I’m Lakshmi Pratury, founder of Ink Talks, and this is how I Lead from Within
Lakshmi Pratury is the founder of Ink Talks, an annual conference committed to spreading disruptive ideas and inspiring stories — from the most unexpected sources. INK is a movement to change how the young and young at heart view their world, goals and ambitions, particularly in emerging economies. Lakshmi is an entrepreneur, interviewer, speaker, and self-described “people collector”. Prior to this, Lakshmi spent two decades in leading roles in the technology, venture capital, and non-profit industries in the US.
My Professional Journey
My professional journey is something that never had a plan. I always take on whatever is interesting today. I started in Portland State. For my first job, I was a teaching assistant in the computer lab and was working with a marketing professor doing market research. I also had a minor in Theater Arts, so I would act in plays that would give me a little bit of money, if any at all. Then, I was a parking lot assistant. I did all kinds of things, and these jobs gave me a background and understanding in the dignity of labor. It taught me any job, it doesn’t matter what job, I take on, to do it well.
My biggest influence was Intel. I was at Intel for 12 years. I got to work in 8 different groups, which were completely different. Then I was a Venture Capitalist for a little bit. Then I went into non-profit for 5 years.
The common theme through my professional life is I love finding things that are new, that no one believes in, and really evangelize them. I work at something until it becomes mainstream and needs to be manufactured in the 1000s; then I’m not interested in it anymore. It is that beginning phase of being excited about an idea and evangelizing the idea, getting the right people into it, connecting them to each other, and making it successful, that excites me.
I started thinking about in what way I want to build a connection between India and the US. I started asking myself, in what way do I want to do anything in India? What am I really good at? I am not a fantastic accountant. I am not a brilliant brand person. I am not a brilliant anything, so I thought, “what do I do?”
I realized, one thing I’ve always loved is connecting people and getting them to tell their stories. That is the only thing I seem to be able to do, I connect with people very well. It doesn’t matter whether they are poor or rich or whatever. I am really curious about them, without being nosy. I started thinking about how I could turn this into a career?
I thought what is missing, especially in Asia, is people in different disciplines meeting each other and also having very thoughtful, insightful, thought provoking conversations. Not just ‘Let me teach you how to do something’ but ‘Can we have a conversation for equals? Can I learn something from you, while you learn something from me?’ I said, “Let us figure out what this means.” We started this small group in US and we brought together like 50 people, then 75 people.
Then I brought TED Talks to India. In all these things, I figured what I am good at, which is creating great experiences for people through stories. So that has become the current arc of the journey. That is what we do at Ink Talks. And through these stories, how do we bring about change? How do we bring about impact? That’s what we look at.
We want to create innovative companies out of India, and celebrate innovation. If we want to do that, we first have to open up the imagination of the people to the possibilities that exist, then build their skill sets, and then create impact. Our conferences, our salons, all the work we do is just open up people’s imaginations. It is possible for you to go drop everything and go to Kashmir and contribute there. It is possible for a 16 year old to be playing around in their bedroom and create a great tech product. These are all possible, and how do we create a platform that can support these innovators.
That is what the current journey it is about. It is about telling stories, and finding ways in supporting these stories until they become success stories. We do it across levels. We have an ‘Innovators Program’ where we go to high schools and find teenage innovators. Then we look at colleges and say, “Who are some ‘Ink Makers’ that we can find?” We go into corporations and we say, “How do we bring this way of thinking into the corporation?”
Everything we do across all sectors of population is about how do you inspire people through storytelling, and how do you turn it into actions so it can create an impact? The way we look at it is, we are a pilot. We try things and when they are successful we let 20 others do it. We can’t do everything ourselves.
My father would call himself a hopeless optimist. He was somebody who had an incredible faith in people and their capacities. He would find some random person on the street and after a great conversation he would bring them home and give lunch; we would ask, “Why are you doing this?” He would say, “Oh, but he sings very well. How can we introduce him to somebody in All India Radio? Can we do something for him?”
When you grow up like that, you see that faith is not in any one way of being; it is faith in people. I think that is the biggest legacy I got from my father, is that undying faith in people and their capacity to make a difference. My faith is that even the worst person has something redeemable about them, even the person who seems like the dumbest person in class has something to contribute.
Unfortunately I think certain words are associated to certain things. When I say evangelism it always means ministerial or religious. But I think we should all be the biggest evangelists of life, and all of us should bank on something. I feel everything, whether it is the favorite books you read, or science, or your religion, or whatever it is, it’s all a way of connecting with people. It is all a way of being part of a community.
My Super Power
It is breaking people’s facades, and getting to the inner most of who that person is. To be able to see them in their essence is, I don’t know if I will call it my superpower, but that is my quest. I am always on that quest.
It doesn’t matter, it might be a stranger sitting next to me on a plane, it could be my child, it could be a person I just meet, whatever, but I love that journey. We all have so many facades in how we look, what we wear, what we say, what car we drive, there are just so many layers. When we take all the layers off, who are you really? When I can have a conversation with a person at that level, it just gives me such a high. I don’t do this for them; I do it for myself. Nothing else matters to me. I think that is my quest for superpower is, can I get to the essence of you?
On Unreasonable Risks
I just do something without thinking much about it. I don’t analyze it. If I feel it, I just do it. I will give you a small example. I lived in Portland for many years. Still I call it home, because I met the love of my life in that place. I had a house where my bedroom window framed Mount Hood. It was a beautiful mountain, which has year round snow.
I got up one morning, and I looked at it and I said, “I want to climb Mt. Hood.” I just said it to myself. I was not physically fit. I am not somebody who was an athlete all my life or anything. If I walk a mile, I am out of breath. But it didn’t occur to me to think “I can’t do it.” I just said, “Oh, I want to do it.” I think to take risks you should be marginally stupid. You shouldn’t be too smart about it. It didn’t occur to me that I would need to acclimatize myself or anything like that.
I spoke to my roommate and she said, “There is a group called Mazamas. You should join them, and they will train you for going up.” I joined and thought, “Yeah, everybody is starting at the same place. It is okay.” But what I didn’t realize is that by the time somebody thinks, “I will climb Mount Hood,” they are already in pretty good physical shape.
Every weekend Mazamas take you on a hike. My first hike I was behind everybody.
I still remember there was this postman. He had like a big tummy, fatter than me, so I thought I would have company. That guy was so fast and he said, “I walk all day.” I thought, “Damn, there is nobody here who is slower than me.” But I kept going.The second time I came back down a little earlier, etcetera, etcetera. Finally when we went up Mt. Hood, I could only go half way. One of the leaders had to bring me back. It was excruciatingly painful for me. I found determination comes when there is little bit of failure.
There was a women who ran a lodge that was also pretty heavy. She told me she and her husband would go every two weeks over the mountain, and that “the key is your lung power. If you can run two miles every day you would be able to climb the mountain.”
I started running from the next day. I did half a mile, and nearly thought that I was going to die. Slowly I built it up to 2 miles; it took me over a month. When I went back to Mt. Hood, I was one of the first three that went up to the top.
I think you have to aim for something that even you know that is unreasonable. You can’t psych yourself into, “I don’t want to get this because it is unreasonable.” You just have to get up and say, “I think I will do it.” Then you either find out that you can or you fail and get upset enough and say, “Damn it I am going to do it.” Then you just figure out how to get the skill sets to do it.
Every job that I took at Intel, I had no idea how to do it. I would sit in the room with people who knew a lot more about technology than me, and I would simply say, “I don’t understand. Explain it to me.” 90 out of 100 times I realized that half the people didn’t understand it either. They were pretending to know. If you just say, “I want to do it. I am going to figure it out. I am going to ask when I don’t know how, and I am going to ask for help,” a lot can get done. We should always push ourselves to be a little out of our comfort zone. So you always get better by taking on unreasonable things even if you can’t accomplish what you meant to do, you will always end up better than where you started.
When I fail, I have to experience that failure first. I let it get to me. I have to cry, or whatever it is, to completely understand that I failed. You can’t be smart assy about it and say, “It doesn’t matter.” You have to let it just get to your bones, and that is when this little thing wakes up in you and it says, “Okay get over it now. That is enough. Let us go do something else about it.” To wake that up in the truest fashion, you have to experience failure completely. You have to be the most depressed you have ever been. So many times we just make light of everything, and we say, “Ah, it doesn’t matter. It didn’t get to me.”
I may say that, but I go home and I cry. You have to let it get to you. Sometimes I say, “You know what, I don’t want to know what it takes to do this.” And sometimes I say, “I am going to do it.” It doesn’t mean every time you fail you are going to accomplish what you set out to do. You may not, but you have learnt the lesson.
There is a quote I am misquoting, but I love it. “When you fail, don’t let the failure get to you, but don’t let the lessons skip you either.” Every failure has a lesson. So learn the lesson, and let it get to you.
I have been writing the last couple of days because Andy Grove passed away and he was the CEO of Intel when I was there. To me, he was my corporate father. And my father was my father at home. Both these men were extremely influential in my life. Neither are people I would consider perfect. They had their flaws, but both were so true to who they were. They didn’t try to be something else. When Andy was pissed, he was pissed, and we knew it. Andy would throw a book and say, “You can do better than this. Get out.” I had to have the stomach to take it and understand that he is asking me to do it, because he believes that I can do better.
We always think being nice is what people do when they love you, but sometimes, if they really love you, they may not be nice; because, to give a hard message there is no being nice about it. Both my “fathers” had their flaws, and they made mistakes. The biggest takeaway from my relationship with them is, “We are flawed. We are all flawed. In our flaws can we rise to the occasion and be our best.”
Andy Grove’s interview is of the most cherished, because I admired him so much. Especially as Andy recently passed away, I have been thinking about him every minute. I interviewed him only once, and it was an amazing interview. I never ever thought that we would be on the same stage together. I never ever thought he would allow me to interview him. We both had left Intel by then, and we just met for coffee. Richard Tedlow wrote a book about him and he said, “Look Lakshmi I will be doing only one public event, and if you want it, it is yours.”
In the interview, I asked him to grade himself as CEO of Intel, and he graded himself ‘B’ or ‘B+’. In his time the revenues went from 3 billion to 30 billion, the market cap of the company grew some 40% plus. So I asked, “What else can one do in their time to get an ‘A’? Why are you giving yourself a ‘B’?” He said something very interesting. He said that it is lethal to judge a CEO by what they did in the lifetime that they spent in the company, because a lot of that success may have been what somebody else did before their time. How good you are takes a long time to understand. You should actually judge a CEO by what they leave behind to make the company ready for the next 10 years.” He said, “I don’t think I did a good job of it, that is why I gave myself a ‘B+’”.
For somebody to be able to be so crisp and analytical about themselves, to be outside of yourself so much that you can rank yourself in that way, and not as an apology, just as a fact, was a very, very touching and insightful moment for me. It is something I have never forgotten.
One of the things that I tell everybody is that you should marry well, in the sense you should marry a person who celebrates who you are, because that one thing has the capacity to bring out the best in you or worst in you. It plays a huge role in whether you completely reach your potential. I mean that one decision can be very, very lethal.
On Leading as a Woman
I am very sensitive and as a woman, it is okay for me to express it. In fact, I feel a lot of times it is tough for men because they may feel something but can’t necessarily express it. For example I would be in a meeting and if somebody said something, I would cry. I would suddenly breakdown, and they may have rolled their eyes, but it was okay. If I were a guy, I could have never done that.
I am very emotional; I really feel things with my heart. If I can generalize it, I think it is gender based. It comes with who I am, but men don’t necessarily get the same liberties. There are times when I wish I could do a whole meeting with my voice not quivering, but I can’t. That’s just me when I’m passionate about something.
90% of the time in my career, I have been in rooms with men. And at times, the fact I am like a stereotype would frustrate me. I would wish I could be a lot more serene and in control. In that way, my gender did play a role. I could never ever be the stoic.
The other thing is, I am in the practice now that whichever room I am in, I think I am like that room. I forget what I look like. If I am in a room of 10 white men, I think that is what I look like. If I am in a room of 20 rural women, I think that is what I look like. If people are cursing and being loud, I can also be like that. If they are very soft and need to be cajoled, I can be like that as well. I think being a woman, a lot of time, you are told that you should be like this or you should be like that. We are always in this conflict of, “This is what I am told, and this is what I want to be”. We are always trying to adjust ourselves a little bit, so we become very good at manipulating ourselves to say, “this is the situation, this is what I need to do, I can do this for 2 hours.” Though, if you are questioning my right to choose, I am not going to be bashful about my opinions.
I think, as women, we are used to playing so many roles all our lives that we learn how to play different characters very quickly in succession. In that way, I think my gender has been a great strength for me. It allows me to be flippant, and it allows me to cry, and it allows me to do so many things that a senior male executive is not expected to do.
I think of my legacy as, “Has this person’s life changed because they met me?” It is a very egoistic thing, but it’s what drives me. I want somebody to say, “Wow, because I met Lakshmi I got to meet this other cool person, and we are great friends now!” When they think of a great experience they had, I played some part in that. That’s what I want my legacy to be. When someone is casually thinking about something to say, “Ah, you know, this happened because of Lakshmi.”
Catalysts make things happen with no expectations, and then they disappear after the experiment happens. I want to be a catalyst, but that people remember.
I do not believe in altruism at all. I think we all do things because we are selfish about life. So, I don’t feel as though I help anybody. I do everything for this very selfish purpose. When I am helping someone to meet somebody, or whatever it is, I want them to remember I did it.
But, I am not interested in collecting dues at some point. I’m not perfect, and I realize it’s a little petty. I just feel if some day I am going to go, I want whoever I know to remember me with one positive thing. “Oh God, I remember the day. It was such a good time that evening with that musician, because she introduced me.” Whatever it is, I want them to have an amazing experience in their life because of me. That is what I want my memory to be.