hand in Hand International Honorary Chairman knows a thing or two about seizing chances. Before co-founding Hand in Hand with Dr Kalpana Sankar in 2003, a move that would catalyse the creation of millions of small businesses, Barnevik ran some of the biggest companies in the world. In Europe, he was Chairman of Swedish construction giant Skanska, Swiss engineering firm ABB Ltd and UK-based pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca plc. In the US, he sat on the boards of DuPont and General Motors.

As early as the 1970s, Barnevik’s work brought him to India, Kenya and South Africa. Later, he managed the construction of power plants and refineries in other developing countries. It was during these visits, he says, that he started to think about tackling poverty.

“I learned that the reason for almost all the trouble in the developing world is extreme poverty. Children not attending school, poor health, carelessness about the environment – it all went back to poverty.

“Then while travelling in southern India I saw this terrible abuse of child labour. I started to buy them out for about US $150 a child. I was in mind to buy out 200,000 children, which becomes quite a lot of money. I realized that I had to attack the root cause of the problem: poverty.”

Barnevik recruited Indian development specialist Dr Kalpana Sankar, a nuclear physicist by training, and together they set about building a programme that would help create jobs in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Hand in Hand was born.

“Our model, help to self-help, puts people’s destinies into their own hands,” says Barnevik, explaining his early motivation. “You train them, you coach them, but they decide themselves about the future.”

That belief, since borne out by millions of grassroots entrepreneurs, continues to underpin our work. So too does Barnevik’s firm preference for decentralisation, one of his hallmarks as a Chairman and CEO.

In his 2013 book ‘Percy Barnevik On Leadership’, he describes his dream company as “highly decentralised – with many separate units, many responsible managers and potential for initiatives.” Our network – with operating headquarters in India, Afghanistan and Kenya, and support offices in Sweden, the UK and the US – is exactly that.

Without “superfluous levels”, says Barnevik, “we run at a very high speed, at a very low cost – and the speed is accelerating all the time. We’re now up to almost 1,000 new or expanded businesses every working day.”

Barnevik stepped down as Chairman of Hand in Hand International in February 2014. But he continues to provide incalculable support – and near-daily working hours – as Honorary Chairman.

“This work with Kalpana and the team we have at Hand in Hand is my biggest project ever,” he says. “It’s my last, my biggest and my most important project.”