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When Type A personalities met
Success is the criterion that linked participants at the INK conference. Some inspired, some thrilled and some even grated. But the most engaging stories may have actually come from lesser-known achievers.
As events of this sort go, last week's INK Conference was a schmoozy. And a very good one at that. Clearly based on the TED (Technology Entertainment & Design) template, it aims to be India's answer to that eclectic Silicon Valley gala often lauded as an 'intellectual spa'.
Set in picturesque Lavasa, INK invited a host of super-achievers to address a special audience over four days of carefully choreographed diversion last week.
Headlined by uber-filmmaker James Cameron, The Simpsons creator Matt Groening and Deepak Chopra, the convention clearly aimed to provoke thought. It also made for interesting people-watching.
'Serial' is the big buzzword at INK. Serial entrepreneurs, serial inventors, serial investors, serial party-hoppers and even a couple of TV serial producers, all exchanged notes furiously. With 'serial conversationalist' the only tag available to this humble hack, venturing forth to hold forth with such notable company initially appeared quite a challenge. But it wasn't really. Not if you're open to receiving ideas.
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Remarkably, entirely missing at this event were fauna one would usually expect to spot at such bashes: preening netas, self-important babus and fast-moving shoals of 'significant persons' playing pilot fish to these sleek sharks.
One reason may be INK's 'curated audience', which roughly translates to 'carefully selected' and 'also willing to stump up a tidy sum of cash'. But success was the unmistakable criterion;it hung in the air like incense at a south Indian temple, mildly cloying but headily satisfying to those inside. To use a phrase beloved of American B-school alumni, this was a gathering of individuals with Type A personalities.
Venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, corporate high-fliers, innovators, academics and a clutch of artists appeared to make up most of the 400 invitees.
Lakshmi Pratury - host and key organiser - asked that everyone look to carry away "one moment, one person, one project". Many appeared quite likely to do so, as business cards and ideas were freely exchanged - in a variety of accents, but none more prominent than the distinctive American twang.
In fact, the land of hope and glory loomed large at the event. INK's stylish event brochure even had descriptions that highlighted speakers' college 'freshman years' or their having 'grown up in the rural south, where blacks and whites lived separately'. To ladle out the alphabet soup of diaspora delineation, INK hosted lots of NRIs, PIOs and ABCDs.
Some ABCDs held forth on what makes a new India tick, with a couple even doing so on stage, to the polite amusement of us confused desis. Set against the faux European backdrop of Lavasa, it made for a mildly surreal experience too.
There was also another geographical bias. Reading name tags at INK was quite the exercise in Dravidian vowel movement. Ravichandran, Narayanan, Kalyanaraman and Raju were found in plenty. Mehtas and Shahs came in second, while North Indian surnames were in clear short supply. My 'Dass' was much puzzled over, only to be warmly smiled at when its deceptively Tamil antecedents were made clear.
Speakers on the colourful stage made presentations that variously inspired, thrilled and, in a few unfortunate cases, grated. But some of the best ones included Anil Ananthaswamy, who spoke evocatively of going to the ends of the Earth to visit scientists looking to unlock the secrets of the universe;Jennifer Aaker, an American researcher, who told a touching story of how social networks proved remarkably useful;and Alexander Tsiaras, who shared some of his stunning work in medical visualisation.
Groening spoke of how Homer is a lot like his dear dad;Arvind Gupta showed how trash may be turned into toys;and Tom Wujec listed new trends that he says will transform manufacturing. But all eyes looked out for a tall North American who briskly walked in on day two and headed straight for the lunch counter, where I was at. I did get to briefly recommend the paneer lababdar to James Cameron before Lakshmi arrived to whisk him away in a whirl of orange Kancheevaram silk.
Cameron is a great fit at an event bristling with multiple achievers. A self-confessed 'science groupie', Mr Hollywood told us all about his undersea exploration interests, funding renewable energy and a bit about how filmmaking is also about leadership and risk taking.
INK also selected a small group of young INK Fellows to nurture from diverse social backgrounds. This included, among others, Shivam Gupta, a shy 14-year old CG animator, Mushtaq Dar, a modest Kashmiri inventor, Mansukhbhai, who fashions innovative clay-based devices for home use, and Madhu Acharya from Nepal, who works to bring mobile radio to remote parts of that country.
For good measure, there was also Ashwini Akkunji, recent Asian Games double gold medallist, who stood around demurely in her India blazer, smiling graciously whenever someone flashed her a look of recognition. An organiser pointed out that Ashwini discovered the joys of running when chasing cattle across her father's Karnataka paddy fields. That was my 'one person' moment right there. Right before I headed out to join other attendees to discuss this new India over wine and entrees.
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