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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

Lakshmi Pratury, founder and CEO of INK Talks, feels innovators in the West owe their successes not to their technical skills—she firmly believes that Indian entrepreneurs are just as good, if not better—but to their ability to effectively share their stories.

In a wide-ranging interview with India Currents, she talks about the importance of India’s oral tradition, about reincarnation (as it relates to her passions), and her vision for Indian changemakers. She also offers suggestions on how they can successfully navigate their way across the global stage.

IC: What gets you out of bed each morning?

LP: Learning something new—about a person, an idea. If it’s complicated, I like to break it down into pieces and see how I can make it understandable—to me, and to everybody else. I’m fascinated right now by what is crypto, what is NFT, and all that. But things don’t come easily to me. I don’t learn by reading. I learn by listening.

IC: What drives you?

I’ve always designed my own jobs. Even within Intel, I had eight different jobs. I’d go to somebody and say: I really like what you’re doing. Can you show me how?

Even my entrepreneurial journey has been like that. If there is something I want to do, I figure out how to do it. And I’ve always had one principle [for the enjoyment of work]—if I feel I’m dragging in the morning, I stop doing it.

Nothing is 100% fun. There is some slogging you have to do, no matter what. Like, you have to go over the numbers and operations if you want to put up a conference. I can do all that. Because, at the end of the day, I live for what happens on the stage.

IC: Is this at a personal level or professional?

LP: Everything.

When I was at Intel, I moved to marketing workstations from finance, and I’m not an engineer. I didn’t even know how a PC was built. So, I went to someone I knew and asked, “Can you open the box and show me what’s in there?”

There were books and magazines but I couldn’t comprehend it. I had to see it for myself, or hear it from someone. I always learned better orally.

IC: Does this have anything to do with INK Talks, then?

LP: Absolutely. I grew up with my grandparents telling me stories. We were a very oral family in terms of the imparting of information. I did read a lot of novels. But my dad was a pediatrician. I would sit with him when he was consulting, and I would hear what he was telling his patients. Or I’d be like, I don’t understand why this happens in the society or whatever. He would always explain things to me.

Conversations are very important for me. Not everyone learns from reading. Different people learn differently, and I am dedicated to giving people a platform to tell their stories verbally. I believe in the oral tradition.

IC: It is interesting that you prefer to learn by listening, but you were a prolific reader.

LP: Remember, my reading was all fiction. And nonfiction like biographies and autobiographies, but never business books. Growing up in India, I didn’t have access to that many books. Whatever the library had is all I had. So, it was Enid Blyton, or because I grew up in Andhra, it was magazines like Andhra Patrika or Swati or Yuva.

IC: What are you optimistic about?

LP: I have huge faith in the human spirit, humanity actually. I feel that every one of us is programmed for greatness. And I really believe that every one of us is born good. It’s the conditioning that turns us into one or the other.

When I first came to America, I came with a very conservative point of view. Everything was black or white. I didn’t grow up seeing people dating or living together before getting married. I didn’t know what homosexuality was. It’s not even that I had an opinion on them; I just didn’t know.

I was in a theater class in Portland—I was in my 20s—and somebody commented about a guy and his boyfriend. I didn’t even understand what she was talking about. I said, “His boyfriend?” And she was like, “Yeah.”

It took me a while to understand what this was. But since I had no opinion about it—I never grew up where somebody said, “That’s a bad thing”—I could accept it.

My father would say, look, everybody has something they can contribute. You should never give up on people. I grew up with that mindset. I didn’t have a right or wrong. No knowledge just meant ignorance. And it’s a beautiful place to start from, when you have no opinion, as opposed to a biased opinion. When you are already opinionated, it’s very difficult to change.

I grew up seeing women working. There was never a defined role for women. So again, I had no opinion about that. Actually, I had the opinion that everybody should work. If they didn’t work, to me, it was wrong. And that is something I had to unlearn. That if it is somebody’s choice to stay home, I need to respect that. That’s why I don’t like offering my opinions on things I don’t know much about.

IC: What was your vision for INK Talks?

LP: I wanted to create a community for people who have the guts to think differently, or be different. Because, if their vision is different, their fight is different. But they shouldn’t feel lonely.

IC: Lonely in what way?

LP: Like when you start a business, something that’s very different, it’s a lonely journey.

Take, for example, Neeraj Kakkar, who’s an INK Fellow. He was already very successful, working in a traditional company. Then he had the idea to start a drink company that capitalizes on the Indian palate. So, like aamras, or anar or rasam, which are very Indian drinks, right?

Imagine leaving your very comfortable job, and starting something you don’t even know there’s a market for. Today, Paper Boat is one of the most popular drink companies in India. But that wasn’t the case when he started, right?

Or, Babar Ali, who started a school in his backyard when he was eight years old, and was teaching 900 people by the time he was in 11th grade. But how do you scale it? How do you get grants? How do you do that sitting in some small village in West Bengal?

Finding people like them, putting it all together—that is really exciting for me. The purpose of INK is to give them a platform, a community.

The second thing is, again, bringing back the oral tradition. If you look at any global scenario, any subject, be it AI or media, photography, or art, we don’t have Indians at the top of the heap. It’s not because that intelligence is not there. It’s because we don’t think it’s important to tell our story on a global forum.

IC: You mean, in like a documentary format or film?

LP: No, no. It’s about telling the world what you work on.

Say, there’s a company that’s in the US as well as India, okay? The Indian engineer is as smart as the American engineer, maybe even smarter, but they don’t know how to articulate what they have to say.

Secondly, they’re afraid to say it because everybody might say it’s a stupid idea. So, they hold back. Or even if they say it, they don’t say it in the crispest way.

When we [at INK] work with people on how to tell your story, we first work on who you are. Why do you want to tell this story? Why should anybody care about this?

Even if you’ve suffered something as violent as abuse, why should I be interested in hearing about it? Now, if you tell me what you learned from it, and what made you who you are today, I’m fascinated.

IC: You said there are two parts to INK?

LP: One is the non-profit part, which is the Fellows telling their stories.

The other part is for-profit, where we are more focused on corporates. Corporations can do a lot of good if we can create awareness at the top level—their sustainability goals, their human resources goals—they can do these at scale. It is important to influence our Fortune-500 companies to think more holistically, and not just as a check mark for CSR or diversity.

IC: Any final thoughts?

LP: When people talk about reincarnation, they think, what can we do good in this life so the next life will be better? But, for me, reincarnation is about multiple rebirths in the same lifetime. We were not born with our current opinions and thoughts. We have to be willing to die multiple times so we can take rebirth as somebody totally new. And that is what I really believe in, that it is the truly courageous people who reinvent themselves, and reinvent not just linearly, like—I’ll leave my job at Intel, but I’ll go to AMD.

I have friends who’ve been at Intel for 30 years. And they say, I’m happy doing this. And that’s fantastic. You don’t have to leave a job every three years. But the minute you start feeling, I’m not contributing enough, that’s the time to move on.

I didn’t leave Intel because I was unhappy. I really wanted to try something else. It’s been 20 years since I left, and I don’t know where I am by the traditional [markers of] success. But I count my wealth in the people I’ve met, in the amazing experiences I’ve had.

I interviewed the filmmaker James Cameron, got to spend three days with him, got to maybe even influence his thinking about what India is. That’s worth a million dollars right there.

Finally, I really want INK to have its own legacy, separate from Lakshmi, and my dream is that INK will become a partner of choice for individuals or corporations to move into the future.

Rasana Atreya

Rasana Atreya’s debut novel Tell A Thousand Lies was shortlisted for the UK-based Tibor Jones South Asia Prize (2012). She finds a mention in the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque’s “Emerging South Asian Women Writers: Essays and Interviews (From Antiquity to Modernity Book 1)” by Deborah Fillerup Weagel and Feroza Jussawalla. After the publication of this book, in the Spring of 2017, Prof. Jussawalla taught “Tell A Thousand Lies” in her class, English 479 (Survey of Postcolonial Literature and Theories). She’s finishing up her 6th novel. More by Rasana Atreya

Rasana Atreya

Rasana Atreya’s debut novel Tell A Thousand Lies was shortlisted for the UK-based Tibor Jones South Asia Prize (2012). She finds a mention in the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque’s "Emerging South...