Masterclass: Personal Journeys with Parmesh Shahani

In this conversation, the head of Godrej India Culture Lab talks about the secret behind his creative genius and his almost superhuman ability to reach out and forge relationships with a wide range of people, and curate distinctive experiences and conversations

Founding Fuel

Note: Welcome to the second episode in our series, “Personal Journeys”. As the name suggests, the series is based on one-on-one conversations with some of the finest minds from the world beyond business, where they share their stories, their inflection points, and their learnings.

How do you make your own space in a world where you feel so different from others?

It takes a lot of resilience, says Parmesh Shahani, author, curator and LGBTQ inclusion activist. And a refusal to conform, a refusal to efface the parts of you that make you different. It requires making investments in your own self.

“I was bullied for being effeminate, for the clothes I wore, for being smart and not shutting up. A lot of times people conform because they think it’s easier to hide parts of you,” he says. “But I chose very much not to, I said that I like myself, I'm comfortable in my own skin…. For the past three years I've been on GQ’s best dressed list…. the same bright colours that I was teased for, I am now being honoured by GQ….

“My compass is always pointed towards a sense of comfort with my own self, and a sense of joy and expressing my fabulosity through multiple ways, through my work, through my clothes, through my art, through to everything.”

Parmesh has used this resilience and refusal to conform to help connect diverse groups of people, cutting across silos and straddling the world of business and entrepreneurship, the creative arts, policy and academia. 

It is best reflected in the award-winning Godrej Culture Lab, an experimental space he helped create for eclectic, inclusive conversations on issues that matter. Shahani is also a leading spokesman for equality at the workplace, particularly of LGBT rights. He is the author of two books, Gay Bombay and Queeristan. He is a TED Senior Fellow, a Yale World Fellow and the World Economic Forum Global Young Leader.

This Personal Journeys conversation uncovers the secret behind his creative genius and his almost superhuman ability to reach out and forge relationships with a wide range of people and curate distinctive experiences and conversations.

Highlights from the conversation:

The role of mentors in his life

“Skills can be taught, [TOI’s Bachi Karkaria] said, but, I sense an attitude in you. And I really wanted to nurture that attitude….

“When I was at MIT, Professor Henry Jenkins was not only my professor, I worked with him. He taught me about how my own experiences were valid…. He said, ‘You don't have to write in a particular way just because you're in an American University, right the way you want.’

An introvert, taking to public speaking

“I am very much an introvert. I don't like public speaking. In fact, for years I struggled with anxiety and depression. I have been to psychiatrists, as well as counsellors many times. There was a time when I was so afraid of public speaking that I would need medication [for the anxiety].

“But I've always thought in terms of what are the outcomes that I want to achieve. And in the kind of work that I do, which is communication, the outcome that I want to achieve is for people to understand what I'm trying to say, and more importantly, to change their attitudes and behaviours….

“So, whether I'm anxious or I'm depressed, the outcome I want to achieve necessitates that I figured out how to manage these things. And learn how to communicate.

“It's been a process that has involved experts, friends, counsellors, incredible mental health professionals….

“I work on it all the time. I can recognize anxiety now. I have found what I need to do to shift me into a less anxious space.”

Recognise your privileges

“I'm just grateful that I've had the life, the background, the incredible privileges to be able to access some of these multiple worlds. I navigate the multiple worlds by being consciously aware…

“What am I doing at this point? How many ever talks I gave to all these corporates, is it any use if it is not going to materially change the life of my trans sisters on the street? This frustrates me. But I try very hard not to be debilitated by my frustration. I try, every moment I can, to take my frustration and convert it into a connection. What can I do, using my place, my position, the access that I have, and the opportunities that I can generate, to create a better world for different people? And more importantly, to build out as many platforms as I can. And that's how I don't resolve it, but I kind of work through it.”

A curator of experiences

“What we did with the lab was use design thinking and iterate constantly. Very much like the idea of rapid prototyping, rapid iteration with an idea. It started with a very broad idea of we need to create a different kind of public space in which we can have a range of conversations around what it means to be modern in India,

“We did a proof of concept. We did our very first conference called Urban Reimagination… we had architects, designers, performers…. It was a full day seminar 10 years ago. And we said, will people come to Vikhroli [a Mumbai suburb] if we do this? 500 people came, and more importantly, they stayed for about eight hours….

“Since then it went on this very exciting, iterative journey where we decided to value transience. While everyone else thought that to build a cultural centre meant you have to spend a lot of time and money and build a building, we said we are going to repurpose whatever infrastructure exists, because we don’t want to build for permanence….[Like] the Kumbh Mela, where a city comes, does what it has to do and then disappears.

“So, we said, what if we don't value things that other people value? What if we say that this idea of permanence itself is futile, let us value the ephemeral? And so, all our programming became about extraordinary ephemera. We would spend a lot of time and effort in building a popup museum that would last for only three days, or a popup art experience….

“What remains when you don't have a building, is the experience and the connections.”

Where is your surplus audience?

“I got this framework from a friend, Sam Ford, who was also my classmate at MIT, and he does a lot of work with performance wrestling in America. He realized that in the early 2000s, the Wrestling Federation had always thought of their audience as white male, 18-35. Everything they were doing was pitching to that.

“But then one day, they actually looked at who was watching.

“And they realized that there were two groups of audiences, who they were not even imagining. One was women—it’s a whole bunch of half-naked men tossing each other. They realize a lot of women were watching. The second is gay men. Again, it’s wrestling. It’s a whole bunch of half-naked men.

“So, Sam came up with this idea of surplus audiences. Who are the audience's that you have, that you don’t even imagine?”

From frustration to hope and back again  

“The truth is I’m always hustling on any given day. I'm always walking this line between here – there, before – after, theory – practice, stay – leave.

“I’m in the LGBTQ space as well. You hear of such incredible stories of change and courage and optimism, but you also hear of terrible stories. So, each day is a tussle. Of course, on certain days, it feels so much better to think maybe one should go to Canada. Of course, this is imagining that there are no issues in Canada…. just imagining that maybe utopia is somewhere else and it's comforting on certain days to say, let me just go somewhere else and we'll all be fine—knowing fully well that everywhere we have our challenges, and we have opportunities everywhere.”

LGBTQ diversity and inclusion

“About 4% to 10% of any population happens to be LGBTQ. So there are lots of queer people in the world. But the way the world is structured, the way schools, colleges, families, workplaces imagine themselves… we don't imagine for this diversity…

“It's been a whirlwind journey in terms of the law… we had the 2009 judgment and it was legal to be queer in India… Since then, we had the 2013 judgment which overruled it, a 2014 positive judgment [which declared transgenders the 'third gender', and affirmed their fundamental rights], a 2017 right to privacy, and a 2018 section 377 judgment. The law has changed so much. I have seen corporate India change dramatically, in terms of intent… there's enough data in terms of innovation, in terms of attracting talent. All across corporate India, people recognize that LGBTQ inclusion is a good thing. But I think a lot of work needs to be done in how that intent is translated into action.”

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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