Mettl’s Ketan Kapoor: ‘I think it is inevitable to be an entrepreneur and not fail’

So who is the quintessential Indian entrepreneur? This is the question we keep asking while analysing success and failure of Indian startups. On one hand, large scale platforms such as Flipkart and Ola have high profile founders at the helm, always grabbing the headlines. On the other hand, a bunch of low key, reticent and enterprise focused startups such as Mettl continue to create impact in the niches they serve.

When Mercer acquired Mettl few weeks ago for $40 million, it didn’t make splashy headlines. And while you would have read the stories by YourStory and The Ken, there’s always more to learn about these entrepreneurial journeys. And with Outliers, we bring you the stories told as it is from the horse mouth.

So here’s the podcast, our 76th, with Ketan Kapoor, Mettl’s co-founder and CEO. Transcript credit, as always, to Kanika Berry.


Pankaj: So, welcome to Outliers. This is a podcast with Outliers. And like I keep saying, you know, it’s quite a journey discovering newer Outliers every week. We are back in Delhi. I am sitting down with Ketan Kapoor, who is co-founder and CEO of Mettl. Welcome to the podcast, Ketan.

Ketan: Thank you Pankaj. Pleasure is mine.

Pankaj: Ok. We were just exchanging our lineage. Allahabad, Lucknow…

Ketan: UP, hardcore UP ke hain hum.

Pankaj: So why do I think you are an Outlier? Of course, we will discover more in the conversation but more importantly, in this whole ‘startup going mainstream’ movement in India, if you are anyone who did not do an e-commerce venture and I really mean it, over 10 years ago or when things were looking up, I think it takes a lot of courage to be that. And it has been my personal interest to discover entrepreneurs who build software products that helps all business problems and from what I understand… Ketan was telling me, Mettl helps people discover their capabilities across different professions but before we get into that, Ketan, let us start from the start, shuruwat se shuru karte hain.

Who are you? Where do you come from? And how did this happen?

Ketan: So Pankaj, like I said, born in Allahabad, grew up in Lucknow, spent a couple of years in Kanpur and belong to a middle class background. My father retired from a bank, State Bank of India, so it was kind of a cherished professions back in the 60s and 70s and 80s to a certain extent as well. And my mom has been a homemaker ever since. So I think, ek cheez jo thi ki (one thing was there), we were in a comfortable position as far as monetary because banks pay decently, I mean not great not bad but it was never ki, bahut zada paisa hain (it was never that there was a lot of money). I still remember that parents had incentivised their kids ki agar aap first aa jaoge toh aapko yeh milega (that if you come first in your class, we will buy you this as a gift), and we had to wait for five months, six months even to get a small gift based on your performance. But I think ek cheez consistent thi ki (one thing was consistent that), the parents had a very strong focus on education because I think that in their minds and you belong to an education background, that is one way where you can get the maximum RoI in terms of effort, in terms of investment. I think there is no other way up also, India of the 80s and the 90s was like that, ki aapke paas opportunities kam hain (you had fewer opportunities) and that is why the ‘angry young man’ image of Amitabh Bachchan and government jobs were most lucrative. I still remember when I got through Roorkee and I was getting civil engineering and the first thing my father said was, ‘tum junior engineer toh ban jaoge’ (you will at least become a junior engineer) and I said, ‘junior engineer!’ Probably, I could not understand that term very well but again very middle class background, focus on education and because of that got through IIT Roorkee. In Kanpur, got through a good school where I met Tonmoy (Shingal), my current co-founder and we have stayed in touch ever since. He went to a different IIT, IIM, I went to a different IIT, IIM and kahi na kahi beech mein (somewhere in the middle), because of our set of experiences, because of the people that we knew, because of a shared common pool of awareness, we felt that we had to do something and that is why this idea of Mettl germinated in 2009-10.

Pankaj: How was it building Mettl? Take us through the journey. Were there moments when you said, ‘Ok, let’s do something else’. Take us through the highs and lows.

Ketan: So I actually left my job, a stable kind of job in 2006 and joined a garage startup in 2006. And it was a decision which nobody approved of. Obviously, 2006 mein (in 2006) startups were not sexy. I mean, it was just a rash decision, I would say looking in hindsight, ki aap kuch kar rahe ho, acha career hai aapke saamne (you are doing something and there is a good career in front of you) and then you suddenly leave your job and join a company which doesn’t have any brand, wants to do something and again I was lucky because that decision in retrospect was very rash. It could have bombed very, very easily. It did bomb eventually but how it helped me was, our CTO is somebody I met in that company. Our first investor cheque came from a reference of a guy I met in in that company. There are many strong small and large big learnings around sales, around B2B ecosystems that I attribute to learning in that company and the CEO of that company was one of the best sales guys that I have met in my life.

Pankaj: Wow.

Ketan: So, obviously, kuch bhi aap karte ho, kuch toh takeaway hota hee hai (there is always a takeaway in anything that you do). Again, we raised 14 million dollars back then. In that small company, we wanted to do mobile payments in 2006 which was just very, very ambitious before its time, which probably Paytm is doing today. So from that standpoint, I think that experience, then I met a couple of VCs, they recommended that, ‘join a startup again’, again I tried to something at that point in time, it didn’t work out, joined another startup called Isango! Again new set of learnings, how to do B2C marketing, how to kind of scale up global businesses, so yeh background tha (this was the background).

Mettl came about because of the hunger to do something, to do something of our own. We were not very, very fixated on ki hum X nahi kaam karenge, ki Y nahi kaam karenge (we will not do X work or Y work). We had gone through a competitive exam system which almost all the people in UP and Kanpur and Allahabad and Lucknow go through. We had worked in a few start ups, the common problems we had seen there. This is pre MOOCs. MOOCs like Coursera, Udacity, were not there at that point in time.

We had some idea that maybe this can morph into a MOOC system and we started with training and assessments and very soon figured out that assessments ek aisa area hai jahan pe innovation matlab ki cheekh raha hai hone ke liye (assessments is one such area where it is craving to have some innovation), it’s craving ki yaar kuch multiple choice questions ko kuch improve kar diya jaaye ya essay type questions ko kisi format mein change kar diya jaaye (it’s craving that some multiple choice questions should be improved or the format of some essay type questions is changed), because now you are doing it on a computer and you can do a lot many things which can be done through the right mix of research, right mix of validity and reliability… also plus we were really naive as well. And aapne jaise kaha, ‘ki aap ecommerce mein nahi gaye’ (and like you said, that you did not enter the ecommerce space), probably hume pata nahi tha ki ecommerce hai waha pe nahi toh hum chale jaate (probably we did not know that there exists an opportunity of ecommerce else we would have gone). We were just internally focused which I think in retrospect is a good thing. If you are hungry, if you feel ki, andar se aa raha hai, bottoms-up aa raha hai, ki yaar aapko kuch karna hai… (if you feel that it’s coming from within and it’s a bottoms-up feeling, that you must do something…). In fact after we decided, we did a competitive scan, we figured out there are few companies in this area. We actually did not care about the market size, we did not care about the competitive scenario, we did not care about globally kya chal raha hai (we did not care about what’s happening globally), actually itna pata nahi tha (actually, we did not know much).

Pankaj: You are making a very important point here, Ketan, because a lot of obsession is around product market fit and what you mentioned about ‘kuch karna hai’ (that, we have to do something). What is that ‘kuch’ (something)? How do you get to that something…

Ketan: Apna dhandha karna hai (we had to do our own business) – as simple as that. Yeh fitoor tha (this was an obsession). And that dhandha (business), I remember talking to my friends in 2007-08 time frame, ki kuch bhi ho sakta hai (that anything can happen). In fact, we tried an ecommerce small venture in 2007 with the current CTO, company called ‘Smart Sauda’ and that was home delivery of what BigBasket is trying to do today, home delivery of daily need goods that you need. Again, we had a burning desire to do something of our own, we had some idea ki kin cheezon mein hum ache hain (in what all things we are good), we had some advantage over others but it was not coming from a very strong analysis that this is what we should do. Top down ki yaar yahan per market gap hai (top down that there exists a market gap here), iss market gap ko fill karte hai (let’s fill this market gap), we didn’t come top down at all, it was more bottoms-up and once we figured out, we were comfortable that this… assessments is one area and we just went all out into it. And I remember telling my wife that now that we have closed the two most important problems or challenges which is kya karna hai aur kiske saath karna hai (what to do and with whom it is to be done), with me and Tonmoy were at least there. At least, there was confidence ki at least kuch toh kar lenge (at least we will do something).

Pankaj: Take me through some of the milestones that shook Mettl journey – good, bad and ugly.

Ketan: This company was registered in 2009, we started working in assessments in around April-May, 2010. So that was one milestone, that at least clarity aa gayi ki karna kya hai (at last we had the clarity of what to do). We spent the next 4-5 months looking for our technology co-founder. We had one guy who almost came, said yes, said no on the second last day, two days before joining. We had one guy who said yes for four months and even started working on with us but again said no at the last minute. At some stage we decided that we can’t just spend time like this, so we had to start recruiting people, we did not have money and we had a small pool of capital, so we just said, ‘to get to a state wherein we have a remote chance to even ask for money, we at least need to have some basic product’.

So we started recruiting people, we got a couple of, I would say again equally naïve people to join us, leaving their settled jobs in July-August time frame. We were lucky to have some mentors with us, so Naveen Tewari from InMobi has been a constant mentor and in the year 2010, he was in a way beginning to scale his own venture after a struggle of 3-4 years post a year. I think his startup was called Khoj Guru, I am Khoj. So I think first set of employees, then we did a quick friends and family round between 30 individuals, six of them said, ‘yes I will give you money’, raised 40 lakh by October 2010. Again, somehow luckily, Blume was getting set up in October-November 2010 time frame. I remember speaking to Sanjay (Nath) and Karthik (Reddy) in November of 2010. It was the second cheque of Blume that closed in March-April 2011 and by that time we had around 15 people around. We had few handful of customers who were beginning to use the product and over the course of next year, we got Ericsson, we got in Mahindra Comviva, Wipro to pilot. I think Cognizant also started using us and because of that enough momentum was created that Kalaari (Capital) became interested. So I think once we had Series A and just before Blume came in, we had CTO Guneet said, yes, that he was also of that mindset, he wants to do something of his own. I think he used to say, ‘yaar, mujhe life mein CV nahi banana hai, ek kaam karna hai ki jaise meine Mettl banayi hai ya mein ‘X’ banaya hai’ (I don’t want to make a CV in my life, I got to be able to say that I made Mettle or I made ‘X’). And I think, today he is at that stage where he doesn’t need to create a CV anymore. So that basic group of people was formed. I think just before Series A again, we had signed the term sheet and two of our most critical tech guys had resigned on one day and they said, we want to do something of our own.

So, I mean, those are some of the setbacks you get that you still don’t have any money and you feel that because of two wickets falling down, you can just lose the match. You have to balance some of those situations which may be stressful for a short period of time and then you come out of it. So, I think from a milestone perspective, we have had that journey. From a business standpoint, I don’t think there have been days that we said, ‘ki hume yeh nahi karna chaheeye (that we should not do this)’, there have been days that we have discussed that this is extremely difficult to do, ‘I don’t know how will we scale up! I don’t know, if we can get one client in three months, how will we get 1,000 clients? How will we solve that problem?’ And it’s just a very, very difficult problem on the face of it. So, I had not done sales, Tonmoy had not been in products and that is why it was a lot of learning for us in terms of how do you build a structured sales organisation, how do you build a structured product technology process? Business point of view it was smooth till about one year from Series A wherein we started getting some inbounds from the US and uss time hume laga (that time we felt), we got a half a million dollar customer, first customer outside India without any significant effort, so we felt that we should explore the US and uss time wave bhi thi (that time there was a wave as well) that in 2012-13-14, ki US jaayeh, waha ke clients, waha ki market badi hai (that go to the US, there clients, there market was bigger) and I think one mistake that we did was to go there before the product market fit because we were just exploring that, chiseling the product market fit in India but we did not discover it for the US.

Second was that we did not have too much money, we had raised four million, it was ok but it was not a whole lot that we could experiment endlessly. So I think there we lost a year or a year and a half, going to US before the product market fit, before understanding that what does it take to build a full-fledged business out there. At some stage, 2014-15 we decided that let us just win the India market first, US can wait, other countries can wait but at least let’s just win that and I think from thereon, it has been a very, very solid, consistent growth journey, we became profitable, we did not raise any more money post Series A, any significant amount of money. I mean, there was a small round for investors that we did.
So I think, if you look at the pattern, it is… I think more solid periods of growth come once you have decided what to do, once you are very, very clear ki yaar yahi karna hai, yahi karenge, isse zada nahi karenge per isko bahut ache se karenge (that we have to do this only, not more than this but to do the best we can).

Pankaj: Yes, I think some key lessons there, especially on the product market fit. So as a person who is an entrepreneur and you have had few shots, what does this journey mean to you and may be what does ‘exit’ mean to you, as people call exit, in your case now, of course, it is one. How did you get here and what are the key lessons on this front?

Ketan: I think more than the exit, the way we think about this is how can Mettl become the largest player in its area of play in the world? We now are number 1 in India in corporate assessments, we have a great growing business in India, we have amazing international opportunities that business has grown from near zero to about 2.5-3 million dollars without any sales force on the ground, it is just catering to in-bound requests.

Now I think, to solve that problem of how do you become the biggest, you can probably spend 3, 4, 5, 8 years in a new geography, build it the way you have built it in India and it will be done. It will be just replicating of what you have just done through the experiences in India, probably product is already there so that’ll be faster. But to do that in parallel, you needed some external support. External support could have been in the form of, let’s say, somebody who has solved this exact same challenge every year, may be some private equity player or some strategic player who would have their interest aligned to Mettl’s growth because somehow if he can convert this into a win-win which has happened with Mercer.

Then we feel that they have deep expertise in working with large HR teams globally, in more than 100 countries. We have deep expertise in one area which they don’t have but they can easily plug into their offerings. So it was more to do with that and less to do with anything else that I can make a quick exit and we can get some money. Yes, money is important but given that we have waited for eight years, we could have waited for 3-4 years more also, I mean that was not the prime force. From an investor standpoint as well, they were happy if there was an exit option on the table but if there had not been an exit option or set of options, they would have supported us for the next 3-4 years as well. That is my view. So I would say, that personal gratification is secondary, it is more because we are getting a good synergistic force to back us up, the goal of becoming bigger and doing that faster can probably materialise quickly.

Pankaj: You also keep becoming an entrepreneur like you kept becoming an entrepreneur, right! How do look at entrepreneurship? What does it really mean to you and why do you keep doing it? Is it because you are still seeking an ideal, I don’t know what is it in your mind? Because if you look at the entrepreneurs we have had, some of them when they build a company, it doesn’t work, some of them would go back and work in a job or if it works well, they get an exit, take a break. I am trying to understand, what is going through your mind and especially since you have had quite a few shots at entrepreneurship, so why do you keep becoming an entrepreneur?

Ketan: I think you have only one life and while everybody has their different appetite for risks, if you can take a risk and again you can do that only at two or three junctures in your life. You can’t keep doing it again and again. To have a best shot of success, you have to time it right as well but if you can take that risk and if you are well prepared to go through that journey, the journey itself is amazing, you get to learn a lot. The impact that you can create, the employment that you can provide, is something which is of great pride, at least to us and anybody as I speak to on the entrepreneur’s side. And thirdly, if there is success, there is a lot of money at the end of the tunnel, not just for you but also for people who back you up, for the employees who go with you along that journey as well. So why won’t you do it?

If you flip the question, why should I not do something and if I look at my IIM exam, Kolkata batch, there would be, I would say, 10-15 people who are entrepreneurs right now out of a batch of 280 people. Everybody had the potential or may be 90% or 80% of the batch had the potential to do. It’s just that they may be, became comfortable too soon. They got into a McKinsey or they got into a banking job or they were just very comfortable with the money coming in or they took a house very quickly, so real estate sector is probably one of the biggest inhibit to startups because people just get into the loan cycle where they can’t just get out of it. So, I think in our case, we were lucky that the timing was right in retrospect. But if somebody starting out today, they need to time it right which means that they need to have a runway of three years, at least three years to survive without any expectation of income. They may be need to be well prepared to do that journey. Maybe you don’t know a lot about the specific domain but the first principle thinking should be there at least, basic common sense, first principles thinking should be there. You need to have a feel for business, you need to have that gut feeling, ‘ki yaar yeh karne se sahi hoga’ (if I do this, it will be fruitful for the business). And you know whether you have it or not, certain things you know, wo business sense hai ki nahi (do we have the business sense or not). And if you have that business sense, if you have that runway, if you are mentally prepared to go down that journey for 2-3 years, you must do it, even if there are no monetary returns, the returns in terms of learning, returns in terms of exposure to situations, exposure to may be senior management or processes is just amazing.

Pankaj: Does it help to have seen failures closely? I mean, I am also trying to understand, there is this thing about startups few years ago, I don’t know if you remember it where people said, ‘the classic image of a startup founder was this young, brash, first time…’ you know and all those stories came from Silicon Valley and so on, right. Do you think failing helps? You don’t plan for failures…

Ketan: Given a choice whether you want to fail or you will want to succeed, you will succeed. If you can’t succeed, the best takeaway is that you take the most out of failure, in terms of learnings, what went wrong and probably not do it again, not try to fail again, not fail at least in the same situation again. I think it is inevitable to be an entrepreneur and not fail. It is not possible. You will have to fail and again failure would mean different things. You can fail at a new experiment, you can fail at a new skill but you will stumble, you will fail, you will try to get up every day of that journey. I think one big challenge as you scale up is the different skill sets that you need for various stages of a startup. You may fail to kind of morph or adopt.

 

So one is a large, big banner failure where the company shuts down and maybe you have to get to a state to avoid that under all circumstances but you will fail on a daily basis, you will learn on a daily basis and yes, it teaches you a lot. It kind of helps to have a critical co-founder as well who is not diplomatic, who is on the face, who calls a spade a spade in a way so that you know that next time I won’t do this. How do you internalise the failure, how do you internalise that situation where you see, ‘Ok, this situation I failed last time, at least, now, this time, let me not do the same error’.

And at hiring, you will fail a lot for example. Hiring the wrong set of people, I think every startup would do this but how do you come out of that journey, how do you start raising the bar in terms of quality of people that you hire? At least in Mettl, that has been the single biggest change agent for success which is we got the right set of people at the right time. At some stage, we raised the bar. We said, ‘no more compromise, we will make sure that we get what we want, we will understand what is needed to be successful, we will measure those competencies properly and we will minimize that failure chance’. And actually that has happened, we have seen that happen at Mettl.

Pankaj: Great insights, Ketan, from your journey. And I hope people listening in, that they apply on their journeys. Thank you so much for your time, Ketan, and God Speed! Thank you.

Ketan: Thank you, Pankaj.

(Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over eight years.)

Sandhya Menon on life beyond hashtags for India’s #MeToo

 

Why are there hardly any women in top roles in Indian newspapers and magazines? The answer is the same for most business sectors and organizations. These companies have sexual predators lurking around at the workplaces who make sure the bright women don’t rise up the ranks, especially if they don’t succumb to their demands. Yes. It’s that bad. And if you feel this is an exaggeration, please read the stories shared by top women journalists on social media over the past few weeks.

This week’s Outliers Podcast is with Sandhya Menon who triggered a revolution on Twitter and elsewhere by sharing her own story of harassment. And while it reinvigorated the #MeToo movement, she stays away from using that hashtag.

This will be among a series of such conversations we will do over the next few weeks to ensure that we all wake up and become sensitive enough to realize the value of shaping a healthy workplace for everyone.

And yes, as promised, we’re publishing full transcripts from last week’s episode. Thanks to Kanika Berry* again.

Pankaj: Welcome to the Outliers Podcast. This is a Podcast with Outliers and you know what’s been really fascinating for me on this journey of discovering and having conversations with Outliers is that, how different events, sometimes time-bound and sometimes beyond, sometimes timeless create these Outliers and I am really excited to be sitting down with one such Outlier — Sandhya Menon who is a journalist and a writer. You would definitely recall her from what we have been watching on Twitter and elsewhere in the last few days reinvigorating this whole debate and getting the victims of sexual harassment — especially this time in media — come forward and talk about it. So great to have you Sandhya on the Podcast and thanks for being the voice.

Sandhya: Thank you, Pankaj.

Interesting thing is that I didn’t start out to bring out voices, I was just tired of not having a resolution from 10 years ago. So I said, ‘you know what, here goes nothing, I am in this strange luxurious position of not being tied to an organisation, while I may have a lot to lose, I have a little less to lose than women who work with organisations’. And the thing is about Outliers, I was just telling a friend of mine, this is the way it goes, right? You don’t think about it or you think a little bit about it and I said, ‘Haan theek hai, this much I will do’ and then suddenly things are just exploding around you and people are calling you brave and I am like, I don’t know if I am brave or stupid but you know. Or people are saying, ‘you are inspiring’, I am like, how, how, how, you know I can’t own any of these tags, it’s just something I did because I thought it was about time. So, yeah.

Pankaj: It is about time.

Sandhya: Outliers are, I think, are eventually (what) happens and I don’t think anyone actually plans to be an Outlier. You are right.

Pankaj: Just to get a better sense of this, what was the trigger like, you know, even I have interviewed at least three dozen women who have been victims of sexual harassment and when you ask people, ‘So, what’s the trigger’, initially I got really scolded. So there was a massive learning that I underwent myself as a journalist but walk me through, like, it’s out there, everything is playing on Twitter and then you feel like, ‘Ok, I need to vent it out’. What’s that? Hopefully, it will help others.

Sandhya: You know the trigger for me, might sound ridiculous but horrible that apology that Utsav Chakraborty put out, he has deleted it. It was a thread of utter and complete garbage. He strung together words and made sentences that made no sense and I was like, ‘Seriously! Is this what a man thinks he can get away with after causing serious trouble’. And I don’t like to use the word ‘trauma’ but I think a lot of women do feel traumatised but causing trauma to someone is to causing mental trauma to someone… ‘I am sorry, when I get a nude, you know, I feel no pain, something’, I mean, what are you saying, you know! That was going on and somebody I follow on, Mayank Jain, I used to follow on Twitter, coincidentally that also happened. I am like, here someone I follow and interact with and this is how he has treated a fellow woman colleague and I am thinking, those two came together and then I started to think about, so what Mayank had told Anoo Bhuyan, these are very words, ‘that I got on text when I was first harassed like that’. So it was like a flashback. These three things coming together and being really angry at this Utsav Chakraborty’s apology and me going back to my own experience, I am like, ‘you know what, I am just going to do it’. So I put that first one out and then I said, ‘when I am here, I am not going to do it halfway through, let me call out the other two as well’. So Manoj was on Twitter at that point, so I tagged him, K. R Srinivas is on Twitter, so I tagged him and the third person Gautam Adhikari wasn’t, so I didn’t tag him but I named him, so I said, ‘you know, enough! Let me just do this. Jo aayega, dekha jaayega (we’ll see when someone comes)’. So that was my basic attitude at that point. I didn’t really think it through but I think it was anger more than any other trigger.

Pankaj: I completely understand that. A lot of people talk about, ‘So what’s the outcome you are looking for?’ Even when we were doing the series of stories, they were like, ‘What do you want to achieve from this?’ And I will come to the question about, ‘Why so late, why you are asking now, why are you waking up now?’ But let’s start with this, what’s an outcome of this?

Sandhya: I am very clear, the past 3-4 days there is this just one thing that I have continued to say as an outcome is, ‘I have a personal vested interest in having a media house be safe for women.’ It’s heartbreaking really to see the messages that I have got in the last 3-4 days, it’s about women who have just said, ‘I have quit because of this and now I am a content writer’. Here are women who have spent 3,4,5 or 12 lakhs on a post-graduate education, broadcast journalism, have had one year of terrible experience and then decided, ‘I am just going to be a content writer’. Content writing is a real cut down on your ambition, you know.

So as far as outcomes are concerned, there are two.

  • One is a very clear outcome of workplaces just looking at their policies and tightening them up. Now the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act has guidelines as to what it is, that’s very clear but there is a lot of vagueness in the language also, later. Things like in an appropriate tender. The thing will be resolved in an appropriate time, now what’s an appropriate time? Three weeks are you going to give me, are you going to keep me there for three years hanging? It’s not specified, so I think it’s on employers to take this action, sit with it and tighten it for themselves and that’s really something that I am pushing for and I absolutely want. Most editors that run the country are men, so it’s incumbent on them for the safety of their entire organisation, men as well as women, to tighten those policies and have very clear guidelines. That’s one thing.
  • The other thing is, this is the most social behavioural thing that I am expecting men to do: to be a little careful. Right. You be careful for one year, the second year it’ll become a habit, that being careful will become a habit of being a good guy. Right. Don’t say lewd things. Go through that entire Twitter situation, it’s like a training manual as to what you shouldn’t do, so many points there, ‘Yeh nahi karo, yeh nahi karo, don’t do this’ checklist, right! See how much of it have you done, say I won’t do it again. Say, if it makes them second guess themselves, ‘Should I say this, should I not?’ That’s a good doubt to have in their heads. These two things I am hoping will come out of this.

Pankaj: And why now?

Sandhya: Why now, I think it’s because the time is ripe, I think we have the tools to have created this now. I don’t think we had it five years ago, I think the largest reasons so many women are speaking out is that there is a fertile ground where they feel like they’ll be believed. Even five years ago, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me, ‘Will I be believed?’ I wouldn’t even ask myself that question. I am 100% sure I will not be believed. Now it was like, ‘Maybe they will believe it’ and then I have seen that support, I have seen people turn around and say, ‘I believe in’ and this is something that women have just naturally taken to over the last week, ‘I believe you’ and it’s not like we are indiscriminately believing, you know. We are making sure that we know, where the source of these accusations are coming from and we are making sure that as much as it is possible in situations like this, that it’s not some random game playing, that there is a responsible and mature thought behind this accusation. So yes, I think just the fact that we feel like we are being believed right now, that’s made the whole difference. I think that is why now.

Pankaj: I think you are bang on what you were talking about media and why. You know, I have been a journalist for like 18 years now and I absolutely agree with you. A lot of times, I am also looking for editors, you know who are at that level and the one I really admire is Priya Ramani, we have worked together twice.

Sandhya: She is amazing.

Pankaj: She could have joined today but she was held up. She has come out…

Sandhya: And she keeps a low profile, you know. She is not high profile but she gets things done and she knows how to behave in a certain situation, she knows exactly what to say. I think she is quite amazing.

Pankaj: Absolutely. I really look up to her.

What is the life of these movements beyond hashtags for these campaigns? We keep fighting but then sometimes as a bystander, as a storyteller, you start questioning if people truly believe in this because, after a while, these live and die as hashtags. So what I am trying to understand from your experience, is what is the life beyond Twitter hashtag?

Sandhya: So this is interesting, right, because it’s a very small percentage that’s on Twitter, right? And even then we have got so many stories. You know the one interesting thing I have seen now is the people who are on Twitter have gone to their friends who are not on Twitter and have said, ‘Hey, get in touch with this person’. So I have an email for my blog, so on that email, I have had emails saying, ‘I am not on Twitter, I am not on Instagram, I don’t want to give you my Whatsapp number but here’s an email, this is what I have been facing’. So for once, a campaign has spread outside of Twitter which I think, now you can’t call it a hashtag anymore. I think the very fact that places like HT and now The Times of India, have actually taken credible steps. The Times of India, there is still not much to say, they have said what they have said but at least they are signalling that ‘Hey, we have looked at this’. HT has had people stepped down, investigations, I have an email about an investigation today. I think these are credible steps, so it’s clearly gone beyond and TV has picked it up. Now if TV has picked it up and not just English TV, there is Hindi, there is Tamil, I have spoken to Tamil and Hindi as well a couple of others. So for me, the minute, regional press picks it up, Indian language press picks it up, I think it goes beyond a hashtag.

Personally, I haven’t used #MeToo because I am very, very, very focused on workplace harassment. Really. I make a distinction between social conduct which is bad and just terrible. That’s a clear distinction and there are many stories coming out on that but I don’t want to mix that up with my focus on workplace harassment because, I am a single mum, my salary is what runs my house and there are many women whose salaries run their houses, whether they are single mothers or not. It contributes to families. Even if money does not contribute to a family, there are women who have ambitions to rise and none of this should be affected because of bad behaviour in the workplace. Right? A bad social conduct, you’ll be upset for a month, you’ll be upset for two months, you’ll yell and shout, you’ll decide men are all terrible, you know all that is there, you may go to therapy. I am not trivializing it but those are all difficult things but when you go back to your job, you say, ‘Ok, at least this is a safe space I can go do this’. Whereas if you are facing the same thing at work, it’s just impossible. How do you work? I mean, including me, we have quit and not pushed our careers beyond a certain point because where do you go from here? I mean, I am hard-pressed to think of women between 45 and 55, who are in high positions in newsrooms.

Pankaj: I could only think of Priya.

Sandhya: I can think of Priya, I can think of Meenal (Baghel).

Pankaj: Yes, I just met her three days ago.

Sandhya: And Priya is freelancing, right? She is not with… (sentence left incomplete)

Pankaj: She is not.

Sandhya: Exactly. So people I know, Sumona Roy, all of these people, they have quit at a certain age because I don’t know, they are hitting a certain glass ceiling which no one is talking about and they are moving on, they are moving out. So unless you create a safe working space, you are losing a workforce and you can’t afford to lose that.

Pankaj: Very well said.

Sandhya: Because women in their 45 are in their career prime, it’s not the end. They have seen, they have passed the harassment, the training, everything, they have done everything and they are in a position of making decisions and that shouldn’t be the time they should be quitting and unless we make a space for them, I am not saying women of 45-50 will get harassed, that’s not what I am saying. I am saying that unless right from the beginning for 20-22-year-olds, you create safe spaces, they are not going to get to 45 and leave positions of power and you need women in positions of power.

Pankaj: You do. Absolutely.

Sandhya: To come back to why I haven’t used #MeToo is because I don’t want to mix these two up. I really don’t want to. I want to stay focused. There are lots of other strong, brave women who are handling the social aspects of bad behaviour that men indulge in but I want to stick to this. And also there is no telling where hashtags go, right! I cannot deny the fact that there are people settling scores, there are people falsely accusing, there are people fulfilling an agenda, I cannot deny this. It’s bound to happen. And politicizing. That’s the other thing. Right?

Pankaj: Yes, it’s a world we live in. I mean, when we did our reporting, last year, a bunch of people said that ‘because this person is anti Aadhaar is why…’ (sentence left incomplete).

Sandhya: It’s ridiculous. I had a whole bunch of people tell me yesterday, ‘In two months, there are going to be elections here, that’s why you are doing it now’. I am like, ‘What planet are you from?’ So then I don’t want to be tagged on to that because then it’s just a big mess. So I have stuck to my narrative without the hashtag and this is entirely my opinion and I don’t judge anyone else who does it but if, it makes me feel kind of performative and little shallow if I hashtag the witnessing of my story. My timeline is mine, my Twitter feed is mine and I am going to say the way I want it. The impact it has on others is a different thing but I am not going to tag it with a hashtag unless If I am making a joke or something, I’ll use a hashtag or if I want to add to numbers of a certain kind, I’ll do that but this I am telling my story and I don’t want to stick it with a hashtag where everything else will pile on and then it just gets lost, the story gets lost. That’s not what I want to do.

Pankaj: I know you have a much bigger battle to fight so I won’t take much of your time. But if you look like what has been happening and then going forward, clearly even from our experience I can tell you that it’s going to be a long battle. You should be prepared legally.

Sandhya: Yes, that’s what I am doing now. I am lawyering up, I am talking to lawyers, trying to figure it out. I haven’t received a notice yet but I have been told that I am being sued for defamation. So we will see where that goes. I am talking to lawyers, I am trying to figure out how to deal with this. Really not much else I can do. And I think it’s only going to get worse from here, really because guilty men act in two ways, they either keep quiet and disappear or they come down on you very hard, right.

Pankaj: Tell me about it.

Sandhya: Because you have to protect so much, right. So we will see where it goes. So I am lawyering up, I am hoping, that you know that I find a lawyer. That’s the other thing. I have had, not just me, all of us had such great support, lawyers online coming forward and saying, ‘we’ll do this pro bono’. So that’s fantastic. So I am sure, I will be in good hands.

Pankaj: Just before we sign off, how do you ensure that this movement outlives you? What I am also trying to understand from you is Outliers come and go, you know as a storyteller, we will come and go but how do you kind of not institutionalize, I don’t know what to say but how can you ensure that… (sentence left incomplete).

Sandhya: That this becomes the way of life, right?

Pankaj: Yes.

Sandhya: Really, is there is anyway? I don’t know if you can ensure this but I think one of the first things is education, Pankaj. Because this is the one thing I have realised, the debate of what constitutes a sexual harassment at a workplace, why is there a debate? The Act very clearly tells you, this is this. It’s very clear. Why are you saying, just because an office creep stood very close to you or tried to get physical, it is. It says very clearly in the law. So (a) educate yourself. Once each of us knows what we are up against, then we can take it forward. Then I know, should I complain, should I not? That doubt is not there. I know, I can complain about this.

And the other thing is the creation of safe spaces. This is so easy for me to say, just these words mean nothing. Create safe spaces at work or make workplaces safe. It’s easy to say this, how do you do it? And that answer is so ridiculously picked. It has to be top down. If a male editor is at the top of the food chain so to speak, and he is not trustworthy, you can have all the systems in place but I am not going to go and complain, I will go to Twitter. So like, men need to introspect and I can’t, me or no one can push them to introspect.

But I also know many, many good men in my life. And I think each of us, women know a lot of good men and if these good men are there, I am sure there are other good men we don’t know. So I am hoping that day will say, ‘Ok, now it’s our time to do something and figure it out.’ So I don’t know how this will outlive me or anyone else who is working towards it but I am hoping that fact that if we push this consistently and I have had fathers DMing me saying, ‘I am thanking you not just for my colleagues or you, I am thanking you for my daughter who is three years old because when she moves on and goes to college or goes to work, she is going to be in a better place.’ And I am hoping that will happen. So, if there are people who are thinking that far ahead, then we just need to keep pushing here till we die, that hey every time, someone steps out of line, Check, Complain, Check, Complain. I think that is the only way to do this.

Pankaj: Great. A good way to sign off. And Godspeed and more power to you. We are in this together.

Sandhya: I know.

Pankaj: If someone wants to connect with you, who is listening to this conversation, what is a good way?

Sandhya: My blog has an email, you could write to me on that. My Twitter.

Pankaj: What is that?

Sandhya: It is @TheRestlessQuil, so I will spell that. If you go to my Twitter, my blog address is there and there is an email on it and Twitter is the best way to get in touch with me. You can find me on Facebook but I rarely check Facebook. I am open to communication from absolutely anywhere.

Pankaj: Awesome, more power to you. I am on pankaj@factordaily.com, so do look us up. Thank you, Sandhya, more power to you.

Sandhya: Thank you.

*Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over 8 years. 

Balaraman Ravindran on what AI really means for India

I first learned about IIT Madras professor Balaraman Ravindran when my colleague wrote this profile story titled “Wizard of AI: Meet India’s foremost reinforcement learning expert.”

Since then, I’ve met him a few times. It’s fascinating how conversations with AI researchers go beyond technologies and tools shaping AI. It quickly becomes philosophical and even ideological while discussing the ills of machine learning systems making decisions impacting humans and society.

And this is where professor Balaraman starts making sense in the over-hyped and often “skin deep AI” ecosystem in India. AI is the new buzzword for policymakers, startups, VCs and individual job seekers.

So what questions to ask while trying to make sense of AI in our lives and work? Here are some pointers from my recent chat with him.

“The right answer to any question is, it depends. What you’re learning throughout your life is what it depends on,” he says. I know it’s a very philosophical answer. But knowledge is evolving.”

“India is the destination where most of the repetitive jobs are outsourced. And AI is mostly applied wherever there’s repetition.”

“It’s not like we aren’t going to need programmers. But we might need more app developers, those writing codes for the cloud and so on. “

There are problems to be solved within AI too.

“By and large, the biggest problem in AI is performance tuning. Many of my students are calling it “the performance tuning hell.”

Listen in to this podcast to make sense of AI in India.