Blind Date with Sabriye: One of Oprah’s Phenomenal Women

IMG_1210Sabriye Tenberken is legally blind and loves talking about colors.

One of Oprah’s “must-see” women, I recently had coffee with her at kanthari, an organization that she and her partner, Paul Kronenberg, has created in India to give leadership training for  social visionaries around the globe.

The setting is  picturesque. Fresh water lakes filled with lotus flowers surround her brick-layered office where she works tirelessly to nurture a cohort of people who she hopes will become the next change agents, social visionaries or great entrepreneurs.

Growing up in the margins of society in Germany, as a young, girl, she was told that she wouldn’t do much in life because of her blindness. After taking classes at Bonn University, she trekked the Himalayas on horseback and moved to Tibet alone when she was 27. Here, the ill-treatment of the blind made her radically change how Tibetans’ viewed people with blindness. Together with Paul, she founded  Braille without Borders and established scores of schools for the blind in Tibet.

Budding change-makers at Kanthari.
Budding change-makers at Kanthari.

After a seven-year stint, Sabriye and Paul moved to Kerala, India, to start kanthari. In the local Malayalam language, kanthari is  an extremely spicy  green chilly commonly seen in the backyards of homes in India’s southernmost state. They chose Kerala as the Indian state sits like a springboard to Asia and Africa on the world map.

Sabriye passionately told me about her fondness for colors and the 5 colors of Kanthari. These are her tenets for social change and her views on creating change-makers. The first color, orange, consists of social entrepreneurs like one of her graduates, Ojok Simon, a blind person from Uganda who endured torture. After receiving leadership training at kanthari, he returned to Uganda and has set up a highly successful bee co-operative.

Her second color, red, symbolizes social activists like one of her students, Jane Waithera, a person with albinism who fights discrimination faced by albinos in Tanzania and Kenya.  The third is green, showing individuals who want to set up new initiatives within their communities like schools and training centers. One of these green kantharis is Tiffany Brar who runs a mobile school for the blind in Kerala.

Sabriye’s next pick is yellow. Yellow kantharis create new products, strategies or concepts for social change. They can be active in the areas of environment, computer technology, accessibility for people with disabilities, agriculture, education and many more.

The final color is purple, representing artists who use their skills to create awareness and social change. Tamas Barko from Hungary is a purple kanthari who uses dance to create a positive impact.

Today, kanthari takes people from margins of society and empowers them to become social catalysts through a 7-month intensive program. They can turn out to follow paths shown by any one of the 5 colors.

Over the past 5 years, 98 participants from 35 countries have graduated from the kanthari course. This has resulted in 60 plus social initiatives and projects.

The organization relies on donations to partially fund learning opportunities for students to become transformative social change agents.

Entrepreneurship has become a commonly abused term in the West.  It was refreshing to see real social entrepreneurship in action without the noise. For those interested in creating transformative social change, visit




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