Dr Kalpana Sankar’s exposure to social service came quite incidentally. She married young and her husband, an IAS officer, was frequently transferred. It was when they were posted at Coimbatore that she began to see what was around her. “In Coimbatore, I found that it was the done thing for the spouse of the collector to get associated with organizations, like the Red Cross and the Women’s Voluntary Service. Coming from a privileged background, I had only seen the problems that the domestic help had. Now here I was, getting an opportunity to understand the needs of the poor and disadvantaged,” she says.
Next, she went to Australia with her husband where she specialised in Management Information Systems. “Upon my return, I started working with the Tamil Nadu Women’s Development Corporation as a monitoring and evaluation officer. It was my first experience with a government job and I got to work with women in distress; women who had been deserted by their husbands after the birth of a child with disabilities. There were men who would go to the city in search of a job and not return. This was when the concept of Self-Help Groups (SHGs) became very strong. Women gave protection to other women. This support system was a success because of the involvement of all the agencies concerned,” says Dr Shankar.
For over 10 years, she worked for causes like child labour and women’s empowerment. “I had the opportunity to work with two dynamic personalities – Shanta Sinha and Venkat Reddy from the MV Foundation. They are the people who moulded me and taught me to be patient.”
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. “It was not an easy decision for me, having a government job was considered to be prestigious, but I knew I wanted to work at the grassroots level,” she recalls. People suggested that she take long leave from her government job instead of quitting it. She began working with Hand in Hand and quit her job three years later.“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,” Dr Shankar recalls.
After her experience of government, here was exposure to the corporate way. “The way Percy and I worked was different, it was a training ground for me. Also, my understanding of the system helped me guide the work at his NGO. We didn’t want to work against the government, but bridge the gap instead.”
Hand in Hand has been an organisation she has seen grow in strength: to achieve this, hard work and consistency are key, she says. “To all youngsters who want to get into social entrepreneurship, I always suggest that they need to be consistent. They will encounter challenges, but they should not give up. As a founder, the NGO has been an important part of my life and the staff is now like family. We may be different individuals, but the cause is what binds us,” Dr Sankar says.
Hand in Hand International has come a long way and has around 4,500 people working for it full time. “It is a demanding job, but the smiling faces I encounter afterwards give me immense peace and a good sleep at night,” she says, in conclusion.