FEATURE

The Wages of Health

Manmeet Kaur and Prabhjot Singh made a commitment to serving their community. Despite enduring a terrifying act of violence, they haven’t broken it.

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2013-14
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Manmeet Kaur had just returned to New York after three years abroad on a human-rights fellowship when a friend invited her to a party. Her name was Manmeet Kaur Bindra then.

It was August 2008. At the party, her friend introduced her to a brilliant young Cornell medical student who was getting his PhD in neural and genetic systems at Rockefeller University and working with the Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs on the healthcare component of Sachs’s antipoverty Millennium Villages Project. Days earlier, as part of a new spiritual commitment, he had stopped trimming his beard.

Kaur was familiar with that practice. Her grandfather was a famous Sikh scholar in India, at Panjab University. She was devoted to him. Though she grew up in Baldwin, on Long Island, she got to visit her grandfather several times in India and in America. His name was Harnam Singh Shan. All baptized men in the Sikh faith take the name Singh, meaning “lion.” Baptized women take the name Kaur, which means “princess.” Though Kaur was secular at the time, she and Prabhjot Singh were strikingly well-matched. Here she was, the daughter of Sikh Indian immigrants, preoccupied with labor issues at an early age, having worked weekends and summers in her parents’ dry-cleaning shop. There, she got to know the immigrant workers, listening to their stories about crossing the border. As a child worker, she gained further insights. By high school she wanted to be a human-rights lawyer.

She earned a degree in anthropology and history from Barnard, where she won a Third Millennium Foundation human-rights fellowship that began after graduation. Her first stop on the fellowship was South Africa, where she worked with, and was inspired by, Mamelani Projects, a community-health group whose outreach method took into account factors like the patient’s employment situation and home life. For the fellowship’s second half, she went to India and eventually got involved with LabourNet, a social enterprise in Bangalore that functioned as an intermediary between construction workers and employers. The idea was to improve worker standards, not through the labor-union method of negotiating contracts (the construction industry in India is around 80 percent informal), but by educating workers in health and finance and helping them get insurance that would move with them from job to job.

These experiences gave Kaur a sense that, when it came to implementing better living standards for people, the power of the law was limited. What she really wanted now was to create programs that could change whole systems.

“Why not make a system that takes care of people for 365 days,” Singh says, “and not have them just come in and out of the hospital?”

And here he was: Singh, too, was a systems person. A systems scientist. He, too, was raised in a casually practicing Sikh household. He left Kenya at age eight, when his father, amid growing violence against Indians, moved the family from Nairobi to East Lansing, to do his postdoc at Michigan State. Afterward, the family migrated to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where Singh — Prabhjot Singh Dhadialla then — finished high school. Since 2005, he’d been going to rural parts of sub-Saharan Africa and India, learning how people living in severe poverty built their own health networks and delivered care.

He, too, wanted to change whole systems. Build better ones.

“Would you like to meet for lunch?” Singh said.

Kaur and Singh met for lunch. Ten weeks later, they were engaged.

They got married in October 2009. Kaur embraced Sikhism, dropping her last name, Bindra, just as Singh had dropped Dhadialla. She began working for the Earth Institute, traveling to East and West Africa to consult on the financing and management strategies of the Millennium Villages project’s health-care workforce, both at the community-health level and in village clinics.

It was then that she began thinking about starting a community-health program in New York. What she needed was some business knowledge. A business plan. She applied to Columbia Business School, and got in.


On the evening of September 21, Kaur came home from dinner and got her baby ready for bed.

This was an exceedingly busy time for Kaur. The pilot project had started just days before, the culmination of three years of planning and fundraising, during which Kaur had taken time off to give birth to Hukam. After she returned from maternity leave, in December 2012, she hired a director of operations, Donya Williams, then spent the first quarter of 2013 cultivating relationships she had begun in B-school. It was back then, through her classes in the Social Enterprise Program, that she had gone into the neighborhood to meet people from community organizations, schools, food pantries, and churches. She’d wanted to know: was there a need in East Harlem for a program that hired and trained people from the community to coach their peers to prevent and manage chronic diseases? Kaur had found that there was.

Through the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program at the B-school, she met with philanthropies, making the case that high-risk patients, and especially those with chronic conditions, rarely saw doctors or knew how to manage their own ailments. She had a plan to change that.

Two major funders came through: the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Robin Hood Foundation. Then Mount Sinai offered a service contract, paying City Health Works $100,000 for 2013, with $120,000 allotted for 2014. Now, the nonprofit had to prove itself.

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