How one woman is bringing the power of the idea-fest to India.
“I remember my father telling me, ‘You belong in front of people. What are you doing to bring the world’s biggest and richest democracy together?’”
That comment prompted Lakshmi Pratury to give up a highly successful career with Intel and eventually dive into the uncertain world of event organization in India.
“I realized that the thing I do best is tell a story and use other people to tell stories,” Pratury says.
Today, the former TED host runs INK Talks, a pioneering annual conference in India, which aims to showcase innovators from India and the U.S. Now in its second year, INK has featured speakers as impressive and diverse as film director James Cameron, Creative Commons’ Chairman Joi Ito and WIRED founder Kevin Kelly. Along with those big names, there are also unsung heroes from throughout India, such as the world’s youngest headmaster Babar Ali, Facebook’s first female engineer Ruchi Sanghvi and Arunachalam Muruganathan, inventor of low-cost sanitary napkins for poor women.
Idea fests such as TED, SXSW and INK Talks are a new concept for India. Fittingly, Pratury has been a pioneer most of her life. Growing up in Hyderabad, Pratury went on to enter one of the most sought-after institutions in the country—the Indian Institute of Technology—for a masters in mathematics, an unusual choice for a woman “back then.” But after a year, she dropped out and pursued a management degree instead. Then she went on to attain a second management degree from Portland State University in Oregon, minoring in theater arts. Helping backstage, she discovered a passion for events.
“I completely fell in love with the American way of life,” she says. “For the first time, nobody was telling me I talked too much.”
A series of unsatisfying jobs followed. Then came a 12-year stint at Intel. Pratury was one of the people behind the phenomenally successful “Intel Inside” marketing campaign, launched in 1991.
“I grew up in the corridors of Intel,” Pratury says. “Every week, I was in a different city, pitching products, running road shows and working with developers. Intel taught me so much, because they had truly mastered the whole event space.”
She also discovered her love for new ideas by attending early TED talks in California.
However, by 1999, Pratury wanted to do something to bring India and the U.S. closer together.
“My father passed away in 1997, and then Andy Grove retired as CEO of Intel,” she says. “I felt that things were coming to a natural end, but I didn’t know what to do next. Leaving Intel was the hardest decision I have ever made. I could have made VP if I had stayed.”
For the next decade, Pratury worked with several Indo-U.S. ventures, including non-profit The American Indian Foundation, which brought digital education to more than 80,000 rural Indian children. But she continued to be driven by a deep desire to bring the emerging “new” India to the world. She calls herself an idea evangelist and believes that innovative ideas have the power to transform India.
“The thing that always annoyed me was that outside of India, or even in India, the story is very skewed,” she says. “Most events show only a tiny sliver of the India picture. Yes, there is tremendous adversity, but there are amazing innovations, too. I wanted to encourage them.”
After co-hosting TED’s inaugural India event in 2009, Pratury struck out on her own. The following year, she launched INK Talks with funding from 20 close friends and associates.
Being a Pioneer
Starting from scratch isn’t easy in a young economy unused to idea fests, Pratury admits.
“The biggest challenge is that people are looking for immediate results,” she says. “People say, ‘If I come to the conference, will I meet my future funder?’ We tell them: You have to learn to pay for an experience.”
The charge for the four-day INK conference is about US$1,900 a sum some argue is too steep. The concern is that this makes for an elitist audience. But, as Pratury points out, INK makes talks public on YouTube or via free DVDs only days after the conference.
“We are taking money from the people who can afford it, and spreading good ideas to the people who can’t,” she says. “We are not apologetic about the price. There are people who would spend that money on jewelry; we ask them to spend it on being inspired!”
Another challenge is that many of the audience members are leaders in their fields and most, she says, are used to talking (not listening) and attend think fests only when they are the speakers.
“My premise is: When you are really successful, where do you learn? Here is where you come. Everyone here is of a certain stature, so there won’t be 100 people chasing you to ask for a job.”
Pratury concedes that it’s a constant challenge to keep the buzz going.
“It’s not a product that you can count and say you sold 100,000 copies,” she says. “Venture capital firms don’t come and offer us millions in funding. Evangelizing ideas is a long-term process.”
There’s some concern that a poor country such as India should be focusing on needs beyond idea fests. Consider that for a moment.
“People [had the same concern] when I was trying to bring computers to rural schoolchildren,” Pratury says. “Now everyone realizes the importance of computers in education. If India wants to be a superpower 15 years from now, we need to begin with curating an environment where innovative ideas happen.”
Making it Work
How does Pratury manage to get figures as disparate as designer Philippe Starck and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening to come to India? It all depends on relationships and nurturing old ties.
“I call myself a collector of people, but not with any particular intention, just people I like,” she admits. “I still keep in touch with people I worked with 20 years ago. I think it really helped that in my years at Intel, I worked in so many different departments.”
Conferences such as INK go beyond celebrity involvement; they’re built on many tiny details.
“It’s often about the things you don’t see and the people you don’t notice,” Pratury says. “It’s about the guy who greets you when you walk in, the directions to rooms and the people who create the stage.”
The INK audience is restricted to just 300 delegates and Pratury selects the speakers through a variety of strategies, relying on recommendations from friends, watching YouTube videos and striving for a mix of celebrities and ordinary people.
When Things Go Wrong
“Every event has a break-down point,” Pratury says.
While organizing her first INK conference near Pune, India, she had trouble from local environmentalists. With only two weeks until the conference, a green activist alleged that the event site Pratury selected displaced local tribal people. The activist threatened to block roads and go on a hunger strike—and wrote to every speaker telling them not to come.
“I was sobbing on the phone to James Cameron, and told him exactly what might happen. James said, ‘Because you have been so honest with me, I am coming.’”
Pratury kept her cool. She put aside a space for activists to protest peacefully, but also hired security to make sure they didn’t disrupt the event. Eventually, all went well.
India is one of the youngest countries in the world, and Pratury hopes that INK will influence young people to think innovatively in the future. Meanwhile, she continues to be driven by the transforming power of the idea. At TED in 2009, Activist Sunitha Krishnan talked about her anti-trafficking organization Prajwala, which was in desperate need of funds to build a home for victims of sex trafficking. A Google executive in the audience was moved and Prajwala was given US$1 million.
“In the new India, the curators of ideas are going to be very important,” Pratury says. “If I can influence the influencer, we can make a profit and do good, too.” One+
Pratury’s Top Tips for Event Planners
1. Events are a team effort. It is very important to have people of diverse disciplines—strategy, creativity and operations are equal essentials in a team.
2. Maintain a checklist of individual activities and add to it as you experience new problems and come up with solutions. You’ll never know everything. A checklist is a continuous learning process.
3. Everyone—right up to the last person laying wires—needs to know the purpose of the event. I’ve always found it useful to gather the entire crew for a briefing before the event, during which time I explain what we are trying to accomplish.
4. If you are doing the event in a country unfamiliar to you, it is important to have a senior person from that country as the leading partner or host of the event along with you. They need to own it as much as you do.
5. Have a backup plan for everything. This includes infrastructure such as generators and people (back-up speakers/performers, volunteers and staff). Providing a safe environment is paramount. Pay attention to details such as making sure the emergency exits are marked and visible, and brief the entire staff about emergency procedures. Verify the availability of medical help and inform the local police and fire department about large events so that they’ll be better prepared for emergencies.
Even if you take into account all the above and more, something can always go wrong. It’s important to remain calm and surround yourself with a great team.
(Photo credit: Namas Bhojani)
One+ July 2012,