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Mansi Khandelwal

IWB Blogger

Indira Kithsiri Collects Sri Lankan Success Stories, Unearthing The True Gems Of This Land

  • IWB Post
  •  June 20, 2019

With her great dream to enhance livelihood, improve educational opportunities and lift up the living standards of rural underprivileged children in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, activist Indira Kithsiri single-handedly started her NGO in Sri Lanka.

Indira who grew up as a socially conscious and aware child knew from a young age that she wanted to help people in her best capacity and make this world a better place. Sticking to her dream, at 21 she started NGO Sahana.

“I founded Sahana Sri Lanka to revive the life of the ones affected by the tsunami. The first project was implemented in Hiniduma, a village in Southern Sri Lanka, to help the displaced families. To restore life in Sri Lanka, I started collecting funds in Verbier, in Switzerland.

Though I grew up in the Alpine region, I kept visiting Sri Lanka very often. I left Switzerland at 18 to pursue my internship with Nestle. Later in 2005, I had a chance to meet James Lee, a former vice president of HSBC in Toronto. After I had explained him my work, he contributed significantly to funds for my first rehabilitation project, ten permanent houses and a school in Hiniduma.”

Indira is India & South Asia’s Community Associate for the World Economic Forum and has a background in hospitality management, which she owes to her father’s interest in cooking. Excerpts:

Born to a Swiss mother and a Sri Lankan father, do you feel at home in both countries?

Though Sri Lanka is not my native country, I call it home. I enjoy promoting Sri Lanka as a destination and giving recommendations on new places and properties to visit. With my Book Project, I can now promote Sri Lankan talents in the country or across the world by highlighting their success stories.



You envisaged new types of collaboration with both international and local NGOs. What advice can you give to social entrepreneurs?

When selecting stakeholders to partner with, it is essential to consider the following:

  • Working with the same mission and set of values
  • Building a trusted relationship and encouraging transparency
  • Creating greater impact on ground and transfer of knowledge through potential synergies

On your book, tell us what went into its background study?

Driven by my passion for the country and for social entrepreneurship, I am co-authoring a book profiling the stories of successful entrepreneurs and inspirational leaders with Sri Lankan roots, from within the country and abroad. It is the first component of an ecosystem of initiatives through which we are engaging both the private and public sectors in supporting the nation’s burgeoning young and innovative talents. I started the project after recognizing the lack of an adequate local platform to highlight these exciting individuals and their achievements.


Tell us a little about your co-author?

My collaboration with Hashendra was born out of our closely aligned interests and goals. Indeed, we truly hope that our publication will provide insights, direction, and guidance to bright young Sri Lankans who have the aspirations to turn their ideas into impactful realities. An essential part of this project was the involvement of the broader local diaspora of Sri Lankan community in selecting the most accomplished talents as exemplars for the local youth.


If you were to reveal a few names from the Book Project?

These include the likes of Penny Abeywardena (Commissioner for International Affairs for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio), Ratheesan Yoganathan (Co-founder of the Lebara Group) and Cheryl Perera (founder of OneChild, the world’s first organisation to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of minors through advocacy, rehabilitation and reintegration).

We hope to strike a balance between established figures and comparatively newer industry disruptors. We are thrilled to partner with Dilmah Tea’s non-profit organization, the Merrill J. Fernando Foundation (MJF) and the Foundation of Goodness to identify and feature promising young men and women from less privileged backgrounds throughout the chapters. We hope it will give them fantastic exposure to the Sri Lankan community as a whole and will be crucial to cultivating a connection between young rural readers and the book’s purpose. We are also in discussions with other international organizations in Sri Lanka on how this project may increase its impact at a grassroots level.

Share with us the most inspiring conversation while working on the book?

I had a chance to meet Robert Rajeswaran, Founder and Chief Executive of Coding Boot Camp, GoCode Academy in the UK. Robert was forced to leave Jaffna, Sri Lanka with his family when he was a child. For two years, his family lived as refugees before they were granted asylum in the UK. He said that the whole experience of being a refugee gave him the hunger to make his business work. Today he is on a mission to inspire the next generation of coders and is featured in the “Start-up, Business & Digital” chapter of the book. When I met him, I was sparked by his strong determination and eagerness to support the start-up community in Sri Lanka as a young entrepreneur.

One lesson you learned in the process of working on the book?

“Nothing is impossible to a willing heart.” I believe that in today’s fast-paced world of constant change and pressure for responsiveness, we all end up seeking purpose, meaning, and truth in what we do; striving to create greater impact using innovative business models. I always say that when we genuinely help people with pure feelings and sincere intentions, many wonders and exceptional opportunities come our way, enabling greater achievements. In fact, while I believe it is important to think about the potential impact we can create around us, it is also essential to live a life that matters, be relevant as a leader and stay resilient as a person.



How do you involve the local community in selecting accomplished talents for your book?

We launched the website to enable the public to have a say in who is featured in the book. The release of the coffee table book is anticipated in September, this year.

You perfectly manage social work while pursuing an education. Any tips for young people who struggle with the balancing act?

Follow your passions, remain optimistic, self-confident and humble in everything you wish to undertake. At the same time, while I believe it is important to think about the potential impact we can create around us, it is also essential to live a life that matters to us. And mostly live every day with a deep sense of responsibility to society, the planet and people around us.


First published on June 7, 2017, republished with updates and edits. 

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