Living in “interesting times”

Would you rather be a dog in peaceful times? Or a human in chaotic times? When asked this, most people of course pick “human in chaotic times”.

But when offered to pick one of two — risk or uncertainty — most pick “risk” over “uncertainty”. To an extent, risk is definable, quantifiable, often tangible, possible to plan mitigation of.

Brexit is a risk. We know the British public will make its choice on June the 23rd, 2016. Both “remain” and “leave” campaigns are trying hard to get people on their side. The “remain” side is trying to mitigate the risk by highlighting possible losses Britain can incur if Brexit happens. The “leave” campaign calls their mitigation strategies fear-mongering and baseless.

But a juicier example affecting us all this year is from across the pond.

That Trump could become President of the United States is a risk, as he inches closer to the required delegate count. What he will do, as President, about foreign policy, international trade, immigration, job creation etc is an uncertainty. As on the date of writing (April the 27th, 2016), his policy positions are at best unclear, at worst rhetorical. That may change. Or not. Further, all of the members of the Congress and a third of the members of the Senate are also up for elections this year. So it is hard to say what the balance of power will look like in the final outcome. That exacerbates the uncertainty.

My startup clients seem unfazed by Brexit although Jeff Lynn’s warning about how Brexit will damage the UK’s startup ecosystem should give them pause for thought. Folks at larger company client firms are adopting a wait-and-watch stance. In practice, this means there is much inaction around. Countrywide has sounded a warning bell over housing prices. All said, the economy in limbo is slowing down and Brexit is expected to hit the UK’s growth numbers.

It is, however, an altogether different discussion when it comes to the US presidential elections. Almost everyone I speak to, both in the UK and the USA, is secretly wishing for Mrs Clinton to become President, even though the GOP is traditionally seen as the party good for business and business people. I rarely have occasion to call a situation brimming with bathos. This is one such. I am also not unaware of the filter bubble effect in this finding, because I overwhelmingly speak with people who are educated and in well-paid white collar jobs.

But that is how we often deal with uncertainty. We try and wish it away. We conjure favourable scenarios. We discuss fine detail over which we have no control.

Mostly, we bide time till the uncertainty crystallises and transmogrifies into a risk – risk we can delineate, measure, plan to mitigate for, or just accept.

Back to my dog v human question. “Better to be a dog in a peaceful time, than to be a human in a chaotic (warring) period.” This is the Chinese curse we have bastardised for the Anglophone world as: “May you live in interesting times.”

As political chaos goes, I cannot recall a year more “interesting” than 2016 in my entire career of over two decades. Can you?

Answers on a postcard, please.

Never “just business” for female founders

Apparently female entrepreneurship events are “weep fests”, according to this opinion piece published by a media startup. “Why can’t we, for once, stop looking at the whole gender thing whenever we have a roomful of women, stop talking about how tough it is to be women and businesswomen at the same time, and just talk about how tough it is to do business, period?”, the columnist asks.

Why ever not?

There is no point regurgitating data that continually show how women’s startups are funded less often and at lower valuations, with age sometimes a barrier too; how women, regardless of their standing, face sexual harassment and innuendo in the course of every work day; how, regardless of how well-oiled their relationships are or what their qualifications are, women do more work at home and “office housework” at work.

No point, because the screed is a narrow point of view that fails to acknowledge that women entrepreneurs — I prefer the alliterative “female founders” — the world over seem to have many shared experiences and many common themes in their lives. And that many of those experiences and themes have little overlap with problems that male founders face. Even where both bring similar business related competence and capabilities to the table.

I advise a number of female founders from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds — from eastern Europe to Indian to British to any number of hyphenated-identities — in the UK, India and the USA. Here is what I know about women’s entrepreneurship around the world today.

Women are creating startups, because they are ambitious. Most female founders I see are on their second or third careers; their ages range from the 20s to the 50s; some or more have partners; some or more have kids; some or more are also main decision makers for the care of elderly parents. But they share one thing in common — a burning ambition to realise their creative and wealth-generative potential, while juggling everything.

Then something called reality intervenes. Kids fall ill, partners leave, domestic crises arise, elderly parents get sick, funding is hard to find, co-founders are even harder to find and keep, employees need to be paid. In the absence of funding being on tap, many female founders are bootstrapping their businesses. It is at these points I see many female founders review their goals. What I find is not a weep fest. Far from it. I find determination and resolve. I find that these women acknowledge that life is tough but they want it all. Who am I — or someone not in the fray with them — to say what their desires and ambitions should be?

When women discuss issues and challenges — as they do in many closed, some secret, female founder groups that I am privileged to be part of too, aside of my one-to-one discussions with my advisee founders — they find validation. They find they are not alone. They learn that the magnitude of some problems is smaller or bigger than they thought. They get pointed to sources of help and resources. They get support, respite, and encouragement to pursue their ambition with renewed vigour.

That conversation is what these female founder events are for. They are safe spaces for female founders.

These female founder events celebrate the simple fact that many women founders like to live their life in fulsomeness — from heating breakdown at home, to kids teething, to squabbling partners, to communities they live in, to managing the burn rate and knowing how much cash there is in the bank account of the business. Indeed there is research that shows people bring their whole selves to work, not just some thin-sliced, compartment of a person. Hell, people bring their spouses to work with them, whether they like it or not!

These events also provide a place to understand how one can frame one’s tradeoffs, given one’s very specific circumstances. This can be aided by hearing others’ stories. One founder shares details of her divorce settlement to make certain decisions about salary. Another finds a way to balance her childcare needs by working different hours from her co-founders, who sign up willingly to the gig knowing her specific needs for the next few years. Yet another knows she has a roof over her head so she can experiment because her parents won’t throw her out.
If trading both troubles and coping strategies be seen a “weep fest”, I would take that any day over false machismo based on the pretence that it is “just business”.

To dismiss the wholeness of a female founder’s life is to miss the point of entrepreneurship. For entrepreneurs, it never is just business. It is all personal.

And in that “personal” their whole lives are wrapped. They will weep if they want to, but as long as they are forging ahead with their plans, it is all good.

Selling diamonds online

(A version of this article appeared in LiveMint on March the 4th, 2016.)

“You must have done some good deeds to have earned living here,” quipped a friend visiting me in Switzerland many years ago. Switzerland was wonderful but in my city, only two stores sold books in English and the choice was limited. Amazon swiftly became my go-to store way back in the late 1990s. Fast forward to 2016, I have not stepped into a grocery store for over seven years. My grocery comes to me from one of the UK’s largest grocers. Further, it has been years since I went into a clothing store.

In other words, I live off the web.

Except when it comes to jewellery.

This personal quirk became a business challenge, when I co-founded a fine jewellery business in London.

Fine and high jewellery is a tough sell online, for both purveyors and customers.

Like all good businesses, jewellers too put their customer at the centre of the design of the online store. It is challenging to deliver a satisfying customer experience, especially given the differences between the web and physical space. All decisions must be made remembering the high standards of a typical customer of fine and high jewellery.

As a customer, I expect to see a jeweller’s full range of products online. A business has complex choices. Do we put all our jewellery pieces online, or just some of them? The latter was not really an option for us because we did not have a retail presence. If some, do we showcase our bestsellers, new products or classics?

As a customer, I want to be moved and enticed. As a business, do we present products qua products, or do we showcase them on a human model, who can show the product realistically to the customers? How many photographs per product? Do our photographs really pluck at the customer’s heart strings, because that is where the sale is first made? This is the toughest one to crack. The logic is not very different from those who insist on telling me that they cannot buy their fruit without touching and smelling it. The cost implications of these decisions are notable. As a customer, I want the product photographs to dazzle me. As a business, we wonder if our photographs present the real fire and brilliance of our diamonds, and the true colours of our gemstones. Jewellery photography is notoriously hard and not for everyone wielding a digital camera.

Let’s say the business sells a fabulous piece of jewellery online. More decisions follow.

The essential last mile problem in shipping, for instance, is not simple. Few couriers may take on goods worth thousands of pounds, with appropriate insurance. Further, in countries with distance selling regulations, returns must be made easy and safe too. As a customer, I want assurance on both counts.

Further, the business can’t be certain the transaction won’t get called out as fraudulent after the product has been shipped. Jewellery is a new category for e-commerce, and payment processors just don’t have enough transaction data. It is a catch-22 because until more jewellery sells online, actuaries won’t have data to build the risk model. This is why many fine and high jewellers do not let a customer complete a transaction above a certain value online, typically £5000 in the UK, and will instead telephone the customer to verify details. So much for selling jewellery online!

Selling jewellery is much easier in a retail store.

In a store, the jeweller can deliver the right ambience, with champagne and macarons, or a lungo made perfectly, as well as handheld and full length mirrors to enable the customer to see how the jewellery works for her. As a customer, I delight in the sensuality of that experience. Experienced jewellery sales people in a store can assess a customer’s intent, interest and budget; they can then help with information, offer alternative products, and address customer doubts. For the customer, this helps bridge the chasm between the heart and the head, and leads to an actual purchase. The interaction is between two humans which means there is an opportunity to up-sell or cross-sell products by listening to and working with the customer, the first steps in that elusive process of clientelling.

Will techology be a saviour?

Both as a customer and a jeweller, I watch technology closely. Solutions are emerging to
approximate the physical experience online. But not fast enough.

For now, diamonds shine brightest when moving gently under the right lighting. Just like Charlize Theron’s dazzling Harry Winston necklace at the recently concluded Oscars!

Guess what? You can’t buy that online.

Four For Friday (38)

Fascinating materials about people and performance caught my eye this week. If you work with people in any capacity, these links will interest you.

First, this fascinating essay on how creative people’s brains do work differently. It draws upon Frank X Barron’s research into creative people, that found that IQ could not explain the creative spark. The article further debunks the prevalent and common myth of the right brain as the creative brain. The whole essay is worth reading but here is a prize quote.

The creative brain is particularly good at flexibly activating and deactivating these brain networks, which in most people are at odds with each other. In doing so, they are able to juggle seemingly contradictory modes of thought—cognitive and emotional, deliberate and spontaneous. This allows them to draw on a wide range of strengths, characteristics and thinking styles in their work.

If you have ever wondered whether workaholics are really high performers, or how high performers differ from workaholics, this article will interest you.

A high performer works hard in “healthy sustainable ways and feels happy and inspired,” he adds. Meanwhile, a workaholic “works hard in unhealthy unsustainable ways and feels unhappy and burned out.”

Given all that, finding the right “type” of person as an employee, a date, or a partner still remains a puzzle. One of the blunt tools often wielded in weeding out the misfits is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). A recent article in the FT asks — Is Myers Briggs up to the job? Tracing the history of the MBTI cult, the article mentions anecdotes about how it is being misused to reject candidates in job interviews, mergers, or dating situations, how it is being used to avoid certain work situations (such as an “I” avoiding after-work socialising), and how it could help with conflict resolution in couples. It also looks into the lack of peer-reviewed research into the popular tool and the alternatives.

Some psychologists believe that independent, peer-reviewed research in the decades since the MBTI was devised has provided something better than Myers-Briggs. They champion the notion of the “Big Five” personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Of these, only one trait is closely shared with the MBTI — extroversion. Myers-Briggs does not focus on “neuroticism” or, indeed, any similarly negative trait, which may point to one of the reasons why the criticisms lobbed at the test by modern science have yet to undermine its popularity.

So you found the best people for the team. Now what?

Success or failure is more complex than hiring the right person, not least because the Peter Principle. But have you interviewed the spouses? Yes, you read right — spouses. One might infer from recent research that interviewing spouses or at least knowing the set-up at home might give you a good idea of the new teammate’s success potential.

One is a diary study of dual-earner couples showing that people put more time in at work when their intimate relationships are going well, because the absence of drama at home gives them greater emotional, cognitive, and physical vigor to bring to the workplace.

The other shows that spouses’ personalities affect employees’ work outcomes — incomes, promotions, and so on. Both studies are reminders that each individual bent over each task in the office is connected to, and the product of, a social and familial context that matters a lot, and we should all be paying more attention to those contexts.

The second study is quite remarkable.

Brittany C. Solomon and Joshua J. Jackson of Washington University in St. Louis realized that a rich trove of data on thousands of Australian households would lend itself to an analysis of the effect of spouses’ personality characteristics on people’s employment outcomes, because the database included not only survey results indicating personality dimensions but also information on incomes, promotions, and job satisfaction.

The personality data covered what are known as the “big five” dimensions — extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness. The researchers found that the only spousal trait that was important to an employee’s work outcomes was conscientiousness, which turns out to predict employee income, number of promotions, and job satisfaction, regardless of gender.

Here you can see the relationships between spousal conscientiousness and income, promotions, and job satisfaction:

There is more. Are you an employer that wants the workplace to be a welcoming and egalitarian place for female employees? Then you will love this — or not!  Research shows a link between a heterosexual man’s marriage structure and his attitudes towards women in the workplace, including disliking their presence in the workplace and denying the women promotion opportunities.

Based on five studies with a total of 993 married, heterosexual male participants, we found that marriage structure has important implications for attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to gender among heterosexual married men in the workplace. Specifically, men in traditional marriages—married to women who are not employed—disfavor women in the workplace and are more likely than the average of all married men to make decisions that prevent the advancement of qualified women. Results show that employed men in traditional marriages tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) perceive organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny qualified female employees opportunities for promotions more frequently than do other married male employees. Moreover, our final study suggests that men who are single and then marry women who are not employed may change their attitudes toward women in the workplace, becoming less positive. The consistent pattern of results across multiple studies employing multiple methods (lab, longitudinal, archival) and samples (U.S., U.K., undergraduates, managers) demonstrates the robustness of our findings that the structure of a man’s marriage influences his gender ideology in the workplace, presenting an important challenge to workplace egalitarianism.

Women Artists in London: Comix Creatrix

As recently as January 2016, Franck Bondoux, the director of the Angoulême Festival international de la bande dessinée in France, is on record saying there have been very few women illustrators or comic artists in history. The unwillingness to educate himself in the history of art, and at least the history of something that his job requires, is unsurprising.

This backdrop, of course, makes Comix Creatrix at the House of Illustration in Granary Square in the rapidly regenerating Kings Cross area an especially unmissable treat. The exhibition features a hundred women creatrixes and artists across generations (from the 1800s to the present times), genres (from comedy, to fantasy, to social commentary), and geographies (from North America to the Indian subcontinent), and is organised by themes. I went with a male friend, who, like me, grew up in India, and our childhoods featured many graphic novels and comics.

A video of the artists, discussing their processes and experiences, plays on loop in the room in the middle of the gallery. I watched the segment where Kripa Joshi, the Nepalese creatrix, talks about her process. Joshi draws the Miss Moti comic. “When spoken with a regular ‘T’, this Nepali word means a Plump Woman. But when spoken with a softer ‘T’ it means a Pearl.” I felt both a pang of pain and a giggle rising. These mixed feelings, I learnt, weren’t uncommon as one walked through the show.

Also in this space are many books including those by Marjane Satrapi and Amruta Patil, whose works are otherwise not on display in the exhibition.

The exhibition is a wall-to-wall herstory in comics. Much of the discourse is unmissably about oppression of some kind, whether sexual harassment, social norms, body shaming, stereotypical tropes, or other autobiographical experiences through history. It is hard to shake that thought as one walks through Revolution & Evolution, Personal Matters, Telling Stories, Laughter Lines, Living Histories, Flights of Fantasy, Strange Reflections, and Intimate Desires. 

Early in the first room, themed History Vs Her Story, I learnt of Jackie Ormes, the first African American woman to create a syndicated comic strip. Her character, Torchy Brown, covered several social themes including racial inequality, pollution etc.

I saw women creatrixes, who used only their surnames or shortened names to avoid sexism.

I learnt that there are only two women political cartoonists working in the UK. Then I was reminded of something I tweeted a long time ago. Lorna Miller is spot-on about Tristram Hunt. I said to my friend that I used to feel sad for him that with a name like Tristram, he will never be a Labour leader. Then I remembered his star turn at Jaipur Lit Festival and stopped feeling bad for him.

Lorna Miller on Tristram HuntI felt simultaneously sheepish and elated at discovering Audrey Niffenegger is also an illustrator. I laughed loudly at Corinne Pearlman’s “The Non-Jewish Jewess” and then caught myself. This kind of caution and self-censorship comes easy to my gender, I sometimes feel.

Corinne Pearlman on IdentityI wanted to see more of Sophie Standing’s work on pain.

Of personal interest to me were the women from the Indian subcontinent — Kaveri Gopalakrishnan, Kripa Joshi, Reshu Singh, and, of course, Manjula Padmanabhan, who has recently revived Suki. In an essay in 2010, Padmanabhan wrote about Suki and her journey.

People often ask me why I stopped my comic strip Suki. A better question is: “How did it get published at all?” In a culture where the birth of a daughter is regarded as a calamity and young brides are routinely murdered, what place is there for an awkward, fuzzy-haired girl whose best friend is a frog and whose favourite activity is sleeping late? If she had been a model-actress-airhostess, a hard-working mother or a sizzling chiquette in hot pants, she may have found a market today. But Suki was stubborn about resisting pressure, and meanwhile, the culture of forthrightness into which she was born died away around her.

The credits mention Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan Books, an imprint of India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, and publisher of books on, for, by and about women in South Asia. Extracts from their publication, titled Drawing The Line — Indian Women Fight Back — feature in the exhibition. Kaveri Gopalakrishnan’s “Imagine, Women” will resonate with pretty much every woman in this world.

Kaveri Gopalakrishnan's Imagine, WomenThanks to the Sequential app, I was able to bookmark many books to buy. On my list are Annie Goetzinger “Girl in Dior”, Eleanor Davis’s “How to be happy” and Una’s “Becoming unbecoming”. I first read Alison Bechdel in a friend‘s house and I was reminded much more is to be read. I recently read Roz Chast while faced with an aging parent related medical emergency. I look forward to acquiring the works of the Indian comic creatrixes on one of my future trips to India.

In an expansive showcase such as this, it is hard to feel not-understood or misunderstood. There was pain, there were nods of sympathy, there were full-throated laughs, there was puzzlement, there was quiet joy, there were pauses for thought.

Go with a friend. Go before May the 15th, 2016. It will leave you wanting for more.


An additional delight at the House of Illustration was being able to see a small exhibition of Lauren Child’s works. To those with children or little niblings, Child is well-known as the artist behind Charlie and Lola. She specialises in using paper drawings and objet trouvés, and has a lifelong fascination with the miniature. I found her The Princess & The Pea mounts very affecting. It has to be said that both my friend and I spent quite some time in front of the doll house she has created. That alone is worth a trip.

Lauren Child's Doll House

Lauren Child’s Doll House

(See Comix Creatrix in London before May the 15th, 2016 if you can. You can get the exhibition guide for free in the Sequential app, where you can also buy comics by many of the artists featured. No photos are allowed in Comix Creatrix. Photos seen in this post, other than the Doll House, are screenshots from the Sequential app guide to the show.)