Thoughts on ‘(M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman’ by Pragya Agarwal

The number of books I’ve read has stagnated over the last couple of years. I can blame the pandemic and very young kids, but those are no longer an excuse, or I don’t want them to be. This year I’ve kickstarted my reading with a couple of good books, one of which is (M)otherhood by Pragya Agarwal. She kindly sent over a copy for me via her publishers Canongate Books to read in late December, and it spoke to me on so many levels I knew I wanted to pen some thoughts down here.

First of all, this is a brave book, as Elif Shafak has also said on the cover. It is definitely a memoir, but it weaves facts, politics and history through each chapter in a way that you’re never completely sure what you’re reading. I think that’s a plus. My mind was forced to switch gears so many times I found myself paying a lot of attention to what could otherwise be very dry facts – and I say this as a feminist and someone who’s also spent a number of years quoting the state of women on social media. But taking myself out of my shoes, I think anyone interested in why women’s lives are the way it is, will find this a good read, activism notwithstanding.

Another reason I found this book interesting is that it’s written by a South Asian woman. The book is about becoming a mother, the mental anguish of abortion, and the trials of secondary infertility, IVF and surrogacy – which are all important issues that are rarely spoken about in the media by South Asian women. I know this, because as a South Asian woman I went through IVF myself – and for nearly a decade it dictated my life and impacted my mental wellbeing. During that time, I looked for books, articles, blog posts by women like me talking about the trials of infertility, and most often I came up with nothing. I found the odd blog or two and a few articles yes, but nothing that spoke to me the way this book has.

Pragya writes with no judgement, and with full acceptance of her lack of insight into, for example, the lived experience of trans parents. She is upfront about the lack of existing research for her to highlight the parenting experiences of trans people in the book in as much detail as she would have liked, but by the end of the book I found that she had in fact given me a lot of background and history to some of the problems they face with fertility as well.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in strong, human, personal and well-researched writing about all the issues I mentioned above. You won’t regret it.

Here are some of my favourite quotes and passages. I’m bookmarking them here for when I want to come back to them later:

We clutch on desperately to stories of those who tried something that worked. Lucky them. We don’t hear of those who tried acupuncture for months on end and it never did anything for them. We don’t hear of people who had kale juice and a specific diet but never saw the seeds grow. Perhaps we don’t want to hear of these stories because what we want most is hope. Hope that something will work, that there is a way around the biological reality, and that the body and mind can be twisted and turned and coaxed into pliability. Most of all we want to believe that it all really works out in the end.

It wasn’t as much the news or the way it was delivered but the utter disbelief that for someone, I wasn’t worthy of basic human consideration and sensitivity. Honesty is the best policy, but a cushion would have helped, a furry cocoon to engulf me while I was dealt this blow.

In ancient Greek medical vocabulary, as early as the fourth or fifth century BC, where we first start seeing a discussion of infertility, the two main terms were aphoros and atokos, both negative adjectives referring to the absence of a productive bearing; both applied only to women. Rebecca Flemming, fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, in her 2013 paper discusses how even as land and trees can be aphoros – barren or non-fruit bearing – and money can be atokos – if it does not bring forth profit – men are neither. This gendering of reproductive vocabulary has continued: ‘infertile’ and ‘sterile’ can be used for both women and men, but ‘barren’ is never used for men.

Having grown up in a world where women are ‘the Second Sex’, still considered the ‘other’ with a man still being the default, I’ve become accustomed to assigning value to my success. Failure has not been a part of my vocabulary, because I did not have the luxury or the freedom to fail. Every failure, even the tiniest one, is hugely personal. This failure to conceive is something I cannot share with anyone, not even my own mother. I have pretended to be strong for so long, with that unwavering sense of reliability and solidity that others fall back on, that I cannot share my hopelessness and desperation, and my crushing sense of despair with anyone, not even those closest to me. Infertility is a social curse, to be pitied, and abhorred, rarely to be empathised with. In this journey, I am alone. Not even my husband understands my acute sense of failure, and he watches, hopelessly. Even though we were in this together, me and him, I have never felt lonelier. It is the grief that should bind us, but I don’t know if he is grieving. He does not say. I wish he would. (My note: She could have literally been describing me here. My feelings and experiences have never felt so validated.)

Somehow within the proclamations of progress made over the years, the needs of those who use this technology the most have been sidelined. Even as the test is touted as a feminist technology, empowering women, giving them choice, freedom and clarity, it remains ambiguous. There has not been as much research on home pregnancy tests as there has in technological apps for fertility. This is a classic case of ‘technological somnambulism’, a technology that society adopts without due consideration, much like while sleepwalking. Home pregnancy tests have changed so much of how we live and how we experience the pain, grief, loss and jubilation of being pregnant – or not. We, as a society, are still deciding what the criteria for a feminist technology would look like, and we don’t have very clear answers just yet. The way these tests are marketed, packaged, bought and used shows us that they are not feminist. Far from it. (My note: This chapter, on pregnancy and testing, was one of the most interesting for me. I’d experienced so much of it, but hadn’t really thought about all the points that Pragya made. It really is an unfeminist technology, for what it purports to be).

I love being a mother, most of the time. And I am okay with it. But I want to feel and believe that I can design my motherhood the way I want to. My motherhood does not have to prove anything to anyone. Not being a mother or being one does not shape my femininity or my value to society.

You can buy (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman from Bookshop here. The paperback was released this month, January 2022.

P.S: Can I also say how much I absolutely love the cover design!

Storythings 10

In 2011, Matt Locke started Storythings. It began as a vehicle for him to take on consultancy work, but soon expanded: in 2014 Hugh Garry joined as a Director, and in 2017 I did. We like to say we help good people tell important stories in fascinating ways, and we have. Over the last 10 years, Storythings has worked on strategy and production on a variety of communications projects: digital versions of static PDF reports, graphic comics, animated videos, online magazines that publish original long-form journalism from across the globe, first-person documentary films, podcasts, animated posters and everything in between. 

Starting it all off for Storythings in 2011 was a project called Pepys Road, created for the release of the book ‘Capital’ by John Lanchester, which featured a fictional road called Pepys Road (though it turns out Pepys Road does actually exist in South London!). We worked with the amazingly talented James Bridle and Dean Vipond to create an email-based Choose Your Own Adventure story that took you through some of the alternative realities touched on in the book, which is set in London just after a financial crash (sound familiar?). Unfortunately, the official website for the project is no longer live, but Dean Vipond explains the project here, Dazed Magazine interviewed James Bridle about it here, and Frank Rose interviewed Matt about it here, if you’d like to go back in history. 

Fast forward 10 years and it’s 2021, the time when Pepys Road’s fictional stories were actually set. A conversation with Matt just as I was returning from maternity leave at the beginning of 2021 was the seed of the idea for our 10th anniversary project: why not commemorate our work on Pepys Road, where John Lanchester wrote multiple alternative scenarios for what the reader might find happens to them in the UK in a few years’ time, by commissioning authors from around the world to write original fiction about what the world might be like 10 years from now, around 2031? That would take us from 2011 to 2021 to 2031, Storythings-style. 

We’ve done some very wide-ranging work in the last 10 years (to name a few: How We Get To Next for the Gates Foundation, Identities of the World for Experian, Nevertheless and Standing on the Shoulders for Pearson, Rethink Quarterly for ADP, How To Build An App for Google & Tom Scott, Top 10 Frontier Technologies for Climate Action for IMC, Brink and the Foreign & Commonwealth Development Office, Minds and Machines for Nesta). And we felt that our 10th anniversary was a unique chance to showcase how our thinking has diversified and grown in the last 10 years. 

We haven’t just commissioned original short fiction though – we’ve decided to take them further and commissioned talented people from across industries to comment on them in specific formats, which is our special thing (see: Formats Unpacked). You’ll see the responses below each original story, taking the original stories even further – we thought it was fascinating how people with expertise in the domains the stories covered could expound on the themes in those ways. The kinds of stories and writers we have commissioned for this project (a note: all our writers and artists are paid) are truly representative of the kind of work we like to do, and a celebration of who we are. 

So it was with a lot of pleasure (and for me personally a TON of excitement!) that we launched Storythings 10 in November 2021, a series of short works of fiction set in 2031. The stories, and the writers, represent a truly diverse set of countries and topics: the writers come from South Korea, India, Jordan, USA, UK, Spain, Australia and Bolivia, and the subjects they touch on include digital identity, health, politics, climate, culture, education, technology, media and careers. 

The stories will make you think about questions like: What will our healthcare system be like in a post-pandemic world? What will it *really* be like to wear augmented reality glasses all the time? What will it be like when humans damage the Earth beyond repair? How beautiful can a robot’s thoughts be – are they always boring because robots are not human? 

The future, as William Gibson says, is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed, and in these writers’ works maybe you can see these different yet similar futures for humanity. 

Here is the roster of writers we worked with on this project, whose talent and creativity know no bounds. If you’re looking for writers, we highly recommend them:

Original fiction

Night Farm by Maria Anderson (USA)

Maria Anderson’s fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Sewanee Review, and Best American Short Stories 2018. She has been awarded residencies from Jentel, Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and Joshua Tree National Park. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram. She grew up on a cattle ranch in southwestern Montana.

Your Cup Runneth Over by Lavanya Lakshminarayan (India)

Lavanya Lakshminarayan is the BSFA and Locus Award-nominated author of ‘Analog/ Virtual: And Other Simulations Of Your Future’. She’s also been shortlisted for the Times of India AutHer Award for Best Author Debut. In her other life as a game designer, she’s worked on Zynga Inc.’s FarmVille, FarmVille 2 and Mafia Wars. Her forthcoming publications include a short story in the Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction (Volume 2), and a novelette in the anthology, Third Eye. Follow her on Instagram: @lavanya.ln and Twitter: @lavanya_ln

Undullah Street by Ellen van Neerven (Australia)

Ellen van Neerven (they/them) is an award-winning author, editor and educator of First Nations Australian and Dutch heritage. They belong to the Yugambeh Nation and live in Meanjin (Brisbane) on the unceded land of the Turrbal and Yugera peoples. Ellen writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Their books include Throat (2020), Heat and Light (2014) and Comfort Food (2016). They edited Flock: First Nations Stories Then and Now (2021).

Madrid, 2031 by Maria Bonete Escoto (Spain)

María Bonete Escoto (Elche, 1993) is a Spanish writer based in Madrid. She participated in the climate fiction anthology ‘Estío. Once relatos de ficción climática’ (Episkaia, 2018), has published the short climate gothic novel ‘No hay tierra donde enterrarme’ (Episkaia, 2019) and has a short story in the anthology ‘El Gran Libro de Satán’ (Blackie Books, 2021). She writes non-fiction about the relationship between videogames and culture as well, and you can read her work in Heterotopias Zine, Revista Manual and Nivel Oculto. She is on Twitter as @flowersdontlast.

The Confession by Krys Lee (South Korea)

Krys Lee is the author of the story collection Drifting House and the novel How I Became a North Korean, and the translator of I Hear Your Voice and the story collection Diary of a Murderer by Young-ha Kim. She has won the Rome Prize in Literature and the Story Prize Spotlight Award, the Honor Title in Adult Fiction Literature from the Asian/Pacific American Libraries Association, and was a finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the BBC International Story Prize. She currently teaches creative writing at Yonsei University, Underwood International College in Seoul, South Korea.

Three in One by Hisham Bustani (Jordan), translated by Nariman Youssef

Hisham Bustani is an award-winning Jordanian author of five collections of short fiction and poetry. His work has been translated into many languages, with English-language translations appearing in journals including The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, The Georgia Review, The Poetry Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, World Literature Today, and The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly. His fiction has been featured in The Best Asian Short Stories among other anthologies. His book The Perception of Meaning (Syracuse University Press, 2015) won the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award. Hisham was the 2017 recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Fellowship for Artists and Writers, and his second book in English translation, The Monotonous Chaos of Existence, is forthcoming in 2022 from Mason Jar Press. He occasionally tweets @H_Bustani.

Nariman Youssef (@nariology) is a Cairo-born, London-based semi-freelance translator with an MA in Translation Studies from the University of Edinburgh. She works between Arabic and English and part-time manages a translation team at the British Library. Literary translations include Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter, Donia Kamal’s Cigarette No. 7, contributions in Words Without Borders, The Common, Banipal magazine, and poetry anthologies Beirut39 and The Hundred Years’ War.

Robot Poet by Edmundo Paz-Soldan (Bolivia/ USA), translated by Roy Youdale

Edmundo Paz-Soldán (Bolivia, 1967) teaches Latin American literature at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York). He has published twelve novels, among them Norte (2011), and Allá afuera hay monstruos (2021), and five short-story books, among them and Las visiones (2016); His novels have been translated to twelve languages. He has won the international Juan Rulfo award for the short story and the National Book Award (Bolivia). He is working on a book of short stories on the impact of technological change today. He is on Twitter and Instagram as @edpazsoldan. 

Roy Youdale completed a PhD in literary translation in 2017 at Bristol University and a book based on his thesis, Using computers in the translation of literary style: challenges and opportunities, was published by Routledge in 2019. As a case study for both the thesis and the book Roy undertook a complete translation into English of the Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti’s novel, Gracias por el Fuego (1965). His co-translation with Nick Caistor of another short story by Edmundo Paz Soldán, ‘The dictator and the greetings cards’, will shortly be published in the Los Angeles Review.

Glass Cage by Gita Ralleigh (UK)

Gita Ralleigh is a writer and NHS doctor born to Indian immigrant parents in London. She won the Wasafiri new writer’s prize in 2013 and has been published by Bellevue Literary Review, The Emma Press and Magma Poetry. She teaches creative writing to science undergraduates and has an MA in Creative Writing as well as an MSc on the intersection of literature with medicine. Her debut poetry collection A Terrible Thing is published by Bad Betty Press. You can find her on Twitter as @storyvilled.


As we were thinking about how to extend the impact of these stories, we also worked with academics, professionals and entrepreneurs in fields that the stories were about, to get them to comment on the stories in different ways. 

You can read all the stories here

We hope they give you as much food for thought as they have given us during the process of presenting this work to you. If you’d like to work with us on stories or series like this, or bring to life other amazing stories that no doubt happen regularly in your organisations, get in touch

Here’s to the next 10 years! If you’d like to stay in the loop about our work and get weekly recommendations for things to look at that pique our interest, please sign up to our newsletter here, and if you’d like to us unpack formats of different kinds every week with our community, sign up to our Formats Unpacked newsletter here. We’d also love to hear your thoughts about the stories and the response formats – do get in touch with us on Twitter, LinkedIn or we’re always available via email

See you around!

‘Yes, and’

Image by Donovan Valdivia via Unsplash

I have been trying to make sense of what is going on around the world over the last couple of weeks. George Floyd should not have died. He died because he was black. George Floyd is the tip of the iceberg. Before him there were many, many more: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner – many of whom have not got justice despite it being years since their death. 

The lives of black people have been taken so heartlessly not only by people in the US. The UK has a lot to be responsible for, apart from its own share of deaths of Black people. As Afua Hirsch said in her Guardian article last week:

The British government could have had the humility to use this moment to acknowledge Britain’s experiences. It could have discussed how Britain helped invent anti-black racism, how today’s US traces its racist heritage to British colonies in America, and how it was Britain that industrialised black enslavement in the Caribbean, initiated systems of apartheid all over the African continent, using the appropriation of black land, resources and labour to fight both world wars and using it again to reconstruct the peace. 

The structural racism that causes Black people to die again and again is not what non-Black people want to discuss unless they are forced to. It is a system that has been built over years, decades, centuries, and it will take time to dismantle, if we are lucky enough to even get there. There are a bulk of resources to read on this issue – here are ways you can learn in the month of June alone, so I won’t list them all here. If you are not black and want to understand why Black Lives Matter has taken on so much urgency, please give some of them a read, watch or listen. 

These discussions are hard, but they need to happen. I am far from educated enough on the subject of racism, anti-racism, structural racism, or anti-fragility – I’m still trying. Here, I want to lay out some of my thoughts on this issue, but also try and articulate something else that has been bothering me, as someone with Indian heritage. 

Even as many in India raise their voices in support of Black Lives Matter, there is warranted criticism for not supporting the causes that need a lot more attention in their own backyard. (With regard to the kind of discrimination that Black people see in America, I’m talking specifically about caste discrimination – of Dalits particularly, and religious discrimination – particularly of Muslims). 

There are two components to this: one, a large number of people who are getting the media attention for speaking up about Black Lives Matter in India at the moment are film celebrities, some of whom are very simply out of touch with reality (all the usual tone-deaf language about how ‘All Lives Matter’). These celebrities argue against racism in America, while endorsing fairness creams in India, and belonging to an industry which engages in ‘brownface’. You see the problem. 

The second is the legitimacy of talking about issues in other parts of the world when there are issues to tackle at home: from a long hard look at the casteism that contributed to Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s death in 2016 to more recent instances of police overreach similar to that being witnessed in the US at the moment. As an illustration, here’s one Instagram image I’ve seen shared a lot recently:

My niece Ragini Menon recently wrote a piece worth reading, about the pathetic record Indians have with regard to the treatment of Black people, and how South Asian Americans particularly owe a lot to the work of Black communities in the US (for more on the latter, follow SouthAsians4BlackLives on Instagram). Acknowledging that many of us stand on the shoulders of Black communities is important, as is the importance of dispelling the myth of Asian-Americans as the ‘model minority’. As this NPR piece notes:

Asians have been barred from entering the U.S. and gaining citizenship and have been sent to incarceration camps, Kim pointed out, but all that is different than the segregation, police brutality and discrimination that African-Americans have endured. 

Which brings me back to what made me want to explore all these things I’ve been reading, listening to and watching over the last few weeks: examining the ‘legitimacy’ of speaking up about one atrocity when there are others to acknowledge. The truth is there is no ‘convenient’ time to speak up. This is an ongoing battle; racism has been endemic for centuries. In countries like the US and UK, Black people have been facing hardships and violence for so long that many have unfortunately come to accept it as a way of life (yes, it saddens me to write that). It’s a mother’s fear of watching her son leave the house and not knowing if he’ll come back alive. It’s the fear experienced by a grown, educated Professor reduced to a shadow of his former self by the police, who stopped him in the road because of his colour. In India, Dalits and Muslims have faced this bias as well, for equally as long (a housekeeping note to anyone who wants to bring up white people or upper-caste Hindus – this is not the time or place. Please go somewhere else.)

I want to end by pointing to something that has helped me get some resolution to all these turbulent thoughts: this piece by Tamara Cofman Wittes, a  Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, who examines this alleged hypocrisy, of ‘promoting human rights when they are being trampled at home’, with reference to the US criticizing human rights abuses around the world when they are also not dealing with systemic racism at home. She concludes – and this has given me some succour – that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can fight for one and the other at the same time. In fact, we must. As she says:

By contrast, to insist that we must first “get our house in order” before speaking to others’ oppression, to be so ashamed by our own shortcomings that we refrain from calling out abuses abroad, and thus to withhold our solidarity from the abused, would itself be an act of moral abdication. As my friend Adham Sahloul wrote this weekend: “The people in the Hong Kong’s and Idlib’s of the world don’t have time for our spiritual reclamation sessions.” Sahloul calls for a “Yes, and” approach to American rights advocacy abroad, something that American diplomats of color, like Ambassador Nichols in Harare, already practice. Yes, we have important work to do at home. So do we all. Let’s continue reaching our hands across our borders in solidarity, and get to work.


As part of my research writing this piece, I learnt of many organisations working to eradicate discrimination in the US, UK and India, listed below for reference:


International Dalit Solidarity Network


Velivada: a media platform for stories about Dalits/Bahujans 

Dalit Queer Project on Instagram

Ambedkarite Students Association at TISS on Facebook

National Confederation of Dalit and Adivasi Organisations 

National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights

Safai Karmachari Andolan, the movement against manual scavenging 

Khabar Lahariya, which I personally subscribe to, a platform for rural journalism with stories told by women from Dalit, tribal, Muslim and backward castes. You can subscribe here

US (taken from this Google Doc)

Black Visions Collective

Reclaim the Block

NAACP Legal Defense Fund

Black Lives Matter

National Bail Out Fund

George Floyd Memorial Fund

Showing Up for Racial Justice

Campaign Zero

The Loveland Foundation

The Marshall Project

Color of Change

Bail Out Funds – Google Doc


A list of Black racial justice organisations (public Google Doc)

Practical ways to support Black Lives Matter from the UK (public Google doc)

Kwanda, which I support financially, ‘a modern collection pot for black communities’. 

Thank you to Siddharth Sreenivas for sharing the organisations working on the issue of caste discrimination in India, Ragini Menon for conversations and her thoughts, and the amazing people compiling resources for everyone to learn from and support. 

Masters of Scale: Reid Hoffman Tests His Theories of Success

Cross-posted from the Other Valleys:

The best way to communicate ideas is to tell a story. The most interesting storytelling format these days is without doubt the podcast, which was elevated to new heights by the first series of the quite aptly named Serial a couple of years ago.

One of the newest podcasts to hit the waves is Masters of Scale, an audio series with LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock Partner Reid Hoffman, no stranger to the startup/VC world. In it, he talks to successful entrepreneurs from companies like Facebook, Airbnb, Minted and Walker & Company to test his theories of success. What makes a business a rocketship, or more crucially, one that truly has impact in the world? It is published by WaitWhat, itself a new content company founded by two veterans from TED, June Cohen and Deron Triff – the two were responsible for creating and growing, the TED Open Translation Project, TED Radio Hour on NPR and TED in Cinema, amongst others.

I had the chance to ask June and Deron a few questions recently, to learn more about Masters of Scale. Here’s what they said – I hope you enjoy reading their responses as much as I did!

Both of you had long careers at TED before setting up WaitWhat. What is WaitWhat’s unique take on content in today’s world – how do you think you can make a difference in the deluge of content out there?

Our approach is really different from most media companies. The first is in the way we target our audience. We don’t tend to think a lot about demographics; instead we focus on how we want people to feel. We want everyone who takes in one of our programs to have a “wait, what?” moment — where they feel lit up and alive, filled with curiosity and wonder and awe. This is the kind of reaction that helps people realize their potential, and it also makes them want to share the content. Curiosity, awe, wonder — these are contagious emotions that make you want to share with other people.

We’re also different in how we think about format. Most media companies specialize in a single format – audio, video, written word — and then work to drive traffic to their own website / app / content. But we’re format and platform agnostic. As a content incubator, we’ll launch numerous media properties over the years ahead, and for each one, we’ll choose the format that’s best suited to the content, and then extend from there. Masters of Scale launched as a podcast, but will extend into other formats (short-form video, live events etc) over time.

Masters of Scale is the first ‘product’, so to speak, from the WaitWhat fold. I love the idea of Reid Hoffman testing his theories of success during the show. You describe it as a ‘music-infused detective story’. How did you come up with the idea of fusing those two genres in one show?

We’re passionate about creating new genres. So in everything we create, we think about how we can extend the formulas that others have created. Here, we wanted to create a program that surprised our listeners. From our days with TED Radio Hour, we became fascinated with the role of sound and music. We wondered what might happen to an ideas program if it were set to an original score, the way an independent documentary might be. Why shouldn’t an audio program surprise and delight you?

One of the things we love most about Masters of Scale is that the music — which is brilliantly composed for each episode by the Holladay brothers — is like a character in the show. A very surprising character!

Among other things, I’m a co-founder of Ada’s List, a global community for women in tech, and I was especially glad to hear that you’ve committed to a 50-50 gender balance for guests on the show. Why do you think that this has not been a big enough issue in American media so far?

We were genuinely shocked to realize that we were the first American media program to publicly commit to a 50/50 gender balance. To us, the benefits of balance are so clear, and the importance of a commitment is too. What we’re finding is that there is absolutely no shortage of extraordinary women business leaders to interview. We have a list 100-women long. They’re simply less recognizable than the male leaders, because they aren’t approached as much, and don’t put themselves out there. If you set a 50/50 commitment, it’s not a problem to fill the spots. But if you DON’T set a 50/50 commitment, your program will just naturally fill up with men, because they’re better known and more often recommended.

What was Reid Hoffman’s reaction when you pitched the show to him? How did that happen?

He loved it because we tailored it exactly to him. Reid is a natural mentor and teacher. He had wanted to become a philosophy professor; he gets great pleasure from sharing knowledge and he is SO DELIGHTFUL when he does it. He devotes a lot of his energy and time to mentoring others, and especially sharing his theories on how companies scale. So the idea of sharing his ideas on scale in a way that could, well, scale — was appealing.

Why did you decide on a podcast series for your first production, compared to other content formats? 

We were drawn to audio, because there’s a renaissance happening in podcasting right now. The extraordinary work that’s come out of the public radio world in recent years — This American LifeRadioLabAsk Me AnotherPlanet Money — is being pushed in all new directions, now that there are other players — GimletWonderyPanoplyAudible— innovating in the space. We’re obsessed with podcasts! We love Ponzi Supernova and Where Shall We Begin (which we helped originate) from Audible; we love Reply All and Heavyweight from Gimlet; we loved The Message; we loved Serial and of course S-Town. That just scratches the surface.

If you are plugged into the cultural zeitgeist, you have to be listening to podcasts right now.

What can we expect from the next few episodes of Masters of Scale? How long will it run?

You can expect to hear Netflix’s Reed Hastings reflect on the pillars of building a successful company culture. You can hear the extraordinary Nancy Lublin of Crisis Text Line prove to you that scale leaders aren’t only in for-profit companies (they run not-for-profits too). And you’ll hear Linda Rottenberg of Endeavor muse with Reid over what city in the world just might become the next Silicon Valley.

What’s next for WaitWhat?

We have some exciting projects in the pipeline that are currently in stealth mode… stay tuned!!

The first few episodes of Masters of Scale are now online:

Episode 1: “In order to scale you have to do things that don’t scale.” With Brian Chesky from Airbnb. 

Episode 2: “Always raise more money than you think you need.” With Mariam Naficy of Minted

Episode 3: “The best business ideas often seem laughable at first glance.” With Tristan Walker of Walker & Company

Episode 4: “If you’re not embarrassed by your first product release, you’ve released it too late”. With Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. 

Episode 5: With Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook. 

Well Told: A conference about longform and narrative journalism

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to attend an unusual event (unusual for the London conference world): the city’s first conference focussing on longform journalism. This is a particularly interesting time to zoom in on this form of storytelling, given the unfortunate rise of fake news and sensational events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, which eclipse other important ones like the ongoing migrant crisis. The former suit the 24-hour news cycle much better than the latter, and so a lot of important stories go untold.

It’s about trust and tribal identities, not facts

Amy O’Leary, Chief Story Officer at Upworthy, began her talk by showing us a clip of the story of Rob Scheer, which gained tens of millions of views and 477,000 shares. It is an emotional story which truly resonated with people, and she used it to illustrate that even in the age of sensationalist news, human stories can break through. As she said,

‘We have a reality-based problem. Facts are under assault like never before’

Facts are easily overwhelmed by master narratives that people employ to understand the world. So the simpler, better story wins cognitively, whether or not it is true. So it’s not facts, but stories that matter.

She also made a really good point about the importance of trust. If people don’t trust you, it doesn’t matter how good your facts are because they won’t believe it. Referring to Eli Pariser (founder of Upworthy) and his book The Filter Bubble, she said that we are moving from a ‘process-based to an interpersonal form of trust’, or handing over the reins from experts to our friends. We trust our friends in the way we sometimes don’t trust experts. The scary thing is that sometimes people don’t really care if they are familiar with only one-sided views, and this has repercussions, as we have seen in the US. According to the Pew Research Centre, ‘Conservative Republicans that say the news they get from friends and family is fairly one-sided are much more likely than others to say that this is OK (51%, compared with about a third or less of other political groups).’

The solution is to engender trust first, and then provide facts. This is also part of the reason why Trump won: if your community wasn’t covered much by the media then you’re already not thinking favourably about the media, and it doesn’t take a lot to trust a politician who said that you shouldn’t trust that media. This was best summarised in a tweet that Amy showed us from writer and editor Ayesha Siddiqi:

That is precisely why fake news has traction: it serves people’s need for tribal identity. Throwing more facts at the problem, therefore, isn’t the answer – it’s in the craft of journalism: “to tell true stories that reflect the community to a larger understanding of ourselves”.

In short, Amy left us with the following tips:

  • Be aware of a community’s tribal identities or schemas
  • Understand various schemas, don’t ignore them
  • Acknowledge that in today’s world especially, facts are not enough
  • Activate new tribal identities
  • Build trust by serving the need of communities

‘Take them there and make them care’

Manveen Rana, a Radio 4 producer, told us about her experience making a radio programme tracking the Dhnie family, who migrated from Syria to Germany. A 2-day project became 6 weeks, but she was able to convey so much more of the nuances of the story of the individuals in the family by taking the time to uncover their story, rather than just produce one episode.

She mentioned a quote from a colleague of hers about what she should try to focus on: “take them there and make them care”, because people are saturated with refugee images coming out of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. So she realised she needed to surface the back story to make people care. As she said, “longform allows for complexity”, which short news stories don’t.

‘Narratives are designed to render felt experience’.

Tom French, the Pulitzer-prize winning writer and novelist, spoke about how it is important for journalists to recognise the need for people to know.

He also spoke about how information is different from stories. Most journalistic forms are structured to convey information. Narratives, he said, are different, in that they convey stories and are ‘designed to render felt experience.’

He encouraged journalists to take the time to know specifics about the lives of the people they were writing about, to find out what they care about. ‘Zoom in tight’, as he said. Because people want to know the details.

Compassion fatigue

Emma-Jane Kirby, a reporter for BBC’s Radio 4, gave a fascinating account of her experience meeting an optician in Italy who happened to come upon a group of drowning Eritrean refugees while he was on holiday sailing on a boat in the sea off Lampedusa. He was able to save 47 people, but the experience never left him because he had to leave many others who died.

The story of that event became the book ‘The Optician of Lampedusa’. Ms. Kirby spoke about how she did a fair bit of research about the migrant situation in Eritrea and even wrote a couple of chapters on it, but in the end decided to leave them out because she realised she didn’t want anything to detract from the experience of the optician, who was the reason the story existed. It was through his experience, she said, that people could perhaps feel compassion again for migrants, an emotion that we have become numb to, having been almost saturated with tragic images of the crisis for years now. As she said:

“It doesn’t matter if you’re anti or pro-immigration, right or left politically – who can accept that 14 people per day died trying to cross last year?”

Slow journalism

Rob Orchard, co-founder of Delayed Gratification magazine, spoke about the position that his print magazine occupies in a digital world. He wanted it to ‘do the most that print can do’ – he wanted it to look good, smell good and feel good. He said that there was a place for it in the world because traditional news media are in decline as they have too much space to fill in their pages and do not discriminate when it comes to how they fill them. They also have a herd mentality that leads to the same stories being covered by everyone in the same short span of time. Delayed Gratification, he said, is more about slow journalism. They have two main goals: to revisit stories after the dust has settled, and to tell stories that the rest of the media has missed. They focus on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary – which links back to Emma-Jane Kirby’s focus on the experience of an otherwise ordinary optician.

Stories can be a matter of life and death

In a very touching session, Tom and Kelley French spoke about their book on the fight for survival of their extremely premature baby, born at 23 weeks. Kelley narrated her lived experience and the multitude of questions that came with it: baby Juniper was born at an age that was less than the number of weeks that babies can legally be aborted in many countries (24 weeks); as Kelley said, what to do with babies born at the edge of viability is one of the biggest controversies in medicine today.

They spoke about the quandary they had when it came to landing on the structure for the story: two-person memoirs are tough, and it’s rare for people to successfully write a memoir as two people. So they landed on the route of using a ‘baton-writing’ style, with neither of them writing the same part twice.

With a story like this, it was also very easy to get into a territory that might have made them sound indulgent, and they wanted to strictly avoid that. They wanted to be true to who they were, versus who they wish they had been: experiences like this could very easily fall back on stereotypical descriptions of love and life, but they didn’t want that.

It was heart-rending to hear about how Tom read Harry Potter to Juniper as she was in the NICU, and how her heartbeat would slow at good stories and start dropping when they were stories she didn’t like. That was why he closed by saying, “Stories can really be a matter of life and death”.

Juniper was in the room during the talk.

What does it even mean?

Mark Kramer’s masterclass on narrative journalism had a few good tips for the journalists among us:

  • Only put yourself in a piece if there’s a point in doing it.
  • If you turn emotions into narrative, you get a mawkish article.
  • The more you get into it, the better you know what you’re writing about (hark back to almost all the sessions above).
  • …which led to how access is all in journalism. You have to get to a point where you experience a story at a ‘felt life level’. Mark himself had to give up on a story because one of the people he wanted to interview refused access.
  • Don’t be scared of short sentences and paragraphs – use full-stops!
  • Eliminate ‘to be’ verbs, and words like ‘when’ and ‘as’ – they all remove you from the immediacy of the scene, and lose you readers.
  • Remove ‘blank’ images – like the phrase ‘gaudy picture’. What does that even mean?

Longform stories lead to longer reads

Jill Nicholson, Head of Product Education at Chartbeat, gave us an insight into the metrics behind longform journalism success. From research drawn from looking at longform content from 1 January to 15 May 2017, she mentioned how Chartbeat found that the human component stands out in longform journalism, as a result of which people tend to share them more.

Longform journalism is consumed mostly on mobile – 62% of the content examined was on mobile, while for all content it was 44%.

The best day to push longform journalism is Friday, so she suggested using social media then to give existing content a second life.

Existing readers matter – 11% of repeat readers for a US publication contributed 56% of revenue.

Facebook matters when it comes to promoting longform – it’s much more important than Twitter.

Longform journalism leads to people spending an average of 76 seconds on a site compared to 37 seconds for all content. Also, if you can keep a reader on your site for 3 minutes the first time they visit, they are much more likely to return than someone who stays just for 1 minute the first time.

And then there was more

There were also a couple of other very good sessions at Well Told. I wouldn’t hesitate to go again, and I sincerely hope that conferences like this mean we will start seeing publications and brands of all kinds spending more on good quality longform content.

Calling High Net Worth Women in the UK

Angel Academe, whose advisory board I’m on, is looking for UK-based high net worth women to participate in an EU-funded survey about angel investing – we need women who don’t invest to participate as well, as long as you qualify. If this is you or a friend, please share. More here, from Angel Academe:

DeepMind, SwiftKey and Zoopla are all examples of successful British businesses who received practical and financial support from angel investors. Angel investment is one of the most important sources of help for new businesses. It’s also a great way to share expertise and build new connections. Angel investing is exciting, enjoyable and collaborative, offering women the chance to use their financial capacity and business skills to back high-growth potential entrepreneurs. Yet only 14% of angel investors are women, although we now own 48% of UK wealth!

Angel Academe and UK Business Angels Association, the trade body supporting the growth of angel investment in the UK, are working together on a new piece of research to find out more about women’s perceptions of angel investing. This research is part of a new EU project called “Women Angels for Europe’s Entrepreneurs”, enabling us to review the situation in the UK as well as France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Belgium.

The results will help us understand how to engage more women in angel investing – to help support the economy, early-stage businesses (especially those started by women), as well as developing their own career and financial opportunities.

The research is based on a short online survey that will take no more than 10 minutes to complete. The survey is being hosted by Cass Business School, a leading UK academic institution who will also analyse the results. All information submitted will be treated entirely confidentially, with all data aggregated and anonymised. Survey participants will be offered early access to the findings and invitations to associated conferences, events and workshops about angel investing.

So, how can you help?

If you’re an existing female angel investor: Please complete the survey and share it with your friends and network.

If you’re a woman with the financial capacity and/or relevant investment or business experience, but are not an angel investor: Please complete the survey and share it with other women like you.

If you’re a man: Although the survey is exclusively for women, we’d appreciate your help! Please share it with the women in your network who qualify.

If you’re an advisor or network with High Net Worth women as your clients or members: Please share the survey with them – we’d be very grateful.

Start the survey

An interview with me on F Equals

Back in December, Danielle Newnham from F-Equals (previously called Tease and Totes) interviewed me for their blog. They just updated the interview with an additional question, so I thought it would be a good time to share it here.

Finally, if you could go back in time, what advice would you give a younger Anjali?
To my younger self, I would say – believe in yourself. Be less self-conscious and don’t worry about what others will say. I was way too concerned about the opinions of others when I was younger, and only much later in life realised that the best person to help me is me – meaning, if I didn’t do what I think I should for fear of others, the only person who would be negatively impacted is me. And much like investing in startups, the potential upside is very high. I’d tell my younger self that yes, mistakes would be made, but that’s OK because that’s how I’d learn and become better. I’d ask her to make more of a habit of saying ‘yes’. Having the privilege and ability to say ‘no’ would come much later in life.

You can read the interview in full on the F-Equals site.

A summary of Female Futures Forum, London 2017

The panel discussion at Female Futures Forum. Image via The Future Laboratory.

A few weeks ago I was at the Female Futures Forum hosted by the Future Laboratory. It was based on their latest research looking at female entrepreneurialism and innovation. I’d been interviewed by them as part of their research a while back, so it was good to see the final output presented.

The research presentation covered a few key facts about women in business, which may be familiar to many but should become familiar to everyone. They bear repeating; here are some of them:

  • It will take another 169 years to plug the global pay gap between men and women (WEF 2016)
  • Businesses with 3 or more female directors, or a female CEO and a female director, perform 36% better in terms of return on equity (MSCI)
  • Companies with more women on their boards are less likely to be hit by scandals such as bribery, fraud or shareholder battles (MSCI)
  • Women in the US are starting businesses at 1.5 times that of the national average (The Economist)

The presentation also noted how many brands are now paying attention to women and their place in the world. Some campaigns highlighted were UN Women Egypt’s print ads about the gender split in the workforce, GE’s brilliant campaign showcasing a world where female scientists are treated like celebrities, and the Nike ad featuring female Arab athletes.

However not enough companies are putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to actually hiring enough women, or promoting them. As Cindy Gallop says:

We are seeing virtually zero change. Stop talking about it – start doing it. I don’t want to see nice words and fancy ads. I want to see THIS. Put your money where your mouth is.

The second part of the event showcased interviews with female Gen Z entrepreneurs who believe, amongst many other things, that there is place for more than one woman at the top, and that it is only by taking care of oneself that a person can create a business that succeeds (the latter quote, and image below, by 22-year-old Phoebe Gormley of Gormley & Gamble).

The last session of the day was a panel discussion featuring Cilla Snowball, Chair of the Women’s Business Council and Group Chairman and CEO of AMV BBDO, Dr Mara Harvey, head of UBS Unique and a senior manager of UBS Wealth Management, Sara Shahvisi, director of programmes at Fearless Futures, and Sam Baker, co-founder of The Pool, moderated by Tracey Follows, Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer at the Future Laboratory.

Dr. Mara Harvey spoke about the challenges she faced in setting up UBS Unique, a division focussing on female clients, in the heavily male-dominated world of finance. She grappled with something as simple as naming the programme because she knew it needed to be taken seriously by men as much as women (and hence rejected the name Athena!). The goal of the programme is to educate at least 1 million women in finance.

Sam Baker was candid and spoke with honesty about her journey getting funding for The Pool. In her experience, men prefer to hear made up numbers as they want to invest in what they consider ambitious projects, whether or not they made sense. Sam narrated how she went to a VC meeting with her (female) communications director and was told they needed a man on the team ‘because it would look better’. She also narrated how she was constantly asked to justify her lifestyle business as a woman while men who had similar businesses were never asked to, despite by their own admission being less ambitious than her.

Sara Shahvisi said that educating children about things like gender bias should start in school – 21 years old is way too late as habits are already firmly set by then. She also spoke about how women should be compensated for the amount of time they spend caring for other people as they take the bulk of the responsibility for a fruitful society. She highlighted the need to talk about diversity of all sorts – not just gender but race, colour etc.; that the definition of diversity needs to be broader.

Cilla Snowball focussed on the need to make men as responsible for women’s success as women themselves. For example, the analogy about women needing to extend the ladder down to help other women up should apply to men as well. Men should also be celebrated for supporting women as much as women are, so that more men do it. She also made an important point about the need for younger female role models – the older women who have decades of experience are important to showcase but may not be relatable for a 12-15 year old.

All in all, a really inspiring morning. Huge thanks to Tracey Follows for the invite!


Koreo Prize: Do you know any smart young people in the UK aged 18-27?

I’m really pleased to be a judge for the inaugural Koreo Prize, a competition to encourage young people in the UK aged 18-27 to explore some of the most pressing issues of our time.

The Koreo Prize is a national storytelling competition for young people to unlock fresh takes on some of the complex social issues affecting the UK, using any combination of media. A UK first, we’re asking participants to choose one or more of six issues aligned with the UN’s Global Goals: gender equality, social mobility, food security, community resilience, wellbeing & social housing.

This competition is open to anyone between 18 and 27, there are no right or wrong answers – just a unique exploration of the issues! Plus, entrants get to be part of a community of emerging young thinkers whilst having the opportunity to win £5,000, paid work placements, free learning opportunities, tickets to global conferences, and mentoring opportunities.

The deadline for submissions is 4 April 2017 and will be judged by a panel of experts from across the public, private and non-profit sectors, including yours truly.

If you know anyone who fits the bill, do encourage them to apply! More info on the website.

My favourites from the Designs of the Year 2016

I went to the Designs of the Year exhibition a couple of weeks ago at the recently-reopened Design Museum. The annual exhibition is something I’ve been visiting for a few years now. There’s always some extremely inspiring stuff -some commercial, some clearly not as commercial – but all worth knowing about. Here are my picks of the exhibition:

Lumos Helmet: To be clear, I’m not a bike rider, but the incidences of bike accidents on the roads of London have been alarming lately. The Lumos Helmet began, as many of these projects do, as a Kickstarter project, and ‘beautifully integrates lights, hard brake, turn signals, and helmet into a single cohesive whole’.

The Bottom Ash Observatory: I’ve never thought of municipal waste as a thing to spend time thinking about (beyond its sustainable disposal), but Christien Meindertsma has published a book showing the richness she was able to extract from ‘100 kilos of incinerated household and industrial waste: the “waste of waste.”’

The Smog Free Project: Daan Roosegaarde’s Smog Free Project is a 7-meter-high structure that effectively functions as the largest air purifier in the world, ‘creating a circular zone of clean air for citizens to experience and enjoy’. It cleans ‘30,000 cubic meters per hour using ozone-free ion technology and a small amount of green electricity’. Currently installed in Beijing and Rotterdam, I know many a city that needs multiple versions of this. Admittedly it helps clean up, instead of forcing people to acknowledge the issue in the first place – but maybe that can be an evolution of it.

Hello Ruby: I heard about this when it first came out (again a Kickstarter project, but back in 2014) so it was nice to reacquaint myself with it here. Hello Ruby is a children’s book for those aged 5 or over that teaches them to code in a fun way.

Joto: This is such a brilliant idea, and I know I sound like a parrot here but it also came from Kickstarter (public launch due in 2017). It’s an internet-connected Etch-a-Sketch, or in other words, you can draw or send messages from the web to a frame on your wall. Super creative.

Refugee Republic: Premiered at the Amsterdam documentary festival IDFA in 2014 and winner of a Dutch Design Award in 2015, Refugee Republic is an interactive documentary about life in a Syrian refugee camp in Domiz, Northern Iraq. A really immersive way to get your head around some of the human stories playing out even as we speak.

Design That Saves Lives, Bangladesh: When the Rana Plaza collapse happened in 2013 killing over 1000 people, I was only too aware of the risk of something like that happening multiple times a day in crowded cities that I’m familiar with, like Delhi. So I was immensely relieved to see the work of Arup’s Ireland office in Bangladesh in the months following the collapse: a structural safety assessment that now helps to save thousands of lives.

MTV’s Martin Luther King Day media campaign #thetalk: I missed this when it came out in 2015, but it appealed to my time in a media agency as one of the most creative ways to get an important message across using TV. On MLK Day, MTV telecast all their programmes in black and white, prompting discussion of race by their target audience, millennials.

Post/Biotics by Vidhi Mehta: A project by an RCA student in Innovation Design Engineering, this project aims to draft the public into helping to test natural substances that might be able to function as antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is becoming a huge challenge to scientists the world over – in fact it is also the focus of the £10 million Longitude Prize. Post/Biotics is a very low-touch way of working on this problem, and reminds me of campaigns like Cancer Research’s Genes in Space mobile game, where players were drafted to find a solution to cancer.

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