Episode 153 – New narratives with Anjali Ramachandran

Anjali Ramachandran‘Constantly trying to be open to knowing about things that we’re not that comfortable with, I think that’s important.’

Most of us live inside a bubble of our own making: we read and talk about things that we know, we filter our feeds and our network to the voices that are like ours, whose opinions validate our own. That’s dangerous, warns innovator Anjali Ramachandran, and it’s also poor business. For all sorts of reasons, we need to seek out and share the new narratives that will shape the future of our interconnected world. 

But can there be a place for books in this work? It’s complicated… 

'Constantly trying to be open to knowing about things that we're not that comfortable with, I think that's important.' Share on X


The Other Valleys newsletter: https://tinyletter.com/othervalleys

Anjali’s blog: https://anjalir.wordpress.com/

Nevertheless podcast: https://medium.com/nevertheless-podcast

Anjali on Twitter: https://twitter.com/anjali28

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Alison Jones:                        Hello and welcome to The Extraordinary Business Book Club. And it’s a real pleasure to be here today with Anjali Ramachandran, who is Director at Content Studios’ Storythings, working with clients like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Omidyar Network. And she was previously Head of Innovation at PHD Media. She’s also co-founder of Ada’s List, a global network of women and non-binary people in technology with over 6,000 members now, aiming to make technology a more inclusive industry. And Anjali is on the Advisory Board of Angel Academy, an award-winning pro-women angel investment group that invests in founding teams with at least one female. She’s a Trustee of Photoworks, a visual arts non-profit that produces the Brighton Photo Biennial. And she writes The Other Valleys newsletter about innovation and technology in emerging markets. It’s quite a CV, Anjali – welcome to the show.

Anjali Ramachan:             Thank you very much Alison.

Alison Jones:                        And when Matt Locke recommended you as a guest, he said, I actually wrote down the quote because I loved it so much, “She has a fantastic handle on business stories that are not often heard.” So, would you just tell us what frustrates you about the usual business narratives and why?

Anjali Ramachan:             Sure. First of all, thank you for having me. What frustrates me about the usual business narratives, I have to say coming from India, is the typical focus on the global north as it’s called. So it’s a very western, predominantly a white narrative of business that most people typically see or read about in the media. And I think that’s very frustrating because I’ve seen and I know of and I speak to and I follow, so many businesses and entrepreneurs that are just doing amazing things outside of the West. Or at least whose audiences are primarily people in Asia and Africa, Latin America and so on. And because their challenges are so different as a group of people, as populations, the approaches to business are also equally different. And in many cases, much more interesting. And what frustrates me is that very often not a lot of people take the time to understand those kinds of countries and cultures and people, and problems. And equally, the business solutions to those.

                                                      I’m just going to talk a bit about something that Aygul Zagidullina said. As you just mentioned in my introduction, I also run Ada’s List and we just had our annual conference this past Saturday. And Aygul who is a Google developer expert, she has a PhD in quantum chemistry and works with Google; she spoke about building apps for the next billion users. And in that presentation, and that’s why it stuck with me, is because it’s so much a part of what I think about with regard to business. She spoke about the profiles and the qualities of people who don’t live in this part of the world.

                                                      A couple of the stats that I think were very interesting, even for me to be reminded of as someone who knows a fair bit about places like India and Nigeria, is that 50% of India and 66% of Nigeria still use 2G. We’re here on 4G and approaching 5G and they still use 2G networks. 80% of people with disabilities live in emerging markets, and 96% of India and 95% of Nigeria use prepaid data. And what’s the thing about prepaid data you might ask? It’s the fact that it feels like cash when you’re using it… So, yeah those are things I think you just don’t often think about living here in London or you know, just the UK or US. So that’s why I think they are very interesting and worth knowing more about.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah and fascinating obviously for people who are developing applications to be aware of, but also I’m getting the sense that there’s a double loss here. That there’s a loss to the developing world for, because they aren’t being taught about, being highlighted, being showcased, in the way that they deserve to be. And I’m guessing there’s a bit of, you know, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” We need to be promoting that in order to develop more of it. But there’s also a loss to the global north as you put it, because we’re not seeing some really smart, agile solutions. And we’re not seeing markets that actually could be really important to us. So I guess it’s kind of a two way blind spot.

Anjali Ramachan:             That’s a great point. I think that’s really, really true. And the thing with this double loss, is that things have changed I have to say since I started my newsletter a few years ago. And I started it because I wasn’t seeing enough of those stories that were interesting me, and I thought I’d try and pull them together in a newsletter. Things have changed since then, there are a number of sort of business oriented publications that have started sort of India or Africa editions. Quartz is one of them, they have a Quartz India and they have Quartz Africa as well. And I know lots of other, even The Guardian has a big, a lot of journalists in those parts of the world. So things have changed, but I think from a business perspective, there’s a lot more to do. From a news perspective, those stories are there. And politics for example, but I think business can do a better job of learning and hearing and just showcasing those stories.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, and I guess the problem is as well that even if the stories are being put out there, we live in such a self created bubble these days. We filter what we want to see, we hear a little echo chamber, we only look at the stories that catch our interest and then the algorithms provide more of those. So it’s harder for people to get exposed to stuff that they don’t know that they don’t know.

Anjali Ramachan:             Yes, absolutely. I mean it’s also the reason we are living in the world we’re in today, with Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, all those problems which are in the US. I mean it’s the filter bubble, lots of smart people have written about it, but when you don’t hear about something and you only talk to people or read about principles, things, books, issues, that you, whose opinion, written by people whose opinions you care about and ignore the rest, you suddenly wind up with things like Brexit and Trump. And then you’re like, “Where did that come from?” And I think constantly trying to be open to knowing about things that we’re not that comfortable with, I think is important.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, absolutely. And let’s go back to Other Valleys, because it, I love the name by the way, I’m sure it’s not just Silicon Valley, there are other valleys out there.

Anjali Ramachan:             That’s true.

Alison Jones:                        And it started as a newsletter, it’s so much more now. So just talk us a little bit, you talked about that impulse that you had to start it, just tell us a little bit more. How did you get it going? Where did it first gain traction? And where is it going now? What makes it work so well?

Anjali Ramachan:             So it started I want say four years ago now I think. I lost track of time, but I think it did start around that time. And it started because, yes, as I said I wanted to unearth these more interesting stories from different parts of the world. Along the way I must say that I’ve sort of fallen back in the last couple of, few months in terms of frequency of writing it because it does take a lot of effort and time. But it was featured in Forbes, it was featured in the New York Observer, a couple of other places; and I moved it then to start a website as well where I actually hosted interviews myself with some of these really interesting entrepreneurs who were doing things in other parts of the world that I thought deserved to be dug in to a bit further.

                                                      And so there’s the website now, there’s the newsletter which is now the main engine. But on the way I also actually collaborated with a journalist who reached out to me once he saw the newsletter. He was a subscriber and he said, “Would you like to collaborate on an ebook?” So we did. We produced an ebook a couple of years ago which listed a few of the interesting projects both from a corporate and a government and a nonprofit standpoint, that had really interesting business models about them. And that was a couple of years ago. Right now it’s, I’m just trying to get all my energy back in to keeping the newsletter going. And where is it going is a really interesting question. I haven’t really thought about that much, but I would love for it to become a platform to showcase more people, run an event series at some point. Yes, those are some of the achievable goals that I have with it.

Alison Jones:                        I love that, I’m guessing that there’s some unachievable ones that are there too…

Anjali Ramachan:             There are, yes. I would love to say like I’d like to write a book about it, but that’s, we’ll come on to that later. That’s just a lot of-

Alison Jones:                        We can come on to that later, yes. I think it’s such a really interesting, it’s a fascinating kind of model for people of how when you get curious about something, when you feel passionate about something, when you start putting content out in to the world, it takes a life of its own. And it goes off in directions you could never have imagined at the beginning. So it’s really lovely to see that and I hear you about the hard work of having a weekly newsletter. It takes a good chunk of your week doesn’t it?

Anjali Ramachan:             It does.

Alison Jones:                        But it’s so worth doing, beause it connects people as well, it’s terrific.

Anjali Ramachan:             It does that, yes.

Alison Jones:                        And just pulling out of the stuff that you’ve done, the research you’ve done with the people you’ve spoken to, I’d love to hear… I know we could go on, there’s a whole podcast just here. But, is there some world kind of key trend that you see emerging from the stories that you’re hearing that really excites you in the world of business?

Anjali Ramachan:             In the world of business, I mean and as much as business actually sort of related to it is the world of media and news, I think is just the role of artificial intelligence in, well in developing new products and services. But from an India perspective, keeping an eye on fake news as it’s called. So false stories that are being spread in the world and tools that are being used to control the spread of these stories, so using it for good. And from a business perspective, obviously trying to minimise people’s effort when it comes to purchasing things or getting to things that they want in the shortest possible time.

                                                      When I say that I think about, well you know, getting food faster to me from the nearest delivery guy isn’t really a priority in many parts of the world as it should not be. But there are lots of ways that AI is being used in really interesting ways. Drones for example, there’s a company called Zipline that uses drones to get blood delivered to people who genuinely have transport and connectivity problems. Those kinds of uses, so artificial intelligence, drones, those kinds of things in parts of the world that just don’t have access to resources I think are really, really interesting.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, really interesting. I did wonder if you would say 3D printing actually. Because that’s one of the things that just makes me so excited about what can be done, and on a huge scale anywhere in the world as long as you have that one bit of equipment. It’s so flexible.

Anjali Ramachan:             Yes, very flexible. Again, there are some amazing stories of 3D printing. 3D body parts genuinely, actually…

Alison Jones:                        Yes, it’s exciting.

Anjali Ramachan:             …being printed and used for people who’ve lost limbs in war I think, or just because of landmines and things like that. And genuinely it’s amazing to see the change that these printed limbs can have. And then those are not things that people in those parts of the world can ever aspire to, but you have so many, well, entrepreneurial groups and nonprofit groups working together to get these sort of resources to, and medical supplies, to people in different parts of the world. And changing, revolutionising lives altogether.

Alison Jones:                        Absolutely. And I think there’s no doubt that there’s so much really exciting stuff. And the narratives that you’re sharing need to be heard, it’s so exciting. One thing, and we touched on it briefly, but it’s kind of conspicuous by its absence, is the book, you know, and the different ways in which you’re getting these messages out. How do you see the role for books in this sort of space? I mean is there one?

Anjali Ramachan:             There’s definitely a role for books anywhere. I mean I love books, I think anyone who loves, well loves what they do, loves books. Because that’s where you learn so much. In this space, the fact that you added that phrase I thought was really insightful and interesting. Because the space is moving so fast, things are moving so fast in many parts of the world. I mean we often talk about leap frogging in continents like Asia and Africa because people there don’t even need a laptop because they just jump straight from using what’s called the dumb phone to a smartphone without going to a laptop or computer in between. And that device, it’s a mini computer basically isn’t it? A phone, a smartphone, and it’s again, changing lives by providing people access to information where previously middlemen used to execute that role and then take a large cut of whatever people, farmers for example, were selling. And so they got far less than they would, than they do now because they have access to information without having to go to the middleman.

                                                      Books, the one con I would say as opposed to a pro of a book is that it’s a static product most, well largely speaking. And static products are hard to update when it comes to the constant changes of information or the cycle of news keeps getting updated on a minute by minute, day to day basis. And books are amazing, but in this space I think it’s just important to be aware of the fact that by the time you get to reading a book, because of the process that a book, you know, that is followed by publishers to get a book to publication, it’s a long process. And I say that actually as someone who’s actually written one chapter in a marketing science book. And the process started well over a year ago, and the book was just released last week. So I know how long that process takes and if you’re writing a whole book by yourself, that would be even longer because you need to go through a much longer editorial cycle.

                                                      And I think books have their roles, have their place without doubt. I wrote an ebook because it was, I thought it would be quicker but even that took a few months, you know? It took a few months, a couple of months longer than I thought it would because these things take time. And especially when you do it as sort of a labour of love as opposed to being commissioned, being paid. And you know, to do it sort of full-time so to speak. Lots of people listening to this podcast are probably academics who are used to writing multiple books over the years or fairly successful business entrepreneurs who have, again, got used to the fact that some of their lessons are quite useful for a large audience, larger audience of people than they thought.

                                                      But I think those are people who have reached a certain level of success in their careers and they’re used to multitasking or they’ve been commissioned, they’ve got the time to do it. I think there is a role for books, but I think in this space focus is really important. It’s hard to focus on something where there’s so many things to focus on. So for example, even for me for my newsletter, part of the reason I’m able to keep it going is because the focus is actually, it’s not particularly narrow. It’s quite broad, I look at well a large geographical, well pretty wide geographical regions. I look at different segments within technology and business and creativity. I look for example if there’s educational technology, there’s medical tech, there is media, there is business, there is journalism, there are nonprofits. I look at anything.

                                                      And for me it’s the model that’s important. What specific thing are they doing that is different from the next, the nearest ten competitors? In many cases, it’s hard to even slot them in to a specific category because what they’re doing is that revolutionary. So yes there’s a role for books, but I think it’d be really interesting if there was a format of a book where it was open to being updated with things that were going on in a much more rapid basis.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, no it’s so interesting. And it’s really, again, it’s seeing that a book is, you know it’s certainly a cultural artefact.

Anjali Ramachan:             It is.

Alison Jones:                        It’s not always the most appropriate way to get your message out in to the world. Because another thing that strikes me is for a book to work really well, you have to have the whole book infrastructure well developed in a country. So the book supply chain, you have to, [inaudible 00:17:43] in store mainly.

Anjali Ramachan:             Yes. Yeah, sure, sure.

Alison Jones:                        And that matters too. And obviously you know, India and then much of the developing world has got a terrific book ecosystem. A very, very strong flourishing one. But not everywhere, so not every subject, not every purpose, suits a book. And when you’re thinking about getting your message out, a book is a really kind of key tool for many people, but you need to be thinking about other things. Think about the newsletters, and you’re thinking about the video, whatever it is that suits your people and your message and the, I should say the space in which you’re functioning. It’s really interesting.

Anjali Ramachan:             Yes indeed. And the other thing I’d add to that is languages.

Alison Jones:                        Yes.

Anjali Ramachan:             So, you know there’s a writing for-

Alison Jones:                        Well there’s a role for AI of course.

Anjali Ramachan:             Yes. Yes. In translation yes, but if you’re writing largely for an English-speaking audience, your approach can differ from when you’re writing for an audience that is going to be reading in a different language. So from a translation perspective, yes AI has a big role. Could or has, I’m not quite sure which word to use because could have a big role because it’s being done. AI is being used for translation, it’s being used in journalism already. But if you want to keep the cultural nuances, if you want to make sure those are communicated and translated appropriately, then you will still need a person’s eyes on it.

                                                      And so yes, from the language point of view I think, it’s important to consider what translates well and what doesn’t. And when you’re writing for a western audience, when you’re introducing a subject for a largely western audience, the level at which they start or are familiar with the subject you’re writing about is often very different from when you’re writing; so if I as someone from India is writing for a western audience, my approach would be very different from when I’d be writing for an Indian audience. Because I know that people in India probably have, wouldn’t be familiar with a number of things that I am already, if you see what I mean.

Alison Jones:                        Yes.

Anjali Ramachan:             So I think from an approach perspective and a language perspective, there are things to consider.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. And have you considered writing a book yourself?

Anjali Ramachan:             So as I said, I’ve just written a chapter in a book and that was a big, it was a big project.

Alison Jones:                        That was quite enough, thanks.

Anjali Ramachan:             No, well, not enough at all. I think everyone has a book in them of some sort. And this chapter, it was called, the book is called Eat Your Greens. It’s a collection of essays by people who work in the marketing industry in some form. And would I be able to write a whole book about that myself? Probably not. Would I want to also? Probably not. But there are lots of other subjects that I am very passionate about that I could probably write a book about if I got to it. I would like to at some point, I’d be lying if I said no. Just because of the different things that, and different people, the amazing people and stories that I hear so regularly about. At some point hopefully, some time in the future.

Alison Jones:                        It’s funny isn’t it? There’s something monumental about a book. And I don’t mean just the physical size of it, but as you said, they are static. And there’s something valuable about that in a world that is constantly changing and constantly on.

Anjali Ramachan:             That’s a very nice way of putting it. I have to say yes, especially coffee table books you know? Those are the kinds of books that I often find myself gravitating towards these days. Ones with lovely imagery and quotes and just a lovely artefact that you know you’ll cherish for a long time to come. Even if it isn’t a coffee table book, holding something physical does have a sense of permanency about it. It’s something that I can hand to someone or hand to the next generation in a way I just can’t, well I could email I suppose a PDF across, but it just is not the same.

Alison Jones:                        Just not the same is it?

Anjali Ramachan:             Not the same at all.

Alison Jones:                        That’s funny. But you may not be writing a book yet, but you are writing. Obviously you’re writing a lot, so just tell us how does, for goodness sake given all you do, how on earth do you find time for it for starters? And how does it serve you as a person but also as a professional?

Anjali Ramachan:             As a professional, I think writing is a way to get your thoughts out of your mind. And for a person like me, speaking purely for myself, there are just hundreds of thoughts going through my mind all the time. And writing is a way to make sense of them. Very often, I mean it is hard to find the time, I won’t lie. I have a one and a half year old, that takes a lot of time as well. She’d rather I drop that, but generally having a child takes a lot of time from, you know, time that you just had before that suddenly has vanished. But jokes apart, I think finding time to write or to do anything that you’re passionate about is genuinely a self-driven, self-motivated thing.

                                                      I’ve read so many books and articles about how it’s important to get up and write for 10 to 40 minutes every morning. I have tried to do that, it hasn’t quite worked out that way, after a couple of days I couldn’t keep it going. I would say just find bits and pieces of time that you can sort of claw back from the day. Whether that’s a bit after lunch, whether that’s at the end of the day. I do a lot of my work at the end of the day after my little one is asleep for example. I would say find the time that works best for you, and it might even be different times of day in different weeks, but that’s fine. I’m always afflicted by a sense of guilt because I should be writing much more than I am, or I want to be writing much more than I am. But I think it’s okay to sometimes let things be and take a breather.

                                                      And the other times, find the time that works best for you and even if it’s a little, get it down on paper, get your thoughts down on paper. Because I think it really helps make sense of, know what you want to, what you’ve just seen in many cases. I go to conferences, I find writing as a way of sort of putting my thoughts down on paper or where I had all these during the day that I was there, but couldn’t get down to articulate, quite articulate til I put it down on paper. But even if it isn’t an hour of writing, I think ten minutes of writing is, you can do a lot in ten minutes as I have found. So I think it’s, find the time that works best for you and do bits and pieces of writing, and you’ll find that it’ll slowly become a habit.

Alison Jones:                        And you pick up on two quite different functions of writing there, and you’re doing both of them. I suppose you’re segueing between them because there’s the writing that you do for yourself, which is, “I’m not quite sure what I think about this.” And you almost discover what you think about by writing it down and I should say processing something that’s just happened. And then there’s the writing for the people, where you’re making a point or sharing a story or convincing somebody of something. And they’re not always quite the same thing are they? Sometimes they’re very close-

Anjali Ramachan:             Yes.

Alison Jones:                        But actually they are different purposes.

Anjali Ramachan:             Yes they are different purposes. I think writing for yourself is a much more reflective than writing a more narrative description of events. And I think, so the question you asked me earlier about writing a book, I think it would involve a lot of going back through everything that I’ve done and combining that with looking forward. And I think trying to make sense of everything in the world today is going to be a task in itself. But applying that to what might happen in the future, which I think is what I would like to sort of examine, is a completely different thing altogether. And those are sort of two different projects that I would have to try and, I would want to try and combine in to one, and that’s two different kinds of writing in a sense. And that would be an interesting challenge.

Alison Jones:                        I can see you’re going to get off this call and you’re going to go and start writing right? I can see it. But in the meantime, I’m going to ask you for your recommendation.

Anjali Ramachan:             Mm-hmm.

Alison Jones:                        And I’m interested because I think you’re going to recommend something that perhaps is going to be fresh to people, no pressure. What business book would you recommend that the people listening to this podcast should go and read?

Anjali Ramachan:             I would love to say, there are lots of books actually that I can recommend, but the one that’s sticking in my mind right now is actually something that’s by quite a popular writer, it’s Michael Lewis who wrote Moneyball. He wrote Flash Boys, he wrote basically about the crash. And he’s written The Fifth Risk, is his newest book, and he talks about, it’s about US politics, US government, and I think a lot of the things I think about these days are just political in nature because of the world we live in. And he writes about, what is it that we’re not seeing that can help prepare us for the future much better than we would be if we didn’t think about them? And it takes a really deep look at, you know in terms of government, in terms of campaign, and I think there are lessons in that for everyone. you actually Alison with another, with a couple of other recommendations?

Alison Jones:                        Thank you for that, that’s a really good recommendation and I haven’t read it myself so I shall go and have a look at that. Now, Anjali if people want to find out more about you and about all these, all these projects that you are involved with, where should they go? And I should say don’t spell them all out, I will put all the links up on the Show Notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, but just give us highlights of where people can go.

Anjali Ramachan:             Sure. There is my newsletter, which is tinyletter.com/othervalleys, you can subscribe there. There is my blog which has not been updated in an absolute age, I should do that, it is at anjalir.wordpress.com; One Size Fits One is what it’s called. And then there are a couple of projects that I’m working on at the moment. One is neverthelesspodcast.com, which is a podcast about women and young people who are changing education. It’s one of the projects I’m working on at Storythings with the team there for peers and education, I think it brings together a lot of things I’m very passionate about so it’s well worth checking out as well.

Alison Jones:                        Fantastic. You do have the absolute best job in the world, I love it.

Anjali Ramachan:             Thank you.

Alison Jones:                        Thank you so much for your time today, that was absolutely fascinating.

Anjali Ramachan:             Thank you so much Alison for having me on.


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