At her office in Bangalore, where Rabindranath Tagore’s framed photograph greets her visitors, YourStory caught up with Lakshmi Pratury, the Founder of Ixoraa Media, which runs the INK Conference.
For Lakshmi Pratury, her entire career has had an element of storytelling, it still does. She says, “When I was at Intel, it was about telling the story of technology to end users. How do you say it in a way they can understand? What is it for? Bits and bytes are only bits and bytes, but what do they do to you?” Later as a venture capitalist, she told the story of building product companies. In fact, that led to her becoming a social entrepreneur. Since people were not building product companies in early 2000s in India, she decided to launch Digital Equalizer to impact children from an early age.
She has known Chris Anderson since 1993, while she was a young Turk from Intel who were part of a small community of 300 people who always went to TED. She says, “Once I came here and co-hosted TED in India it was very clear to me I needed to do this every year. By then TEDx had already started. Chris did not want to have full-fledged TED. He said if you want to do something, we’ll help and support you, which was very gracious of him.”
She went on to launch her own conference in 2010, which was in association with TED. Subsequently, it became the INKtalks.
What amazes her most about INK speakers?
A creative mind is an amazing thing to get into and be able to engage with. Lakshmi says, “80% of the people we interview have never been discovered before.” Regarding INK speakers, she is always amazed when she starts working with them from the “loosey-goosey” stage to what is it exactly they want to say. She keeps on working on the story with them, and let’s them tell ‘the’ story. Finally, when they get up on the stage and say something profound in those seven to 12 minutes, she says, “I can’t believe we’ve actually worked on that. A great story takes lot of effort to make it seem natural.”
The process of crafting stories for audience
Lakshmi classifies her process as something very organic. She says, “I spend a lot of time with the individual. Somehow in the middle of the conversation something ‘clicks’ in my head regarding what that person is about. There are some people who are about technology; there are some people who are about making a change. For some, there is a personal quest they are on or insecurity they are trying to resolve. Somewhere in the conversation it becomes clear to me what their journey is about. Whatever product they are making, whatever company they are building is the manifestation of that particular ‘click’ about that person. So my process involves spending a lot of time with the person in casual conversation and casual questions. Then I catch that ‘click’ and say now let’s do it.”
How does she recognise the ‘click’?
There is some signal she tries to pick from the way they say it and the way they harp on it.
Lakshmi says, “They always come back to something. That is what I look for. What is it that person keep coming back to. Where is the source of who they are? Once I understand that, we can tell any story; it doesn’t matter if it is the story of their company, car or clothing. Once you pin point what is it that makes the person tick, the most reserved person blooms. There is no one formula. When you hit on ‘what is the person all about’ (which is uncomfortable a lot of times), build a story from there, it will become a powerful story.”
The art of curating INKtalks
Curating a high quality conference is like being a DJ of ideas. Lakshmi wants to have a balance. A discipline balance, age balance, and gender balance. She says, “We want academic, artist, business people, writers, and venture capitalists… we want to have all kinds of people. A mix of everything.” If INK’s team zeros down on a science speech then the natural progression will be who do you get, Biologists? Physicists? Chemists? What are some of the interesting stories that are going on? Then they look at what is relevant to India.
For Lakshmi, it is a process. “Like building any product – you have to build it and trust they will come. But you can’t compromise on the quality of what you are building.”
Over the past five years, INK has managed to develop community members and loyal core groups of people. “We’ve the same people who pay whatever we ask and put it in their calendar and come every year, they won’t miss it. And there is this core group of people who bring their friends.”
Building quality is an expensive affair. Along with that comes relatively expensive price tag for the INK Conferences. INKtalks has re-framed this. It is not a price somebody is paying to come to a conference. It is a kind of a membership payment that people are paying to be part of this community. “So my allegiance has to be to give them the best experience when they come to the conference. We can’t compromise on that. There can’t be any blatant pitching from the stage. There cannot be a story told from the stage that is not thought through. There is a fine line. Especially this year, we are trying to tell the stories of many Indian startups and their journey,” she says.
How do you talk about it in a way that is not selling? She replies, “By just sharing your experience in a way that can help somebody else. We always have to work hard to maintain that, and make sure that our partners understand this. That is why you don’t see 50 companies supporting us.”
What’s next for INK?
“I want INKtalks to be that space a young person goes to get inspiration and find new role models. The whole point of this exercise is to create new role models.” At the INK Conference 2014, they announced that INKtalks will be dubbed in Indian regional languages to expand the reach.
What keeps her going?
“I have a legacy I came from. My father has sacrificed so much. I appreciate it now that I am a mother. The legacy I came from is the legacy I want to leave for my son. It is very clear that I am not going to be leaving him much money. We have to leave them with something they will be proud of. That is the thing that keeps me going,” she says.
Her son is almost part of the company. When school closes during holidays he comes to INK office to do his homework instead of playing with his friends and going on a vacation. She believes he is going to have much better memory of this than any vacation she can give him. Because that is what she remembers from the days she spent with her father. He used to take her to his meetings. She says, “It is good we didn’t have everything because it gave me a certain drive and hunger.”
In all of her talks she talks about this one girl. Sunitha Krishna is one of INK’s success stories. They’ve raised enough money for her to build a shelter home for the women she is rescuing from trafficking. The most important thing for the rescued women was to feel the permanence of home. Lakshmi used to go to Sunitha’s home regularly. Then she met this girl, she was seven or eight years old. She was mentally disabled. She was raped 100s of times by the time they found her. They put her in a home for mentally disabled and she was raped there again. Later, she was brought to Sunitha’s home. They were about to move to new home and were having a New Year function, she was also there. She had flower on her hair, sitting by Sunitha’s side. She had a beautiful face and a nice smile, and was very excited about moving in their new home. She died a few weeks later. That girl’s picture is forever stuck in Lakshmi’s mind as an anchor and validation to what she is doing. It makes her preserver. If what you do results in someone’s wellbeing it is worth doing.
She says, “You need to have one story that you need to keep going back to to give you your inspiration. To me it’s always my father’s story and this girl’s.”
“Sometimes I tell my son I can’t do all the things you want me to do. Because this is the journey we are on. You need to have something you go back to in those tough times. Because tough times are plenty, in 365 days at least 200 days are those though times where you are so frustrated and want to leave everything and go back.
“There are really tough times, and sometimes I really want to stop this and go back to a comfortable life. There are times when I feel extremely lonely on this journey but I also look at the people who are working here for years. If they walk out of here they can double their salary. We have not yet delivered on what we said we would. They have seen a particular vision. Now it’s a collective vision not my vision alone.”
“I always tell entrepreneurs that this is not for the faint hearted. You have to be willing everything you have. Every minute you have. You have to be ready to give it all. Not knowing if this will ever result in anything positive.” Lakshmi adds, “You have to learn to take mini-IPO that comes your way. It’s great to hear someone come to you and say my life has changed because of ‘that’ story that I heard here.”
If she were to give a talk at the INK Conference now, what would it be about?
“We need to take unrealistic risks to achieve great results. A lot of what I do is about stories where people have taken those risks. How do we each break the boundaries of our minds and body? There are explorers doing unreasonable things, there are entrepreneurs who are doing unreasonable things. Unreasonable is very relative. For a little kid lifting a table is unreasonable, for a giant lifting a rock is unreasonable. It is truly an effort for all of us. How do we break out of our own boundaries? These are not the boundaries set by someone else, these are own boundaries.”
"But it is always about what is it that you are ultimately passionate about? What is uncompromising for you versus what are you willing to compromise upon? Unreasonable risk is something you uncompromising for. Calculated risk is something you are willing to compromise on."
“When you say no matter what I won’t compromise on this; then you are being unreasonable,” she adds.