In 2013, senior lawyer Pernille Madsen found herself thinking about why she was alive. She wouldn’t call it a mid-life crisis, per se, but more of a nagging thought she couldn’t quite shake. She wondered what sort of footprint she’d leave behind on the world — and realised she couldn’t answer the question.
Perhaps reinventing herself in a foreign country would do the trick. So she quit her post at A.P. Møller Mærsk, rented out her apartment, packed her life into two bags and left chilly Denmark behind to journey the world. And yet the void in her heart grew.
“I wasn’t sad or anything, but I just knew I wasn’t doing the right thing in my life,” she says. “So I decided to look for the right thing.”
Several chance encounters led her to a brothel in New Delhi. There, her heart broke for the young girls who had been trafficked into sex work — some no older than 14 — and she was overcome with the impulse to ‘rescue’ them.
“But I realised the door was open, and they could leave any time – but they had nowhere to go,” she says.
She turned her outrage to resolve and promptly returned to Denmark, where she used all her skills to tell their stories. And there, she rallied together a team that would become the Human Practice Foundation — a foundation that has since built 60 schools in the most impoverished parts of Nepal and Kenya to provide education to 27,000 children of all ages.
“At first I thought I should rescue those girls, but I realised that if you really want to make a difference, you should really get them to school and educate them,” she says.
With the Human Practice Foundation, Madsen envisioned a small but nimble organisation that was able to make a big impact on the communities they worked with. They operate on what they call a ‘hundred percent model’ — meaning that all of the donations and funds raised go directly to their beneficiaries. Administrative fees and other overhead costs are borne by the patrons of the Foundation.
She was in Singapore recently to meet the CEO of August Berg. They recently unveiled a collaboration, where any purchase of an August Berg watch would lead to a portion of funds donated directly to the Foundation. “I realise not everyone can afford to fund a school,” says Madsen, “but by purchasing a watch, you can provide a child with 6 months of quality education.”
“That day in the brothel changed my life,” she says. “I was ready to give up my own life to help these girls.”
Safe to say that Madsen has found her calling.
What made you want to set up the Human Practice Foundation in the first place?
I stayed at an orphanage in Nepal, and I saw how hard their lives were, and how they still had so much to give. They were so full of love, and it made a huge impression on me. I wanted to be something, to do something for these children.
I got close to the expat community while I was in Nepal, being a former lawyer, it was easy for me to blend in with that community. And one day I was at this party and someone made a joke about the locals. And I felt like I was in the wrong place again. So I left that behind and went to the mountains instead. I started working with schools there, and I became really close to the locals. While I was there, I experienced how children were disappearing in that area. I heard stories about how young girls would end up in brothels in India.
Then I went to New Delhi, and went into the brothels because I really wanted to see for myself what was happening with the girls.
I remember the experience so clearly. It was just horrible. There was this big woman with artificial gold all over her, and she let me meet the girls, who were all sitting in a small room. It was in the middle of the day and men were coming and taking girls into small rooms with blood on the walls and cement benches. They would come, disappear with the girl for 15 minutes, and the process would just repeat with the same girl. And some of them were not older than 13 or 14. And all this was happening in broad daylight.
Before I went into the brothel, I had this naive idea that I should rescue these girls, get them out of the brothels, but I realised that the door was open. And sitting there on that bed, I realised that these girls had nowhere to go. In Nepal, your pride is very important. So having a child coming back from that situation is bad for the family. That’s why these children, who weren’t educated, wouldn’t be able to survive on their own. And since they couldn’t go back home, they stayed in these brothels.
And after you left that brothel, what did you do?
My heart told me what I had to do. So I went back to Denmark in 2014, and told all the stories I saw. I had no experience, but I was ready to give up my own life to help these girls. And that made a lot of people believe in me.
We created a group of 10-12 men and women, our Founding Fathers, and they agreed to pay for all the administrative costs of our foundation. Which means that 100 percent of any donations go directly to helping the children.
At first I thought I should rescue these girls. But I realised that if you really want to make a difference, you should get them to school and educate them. Because they’re safe when they’re in school, and when they’re educated, their parents are less likely to send them away. But even if that happens. they still have skills to survive.
We have a lot of big organisations who are just talking and talking, but my aim was to create a small, nimble organisation with one focus — and that’s the children. That’s how the Human Practice Foundation began.
And we actually invite people, our donors and fundraisers, to come along with us to visit the schools we build, so you know exactly which school, where it is, what your money is used for. So you understand why you’re doing it as well.
How does the Human Practice Foundation help in these communities?
We don’t only build schools now, we build libraries, we do teacher training, we work with the school management — we do tea and coffee projects, which means that we train the parents in those industries, because they are so important to the children as well. So we work in so many different components to get each community to rise out of poverty.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face when running the foundation?
When I was setting up the foundation in 2014, I met a lot of resistance. People were telling me, ‘You don’t have the experience’, ‘this is not the way it should be done’ – but I kept telling myself to believe in it. That I could create a small, nimble organisation that had a big impact on people’s lives. And honestly, I’ve never worked as much as I have now. I have no family (laughs).
We’ve built 60 schools in Nepal and Kenya and have a hundred more in the pipeline. It’s fair to say that the last five years of my life have only been about the Foundation, but it’s been such a wonderful journey, and I have so many children around the world.
So how did you get connected to August Berg?
The chairman of August Berg, Waldemar Schmidt, is a school donor. So he’s been in Nepal, he’s built schools himself.
As a foundation, we really love this concept to getting out to more people. Not everyone can afford to finance an entire school, but buying a watch – you can give a child education for a substantial period of time.
Finally, what was the one moment where you realised that it was all worth it?
In Nepal, you have to walk a long way to get to the schools, because there are no roads. And once I was walking for two days, and a woman was standing in the fields, bended over working with her hands. She looked up at me and realised that I came from the organisation, and the gratitude in her eyes…
It turned out she had five children who were in our schools. Her husband was away in Qatar working for very little money, and she just asked me why we were doing this. And then I understood for her we’re changing her life, her children’s lives. And I felt so grateful and humble, to be able to do what I’m doing.
Funny enough, people always ask me if I’m proud of what I’ve done. Actually, it’s the complete opposite. The more we do, the more humble I become. Because there’s a much bigger power that you’re tapping into when its not just about yourself, when you’re not worrying about what shoes you have or what car you’re driving. (laughs)