Ramya Kancharla has been quarantining alone in Singapore since March. But she says that her work as a senior manager for the Partnership for Healthy Cities has made this challenging time rewarding.
“It has been hugely satisfying because this is a really anxious time for everyone. I feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness. There is this horrible pandemic, and there’s nothing I can do but stay at home,” Ramya said. “Knowing I can contribute through my work in whatever way and help cities respond to COVID-19 has made me feel positive and energetic.”
Ramya works with 18 cities in 14 countries through the Partnership for Healthy Cities, which aims to reduce noncommunicable diseases and improve road safety through a global network of 70 cities that learn from each other and from technical experts. Since March, the Partnership has expanded to support cities on their COVID-19 responses.
Ramya has helped Yangon, Myanmar develop a national communication campaign on practicing social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing in just a few days. She has helped Bandung, Indonesia establish a surveillance dashboard to report cases and deaths and connect visitors to resources. In Bengaluru, India she helped the city set up a telehealth line to reduce the burden of in-person medical consultations in just a few weeks.
“These are the cities’ achievements,” she said, “but we have helped them do that very rapidly.”
Ramya was born in India in a small town. Her mother is a banker and her father is a lawyer. It was unusual where Ramya grew up to have a working, high-achieving mother, and she dreamed of following in her footsteps in the business world.
“My mom used to take me to her workplace. She had a computer. She was telling other people what to do. For the longest time, I wanted to become a banker.”
Ramya studied accounting as an undergraduate and got an MBA. Her first job was as a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers. The corporation’s consulting arm started a social sector practice and Ramya was assigned to work with different governments in India and with the World Bank in India. She traveled to small villages across the country to observe their early childhood and social programs.
This work lit a spark in Ramya, and doing work with a social mission felt more personally fulfilling. Ramya, with the support of her family, let go of her previous vision of working in the business world.
She went on to Access Health International, a small nonprofit, working to help governments with their public-private partnerships in health care. She learned about the functioning of health care systems, especially the challenges of health clinics in rural areas.
Then she went on to work for the Institute for Reproductive Health, running the organization’s family planning program for India. Her most proud accomplishment there was building an SMS-based program used by 10,000+ women to track their fertility cycle. These were women who had never previously had access to other methods of family planning.
“We heard heartbreaking stories of unwanted pregnancies. Now they had control over their sexual choices and their health. To be able to get them started on the path was such a huge win.”
Ramya joined Vital Strategies in 2017 and said it has become her favorite of the places where she has worked, especially because of the organization’s impact at the policy level.
“The work is really interesting. There is a lot to learn. People are wonderful. People are so passionate about what they are doing and how they can do things better, how they can improve. As an organization, they respect the right balance of working independently and being part of a team.”
Ramya is proud of having supported Bengaluru in improving compliance with tobacco control laws, and to have Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s government enforce a policy that bans sugary drinks in and around schools, after a conversation Ramya and her colleagues began three years ago.
But, above all else, she is proud of creating the trusting relationships that are now allowing Vital Strategies to support COVID-19 response in cities. This took years of in-person meetings, informal calls and texts and WhatsApp conversations, across languages.
“When we began, they didn’t really know what Vital Strategies was or what we were doing,” she said. “To build that relationship of trust over many years is hard work. The policy is led by the city and not by us. I have come to the stage that I have very strong relationships, and that’s something I am very proud of. It has been a journey I have made with these cities.”
Ramya moved from India to Singapore to work out of Vital Strategies’ office there, and she said she is grateful for the camaraderie of her colleagues. She is excited to see how her work progresses over the next several years.