“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.”
- 2010 G.D. Birla International Award for Rural Upliftment in India. Awarded by Vice President of India
- 2009 The Empowerer of Women of the Year Award, Swedish American Chamber of Commerce
- 2008 Change-maker of the Year Award
- 1998 Global Executive of the Decade
- 1997 European Leadership Award from Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA
- 1995 Emerging Markets CEO of the Year award in Washington DC from a worldwide survey of 1,000 CEOs
- 1992 International Executive of the Year award from the Fellows of the Academy of International business
- 1991 Manager of the Year Award in Europe from the European Business and Financial Press Association
Percy Barnevik in the media
Percy Barnevik enjoys sharing his experience as a philanthropist with an eye on the bottom line, as well as his perspective on leadership in the commercial and not-for-profit sectors. Following the publication of his book ‘On Leadership’ in 2013, Barnevik’s speaking engagements have ranged from an exchange on international development with statistics guru Hans Rosling to sharing his perspective on social impact investment alongside Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.
Most development professional have backgrounds in finance or economics. 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.”