Dr Kalpana Sankar

Most Hand in Hand leaders have backgrounds in finance or development. Not Hand in Hand co-founder Dr Kalpana Sankar, who earned her PhD not in economics or development studies, but in nuclear physics.

“Right from the beginning, Hand in Hand presented a strong rationale for any funding we sought from donors,” says Kalpana, explaining the link between splitting atoms and splitting savings funds. “Scientific thinking underpins our work.”

Kalpana found her career in development during her husband’s tenure as a district collector in Coimbatore, where they were routinely approached for help by local residents. In 2004, while working for specialist UN agency the International Fund for Agricultural Development, she was approached by Swedish businessman and philanthropist Percy Barnevik to manage a small charity working to eradicate child labour in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Kalpana accepted, and Hand in Hand was born.

“Hand in Hand started as a small NGO struggling to eradicate child labour in Kancheepuram. We followed a child-centric approach, but quickly realised that broader social sensitisation was the key. In October 2004, the organisation shifted its focus to the community,” she says. Determined to attack child labour at its root – poverty – Kalpana helped develop the Hand in Hand job creation model, still the core of our work throughout the network.

In 2006, Kalpana Sankar was invited to provide advice to the South African government on a job creation initiative, ultimately leading to the establishment of Hand in Hand Southern Africa two years later. In 2007 she oversaw the launch of Hand in Hand Afghanistan. And in 2009, with financing from the Inter-American Development Bank, she advised on applying the Hand in Hand model in Brazil.

“I am immensely proud that we have been able to provide financial inclusion to one million poor people,” says Kalpana, who has been honored by the US Congress for her work as a social entrepreneur. “The fact that we have created 1.5 million jobs as validated by an external rating agency, M-CRIL, is a testimonial to the hard work of my colleagues.”

Dr Kalpana Sankar is available to discuss Hand in Hand India and practitioners’ perspectives. To arrange an interview, or to speak with another one of our experts, please contact Ann Dickinson.

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 80, Barnevik 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, he 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 and continued to provide incalculable support as Honorary Chairman until 2021, when he stepped back for good.

“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.”