Runa Khan (Bangladesh)
Runa Khan was born in 1958, a descendant from old aristocratic families from both her parents side. She spent her early childhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The stark difference between her life and those of the millions of unaddressed people around the country quickly became all too obvious to her.
Travelling across the riverine landscapes of Northern Bangladesh, she encountered the shifting Sandbar Islands, or Chars, which lacked any permanent infrastructure, and where vital services were absent. In these landscapes schools or hospitals were impossible to build, because the land itself was impermanent.
So, she founded Friendship, which began by bringing a floating hospital providing vital healthcare services to the most unaddressed and hard to reach islands of Bangladesh with the highest possible quality to these islands. Since then, Friendship has developed an integrated development model, in some of the most climate impacted regions of the world, committed to saving lives, poverty alleviation, climate adaptation and empowerment.
This desire to serve people came from a sense of duty to use the privilege that she was born into for welfare of humankind. Her work is based on empathy, respect, and deep sense of justice and replicable innovation.
Runa Khan received the Ashoka Fellowship in her early 20s for her work in the development of user-friendly, goal-oriented textbooks, and development of a unique teaching methodology to replace rote learning prevalent in the Bangladeshi education system.
Runa’s life and career took an unexpected turn in 1994, when she met French sailor Yves Marre, who sailed an oil barge from France to Bangladesh to use it for humanitarian purposes. Runa and Yves got married in 1996. In the mid-90s, she co-founded with her husband, CONTIC, a tourism company, which gave river cruises on restored wooden boats, which were becoming extinct because of the advent of the diesel engine. Meanwhile, after countless failed attempts by many local organisations to use the barge, she decided to bring healthcare — not through a clinic but through a ship hospital—to the disaster-prone char areas of Bangladesh and thus Friendship started. Her work for the preservation of the ancient boat-building tradition of Bengal later became part of Friendship’s development model and won her the Rolex Awards for Entrepreneurship in 2006.
As no organisation agreed to using the ship as a hospital for the poor, the ship lay in the shipyard from 1994 till 1998, when Runa Khan decided that she would build an organisation to ensure healthcare reached those who needed it the most! All told her this would be Impossible to achieve!!
Today, she is the founder and co-chair of Friendship International, which operates from five European countries to develop long-term equal partnerships to best serve the communities Friendship works for. During the inception of Friendship most doubted that her model will work, that she would be able to do the work in the way she felt committed to do – based on needs of the people and values being the essence of the way of working. 20 years forward, today Friendship is directly serving 7.5 million people annually.
Recently, Friendship’s enterprise Nodi Ltd. has launched Friendship Colours of the Chars, the country’s first sustainable, slow fashion brand. With a mission to provide training and employment to the women of the marginalised char regions of Bangladesh. The initiative aims to celebrate the happiness their artisans craft slowly by hand, in a fast-moving mechanical world. The products have been making a name for themselves in Europe and Bangladesh. Mushti, Friendship’s microfinance entity, focuses on training and livelihood support to ensure proper utilisation of their own and community resources.
Runa Khan is an advocate of climate action and human rights, women’s empowerment, leadership, and importance of nurturing human values. She has authored eight children’s books. Her work has been featured in various international publications, including Harvard Business School, National Geographic, Reuters, and BBC. She has delivered lectures worldwide at international conferences and Universities, including International Dialogue on Migration of IOM, WEF, Universities such as Colombia, Cornell, HEC Paris, Munich, Sorbonne, INSEAD, College de France, Erasmus University Rotterdam. She was a speaker at Printemps Solidaire Rally Concert with over 200,000 audience members.
She is also a board member of Global Dignity, the Advisory Council of British Asian Trust, the Honorary President of the One Sustainable Health Forum Approach, an Honorary Trustee of Duke of Edinburgh Award Bangladesh and a grand jury member of the Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity.