Social entrepreneur and Community Specialist, Regional Strategies for India and South Asia at the World Economic Forum, Indira Kithsiri dons multiple hats. Powered by the passion to make the world a better place, in the wake of the havoc the 2004 tsunami wrought, Indira Kithsiri single-handedly started an NGO in Sri Lanka. She was only 21 at the time. Since then, all her efforts have been dedicated to making a real difference. Indira is the Community Specialist, Regional Strategies for India and South Asia at the World Economic Forum.
Swiss Alps to Sri Lank
Born to a Swiss mother and a Sri Lankan father, she is at home in both countries.
Indira’s parents met in Sri Lanka in the 80s but settled in Switzerland. Her mother was a Montessori teacher and her dad was in the catering business, which focused on Indian food.
Indira has fond memories of the time spent in the kitchen helping her father cook chapattis, tandoori chicken, and chicken samosas late into the night. “This time spent with him probably influenced the choice of my studies in hotel management later on.”
Though she studied and grew up in the Alpine region of Switzerland, her frequent trips to Sri Lanka kept her connected to the island nation. Her love for the country is evident from the work she has done through her NGO, Sahana Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is anchored in my roots and my soul. Whenever I am in Sri Lanka, I feel at home and there is nothing better in life for me. I feel energised, fulfilled, and in harmony with myself. I love the country for its nature, its simplicity, and many facets, without forgetting the warmth of its people, the unique-flavoured food, and the many opportunities available for entrepreneurs.
When she was seven, her parents divorced. Those circumstances strengthened her mentally, forged her personality, and as she says, “taught me how to let go and gave me self-confidence, as I have never been over-protected but on the contrary, always exposed to life experiences.”
Though strict about education, her mother always provided her with wonderful opportunities to grow. “She always encouraged me to follow my passion and not worry too much about conventions and what people would say. As a result, I left home when I was 18 and moved to Sri Lanka for a year, doing my first internship with Nestle.”
Picking up the pieces
In 2005, Indira founded Sahana Sri Lanka, a Swiss NGO, to pick up the pieces after the tsunami. The first project was implemented in Hiniduma, a village in southern Sri Lanka, to help the displaced families.
She had started raising funds for the project in Verbier, her hometown in Switzerland. “When I arrived in Colombo in February 2005, I had the chance to meet James Lee, a former vice president of HSBC in Toronto, who contributed significantly with funds for the first rehabilitation project—10 permanent houses and a school in Hiniduma,” she says.
Sahana Sri Lanka
“I have always been interested in supporting women and youth in Sri Lanka, because I strongly believe they can play an important role in shaping Sri Lanka’s success story,” says Indira.
From 2005 to 2012, she had a team on the ground and thereafter started partnering with local and international NGOs for their best practices. The team included four teachers and two coordinators.
Later on, this innovative self-sustaining solution allowed me to envisage new types of collaboration with both international and local NGOs. I strongly believe that local partnerships can provide win-win solutions ensuring long-term sustainability, transfer of knowledge, and greater impact on the ground.
Three to four trips to Sri Lanka every year for many years now has helped her keep up with the latest developments and challenges the country faces. “I am also privileged to interact with a close-knit circle of friends with whom I share my thoughts and ask for guidance when needed,” she adds.
I am inspired
While Indira has directed all her energies towards Sahana, in 2010 she also completed her B.Sc. in International Hospitality Management from Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne in Switzerland. While her work in Sri Lanka continues, high on her task list for the next two years is write a book that will provide insights, direction, and guidance to bright young Sri Lankans aspiring to turn their ideas into realities.
Indira is co-authoring a book titled I Am Inspired where she is profiling the stories of successful entrepreneurs and inspirational leaders with Sri Lankan roots, from within the country and abroad. “I started the project after recognising the lack of an adequate local platform to highlight these exciting individuals and their achievements. My collaboration with Hashendra (co-author) was born out of our closely aligned interests and goals.”
An essential part of this project is the involvement of the local community and the Sri Lankan diaspora in selecting the most accomplished talents as exemplars for the local youth. “We are well on our way to gathering an exceptional list of nominees across the nine chapters in our book. More excitingly, we have begun identifying candidates for the final line-up.”
She hopes to publish the book in English in the early part of 2018. The authors have partnered with non-profit organisation 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 at large, 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 organisations in Sri Lanka on how this project may increase its impact from a grassroots level.
World Economic Forum
Indira also has her hands full with all the work she is doing with the World Economic Forum. She is a member of the India and South Asia team that is responsible for overseeing the forum’s engagement and community development within the region. This includes developing regionally focused strategies and value propositions for governments, creating and managing regional projects, and organising and delivering innovative summits or project workshops. About to complete her third year with the forum, she is happy with the exceptional learning opportunities she has received.
“It is also an immense privilege to interact with outstanding individuals from all over the world, who share similar values and are concerned with the same mission,” she says.
Finding a balance
Being surrounded by challenging situations since an early age, Indira has learnt to cope with difficulties and come up plans B and C early on. Though she enjoys being challenged in the work she does, the biggest challenge she is facing today is to “make a choice and find the right balance between my professional and personal aspirations. Here the challenge is to find harmony and inner peace while making my dreams come true in a non-traditional way”.
“To do this, I am trying to follow my passions, remain optimistic, self-confident, and humble in everything I undertake to achieve greater heights, make a difference in people’s lives, and become a source of inspiration for others. And mostly live every day with a deep sense of responsibility to society and the planet,” she adds.