Lakshmi Pratury got her first taste of American capitalism in her very first job, when the hi-tech company she worked for went bankrupt in the late 1980s. “Sixty people were fired on the same day; we all found ourselves sitting on the sidewalk one morning. It was just brutal,” recalls the Hyderabad-raised entrepreneur and conference host.
Her father, Padma Bhushan Dr Pratury Tirumala Rao, had arrived just the previous day on his first-ever visit to his youngest daughter in the US. Lakshmi didn’t tell him about her job loss for a week. When she finally did, he said, “It happens.” Lakshmi struggled with unemployment, learning to stay afloat with the support of friends and family.
“My father always asked me, ‘What are you doing to link the world’s richest democracy with the world’s largest?’,” says Lakshmi, who took his words to heart over the next few decades, as she moved across America, climbed the corporate ladder, set up a successful fund for causes in India, started her own live talk event with well-known faces, launched TED India with Chris Anderson, and finally established INK in her motherland.
Indeed, her father had a major role to play in Lakshmi’s life and choices. The man who introduced baby-weighing scales to India, a khadi-wearing freedom fighter, a writer and poet, and a much loved paediatrician, he was one of the first Indian pediatricians to go for training to the US in the 1950s. While there, he was informed that his middle child had been diagnosed with leukaemia. Dr Rao returned to India, only to watch his only son die at the age of nine.
The loss left his wife inconsolable. The couple decided to try for a fourth child, and moved to Vishakhapatnam, hoping a new beginning would put their life on track again. Lakshmi was born 18 years after their first child, and 12 years after their second. But her premature birth coincided with another tragedy for her family, as her mother died of birth complications.
Dr Rao never allowed the loss of his beloved wife and son to dampen his optimism for life. “You are everything your mother wanted to be,” he told the child Lakshmi, forbidding even the slightest whisper blaming the girl for her mother’s death. Indeed, brought up by two older sisters and doting grandparents, Lakshmi was quite the spoilt brat, as they all overcompensated for her mother’s loss. “You are here for a purpose,” her father told her.
All three daughters of Dr Rao went on to do their Masters, and Lakshmi further did two MBAs from India and US. Then she met Rajat Rakkhit, her future husband, in a California bookstore. Two years after their wedding, Dr Rao passed away. To keep his dream alive, Lakshmi decided to do something for India even while in the US.
She started raising funds for underprivileged children in Indian villages, and in the process kindled a latent desire to have her own child. But the idea of childbirth subconsciously frightened her; she thought it would kill her just as it had killed her mother.
As luck would have it, almost everything about her son’s birth was eerily similar to her own. She was in her early 40s, like her mother had been. The baby was born in the wee hours of the morning, exactly like herself. Her doctor was on vacation, like her mother’s. There were birth complications for both too. But eventually, everything worked out fine. “All this happened to make me lose my fear,” Lakshmi later realized.
After several years of fundraising with a baby and nanny in tow, flying from New York to Washington DC to India and raising over 30 million dollars for charity, Lakshmi started a live talk event inviting speakers from varied backgrounds, from Andrew Grove and William Dalrymple to Gloria Steinem and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
She got Indian personalities like Shashi Tharoor, MJ Akbar, Mira Nair and Anand Mahindra to co-host events with her. In 2009, along with TED Talks curator Chris Anderson, she hosted the first TED Conference in India, and helped choose the recipients of the first set of TEDx licenses here.
Her husband Rajat, who had his own startup, and her son Arnav, who was in kindergarten, moved with her to Bangalore, as she set out to help out-of-the-box thinkers find a platform to share their ideas and get the support they needed.
That’s how INK was born in 2010. A platform for innovation operating at the intersection of science, technology, community and creativity, it has since evolved to become a ‘community that accelerates the journeys of game-changers’.
Known for the annual INK Conference, besides programmes such as INK Fellows, it aims to help people turn their ideas into reality. “India should be a thought leader, not just a source of cheap labour for the world,” says the articulate, amiable Lakshmi, adding, “There is much India can offer the world, if only we encourage the habit of innovation.” Her father would have agreed.