3 years


Lakshmi Pratury: Inking Ideas for India

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Lakshmi Pratury and the art of investing in people

FOR SOMEONE WHO has made it her job to network with eminent Indians, Lakshmi Pratury is surprisingly low-profile. We meet at her sparse, un- corporate office in Indiranagar, Bengaluru, which she shares with a handful of young people. She’d rather have a reigning idea associated with her name than be a “kooky” talk show host, she says, or worse, a self-aggrandising journalist who is bigger than her subject. That idea is INK—it stands for Innovation and Knowledge—a platform that showcases Indian visionaries and trailblazers, rising above the pedantry of derisive journalism and engaging in thoughtful, edifying conversation. INK, incepted in 2010, is the TED of India (Pratury is a longtime ‘TEDster’ herself) and it hosts a conference every year, bringing 60-80 speakers together to deliver readily summarised insights into startups and innovation, the arts and the sciences. “The most important parameter for judging prospective speakers is their humility-to-depth-of-knowledge ratio,” says Pratury, who is gearing up to host the conference in Hyderabad in November. Besides the flagship show, INK conducts over 50 on-demand micro-events every year at colleges, companies and institutions.

More Terry Gross than Oprah, Pratury, 57, likes to fight for the underdog over the celebrity, to uncover potential where one may not expect to find any. While she has interviewed many industry veterans such as Ratan Tata and Anand Mahindra, she is at her best when teasing out the action behind the scenes, be it from Lalitesh Katragadda, the creator of Google Mapmaker who was relatively unknown in India when she got him onboard, Ere Gowda, a former security guard who wrote the screenplay for the award-winning Kannada film Thithi, or a documentary photographer who once lived on the streets. Her eyes go wide as she talks about her ‘finds’. “They each have a point of view that matters for India,” she says. “And I am here to accelerate their growth.” The youngest and the most deserving among them—usually about 20 out of over a thousand applicants, vetted through a rigorous interview process—are chosen for the INK Fellowship each year and join the community of 150-plus fellows mentored by Pratury, and by extension, her vast network of influential Indians. They are also given a chance to speak at the INK conference alongside some of the best minds in India and videos of their talks are later uploaded to INK’s YouTube channel, giving them visibility.

In 2008, when Pratury was mulling a move from Silicon Valley, where she had built a career in marketing and evangelism at Intel, to Bengaluru, she didn’t know many people in India. “I knew, though, that there were hundreds of high-achieving Indians who had stories to tell, if only there was a platform,” she says. She remembers telling TED’s Chris Anderson that they needed to host more Indian speakers. “I asked him, why don’t we take the event to India? He said, okay, let’s do it. That’s how it started,” she says. Finding the right speakers for the first TED India conference wasn’t as simple. Pratury spent the better part of 2008 in India, attending networking parties hosted by her friends—the late SAP CEO Ranjan Das, venture capitalist Sasha Mirchandani, Nandan Nilekani and his wife Rohini, Mallika Sarabhai and others. “They introduced me to people who were doing exceptional work in their respective fields—science, social venture, business, music. They also wrote the first cheques for any event I would host after striking out on my own,” Pratury says. The first TED India conference in 2009 featured talks by MIT’s gestural interface whiz kid Pranav Mistry who is better known these days as the brain behind Samsung Galaxy Gear, mythologist and author Devdutt Pattanaik, social worker and activist Sunitha Krishnan, and photographer Ryan Lobo, among others. As expected, some of the talks went viral, reinforcing Pratury’s belief in India as a land of great ideas. She moved base to Bengaluru in 2010 and set up INK Talks to get the “Jack Welches of India” to share their stories, as also to give emerging thinkers a platform to express their vision.

“The problem with Indians, and Asians in general, is that they don’t like to talk about what they have achieved. It is against their culture” - Lakshmi Pratury, founder, INK Talks

INK’s objectives are coterminous with those of its speakers, who fall into two broad categories: those who have changed the world, and those who have the potential to do so. Pratury tries to ground them all in a common ethos of sharing insights with one another, and with the world. “The problem with Indians, and Asians in general, is that they don’t like to talk about what they have achieved. It is against their culture. Also, there are those who wear their false modesty on their sleeves. We try to get achievers to tell their stories on stage, so that others could learn from them,” Pratury says. Not surprisingly, there have been a few rejections along the way. The late yoga guru BKS Iyengar flat out refused an interview even though she was introduced to him by a favourite disciple. But for the most part, INK has extracted the best from many speakers. Some of them consider their INK talks definitive. Varun Agarwal, an author and entrepreneur who spoke at the 2013 INK conference about failing engineering college and founding a million-dollar company, says it is his most viewed talk till date, with over 3.3 million views. “The following year, I was invited to over 50 events, I became that popular. INK brought out the best in me,” says Agarwal, a former INK fellow, now 30 years old. Even though no other platform in India can claim such depth and breadth, INK is low-key and underrated, he says. “In a country that is forever in search of heroes, INK should have been way more popular. But people only hear the stories they want to hear; they are selfish. Which is why my talk was successful because they saw themselves in me, a college dropout who dreamt big.”

INK is not overly bothered about meeting conventional metrics of success. They charge about $1,000 per head as conference attendance fee, but ensure that it is a small gathering—no more than 500 people. They also have year-long engagements with most participating companies. Their fellowship programmes and road shows are funded by the Tata Trusts and other philanthropists. “Many of our fellows—and we like to pick them young—don’t make it big but that’s okay,” says Pratury. “What matters is that they are rebels with radical ideas. All we try to do at INK is to expose them to inspiring people from different disciplines, and see what happens.” Growing up in Hyderabad, Pratury spent a great deal of time at her father’s clinic (he was a paediatrician) where she would do her homework. “My dad was a poet, a writer and a freedom fighter. There could be a gathering of journalists at home today and a Congress party workers’ meet the next day. I grew up thinking that I could be a lot of things at once.” She majored in math and studied business at Portland State University in Oregon, where she also minored in theatre. “The education system straitjackets kids into focusing on a particular discipline at the cost of all other skills. It beats the creativity out of them. I realised this early on. I started getting involved in teaching theatre to business executives, and ever since, I have been advocating a multi-disciplinary approach to business,” Pratury says. “Somewhere down the line, I became a storyteller and started searching for great role models in India that I could interview and expose bright young minds to.” She is partial to technology, thanks to the years at Intel where she was part of several emerging technology groups and a brief stint with an NGO in 2005 that involved installing computers in rural India. “I saw the kind of impact the internet can have on lives in a developing country,” she says. “It is ironic that our techies and coders have to undergo crash courses in soft skills after being brought up in a culture of studious aloofness from society. They are the ones best equipped to change society today.”

“In India, the price of imperfection is huge. Imagine if someone uploaded a video of Kamal Haasan or Rajinikanth snoring, the havoc it would cause”

The family of INK fellows is tightknit, and at least 50 of them are flying into Bengaluru this week for their annual meet. Kaushal Dugar, founder of Teabox, a disruptor in the market for fine tea, says the sense of community among fellows is very strong. “As a fellow, I have met people I wouldn’t have been able to reach otherwise, and some of them have been instrumental to Teabox’s growth,” Dugar says. “The exchange of ideas shows you how fluid the definition of success and accomplishment really is. You meet a photographer who sees beauty in insects, and you are somehow inspired.”

Richa Singh, co-founder of Yourdost.com, an online emotional support system for those in need of counselling, says being an INK fellow opened doors for her in entrepreneurship circles, both in India and in the US, where she recently spoke at the Women Entrepreneur Quest. “Being an INK fellow set the stage for my participation in The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) conference, where I met at least 50 people that I can now approach for insights on mental health, funding and counselling programmes at universities,” Singh says. INK proved to be a multiplier for her startup, which went from serving a few thousand people to impacting 12 lakh lives, with 1,000 experts on the platform and 2,500 sessions in a day. “We got some funding offers too, though we didn’t end up signing the termsheet,” Singh adds.

INK fellows come in all shapes and colours— from heritage hotelier Manvendra Singh Shekhawat to Shravani Pawar from Hubli who trains women security guards, and Vicky Roy, a ragpicker-turned-photographer. Sarvesh Shashi, the 26-year-old founder of Zorba, a chain of yoga studies, says INK is more than just a business networking platform. “It is a source of inspiration, an intellectual filter through which you begin to view the world. Fellows have got married to other fellows, funded one another, and generally, become better people,” he says.

Pratury says INK fellows will do well not to chase after perfection. She herself has had embarrassing gaffes on stage—when she said ‘soccer’ and her guest Irrfan Khan corrected it to ‘football’ (“It was such a small thing but so culturally revealing. I was mortified.”), or when she felt underprepared interviewing the young and versatile Ayushman Khurana. “In India, the price of imperfection is huge. Imagine if someone uploaded a video of Kamal Haasan or Rajinikanth snoring—the havoc it would cause. In the US, someone like Monica Lewinsky can be a sought-after speaker for the learnings she is able to share but in India she would have to stay home and never appear in public.”

What does Lakshmi Pratury’s bucket list look like? James Cameron, VS Ramachandran, Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, but more importantly, dozens of young Indian minds on the cusp of greatness, waiting to be plucked from obscurity and released into the world.