Lisbeth Johansen

Founder of LittleBigHelp

Lisbeth is truly a woman out of the ordinary. Since moving to India, she has – in parallel to running LittleBigHelp – completed the training to become a recognized yoga and meditation therapist. Some time ago, a fairly spontaneous trip brought her to Mount Everest where she completed the hike to Base Camp wearing simple sneakers.

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When purpose beats profit

Have you ever felt an urge to turn your life around? While many of us have tried starting in a new line of business, perhaps in a brand new city or country, few have tried to turn their backs on all that is familiar and part of a conforming lifestyle to follow a calling to lands unknown. “We are too scared to really follow our dreams and our hearts because of the consequences. If you are willing to look at the consequences, then you can really create the life you want.” Lisbeth Johansen dared to take a leap of faith and break all bonds to her previous life in order to follow her intuition. Today, she is the Founder and Head of LittleBigHelp, an NGO that touches the lives of 1,000 people every day. Initially, Lisbeth’s quest for a deeper meaning brought her to many places, and she did a lot of volunteer work for different charities. After spending 1.5 years with an organization in Kolkata, India, she discovered that the organization was corrupt. “It was a really tough start,” she says. “I was struggling a lot and feeling very lonely. I didn’t have any friends at that time, and the culture was new to me.” It came to a point where she feared for her own security. And so, Lisbeth chose to take matters into her own hands.

“It doesn’t make sense to give a man a fish, it’s much better to teach him how to catch the fish himself.”

Go catch the fish

Following her initial setback, Lisbeth made the decision to start her own NGO to make sure that the much-needed money went where it was supposed to. And so, in 2009, LittleBigHelp was founded in Kolkata, one of India’s most deprived cities. Out of Kolkata’s 15 million inhabitants, several millions live in the slum and close to 150,000 people are homeless. “I didn’t know that I was going to stay in Kolkata, but coming there, I just couldn’t turn away. What I saw was so terrible and so overwhelming that I knew I needed to do something, and so I unpacked my bags and stayed,” explains Lisbeth. LittleBigHelp’s main focus is on development, and the organization’s 22 projects for vulnerable children, families and the disabled all focus on education and empowerment. “I believe so much in development work compared to charity,” explains Lisbeth, “because it doesn’t make sense to give a man a fish, it’s much better to teach him how to catch the fish himself.

Why go to school?

Every day, LittleBigHelp reaches 1,000 people in the Kolkata region in many different ways. For women, the organization offers skills development training, which educates them in crafts they can make a living of. Because, as Lisbeth explains, when women make money, it typically goes back to the family. While the courses offered to women may last for up to one year, the participants are often able to start making money after just a few months – and some even set up their own business. “We have one woman who can’t walk. She is in one of our schools for the disabled, but she has a very successful business. She has a tailoring company now and she earns good money. She supports her whole family and she also hires people during festivals, where a lot of tailoring needs to be done,” says Lisbeth.

LittleBigHelp shares this and other success stories with the women they meet in the slums to encourage them to join the skills development training. Many of the women are reluctant at first, explains Lisbeth, and there is often a strong aversion in the community against women learning new crafts. “We have had women who have been yelled at when going to the center, things like: ‘Who do you think you are?’,” says Lisbeth. “Because when a woman suddenly starts educating herself, it’s typically not supported at all. These women really have to fight for their right to develop.” Even for children and their parents in the slum, the idea of going to school is often far from welcomed. LittleBigHelp spends many resources on counseling the parents in order to convince them that it’s a good idea for their children to attend school. “If you have no idea what a school is, if you have never been to school, if no one in your family has ever been to school, how would you know? For them, it’s a matter of when the child is ready to start working. And that is usually from the age of 5,” Lisbeth says.

A brighter future

“There is a girl who is in our girls’ home,” says Lisbeth. “Her mom married another man and when you remarry in India, it’s not very common that the woman gets to bring her children from a previous relationship. And this woman, she left the little girl, who saw her mom every day and the mom just ignored her. Fortunately, a neighbor called us, and we got in touch with the girl.” Many of the children at Little- BigHelp’s orphanages for girls and boys have been abandoned by their parents. Besides the orphanages and the skills development projects, LittleBigHelp runs community centers in different slum areas, computer centers and a center for special education. The children enrolled in the various initiatives all come from the slum or even the streets.

Choosing freedom

The focus on educating children and developing women’s ability to make their own money has been an integral part of LittleBigHelp from the beginning. The rest of the organizational build-up, however, has at no point been a given. While legislative issues have dragged on for years, Lisbeth has also been forced to think creatively to build a solid financial foundation for her organization, including throwing an annual charity gala to raise money. Today, LittleBigHelp employs 3 people in Denmark and 90 people in India. Lisbeth is the only one who does not receive any kind of salary or compensation for her work. “When I look at LittleBigHelp, I am so thankful for everyone who is involved with it. I am proud that we have created 90 jobs in India. Everything we have done as an organization is personal for me as well. The way we as an organization have succeeded and what we have achieved, and are still achieving, that is beautiful,” says Lisbeth. In the future, Lisbeth hopes to be able to expand LittleBigHelp even further: To build a stronger organization and create more projects. While there might be some expansion to other cities in India on the horizon, bringing LittleBigHelp to other countries is also an opportunity if someone is willing to take on the task, says Lisbeth. For her own part, however, Lisbeth still feels that she is right where she belongs. “When you change your life to a new career or something completely different, you never know how it’s going to be. That’s why many people end up staying in their comfort zone, and that is great if you are happy. If you are not, I think it’s a waste of your life. I had the courage to really look at my life and the consequences of changing it, and that for me is a life in freedom.”

LittleBigHelp works to create better opportunities for vulnerable children and families in West Bengal, India. Their aim is to secure basic children’s rights such as education and protection along with women’s empowerment. Lisbeth and the team at LittleBigHelp are directly involved in their projects in order to make a focused and personal difference for the families and children involved. At QVARTZ, we also believe in direct personal involvement to create tangible change, which is why we support LittleBigHelp.