The Conversation with Ranjeet Pratap Singh: Using DEI as a strategic lever at Pratilipi
Pratilipi is India’s largest self-publishing platform. The platform, covering 12 Indian languages, caters to the needs of the next half billion (NHB) internet users in India, with a mission to create an engaged community connecting readers and writers in local languages. Millions of people are using Pratilipi to discover, express and share their stories.
Pratilipi is addressing barriers that the NHB, and in particular women, face in going online and realising the power of the internet. Besides enabling thousands of Indian language writers to augment their income by monetising their IP across multiple formats, Pratilipi is an important proof-point in creating an inclusive and trusted online space for women.
Roopa Kudva spoke to Ranjeet Pratap Singh, Co-founder & CEO, Pratilipi on how the use of DEI as a strategic lever has helped them shape and strengthen their business.
Q1. Can you give us a sense of the profile of your users - the 30 million readers and 600,000+ writers on Pratilipi?
Our readers and writers come from all walks of life across different dimensions like gender, age, geography and financial status. A key highlight is that ~60% of our writers and 55% of our readers are women. 80 of our top 100 writers are women.
Beyond gender, the age profile of our readers and writers is diverse too. ~50% of our readers are aged between 18-34 years but we also have 11% readers above the age of 55 years. 60% of our writers are between ages 18-34.
Geographically, 97% of users are from India. Within India, about half our readers and 60% of writers live in the top 7 cities, leaving a significant proportion of our readers (50%) and writers (40%) from smaller towns and villages.
Q2. Did you consciously set out to build a user base with a significant proportion of women or was that something that happened organically?
In the beginning, it happened entirely organically. However, in 2017 you (Roopa and Omidyar Network India) challenged us to think more deeply about why this was the case and how that should impact our product and business strategy.
Once we dug in to the data and spoke with our users we learnt that most online platforms of today are primarily geared towards the interests of young men. Pratilipi being a horizontal interest-based platform, had become one of the places that women could call home. For a large part of our women users, Pratilipi plays the same role that TV used to play -- our two biggest readership peaks are during the typical TV prime time slots (lunch / dinner).
Q3. How did the understanding of your user profile impact your thinking and approach to the business?
Once we became conscious about our user profile, we started focusing on two key points. Since a large part of our audience is women and young people, we emphasised fostering the feelings of trust, safety and general positive emotions when people use the Pratilipi platform. As an example, almost everything about the user profile in Pratilipi is optional -- you don’t have to enter any information if you don’t want to. Similarly, reviews and comments with positive messaging get more visibility than negative ones.
Second, given our very diverse user base, it was very important for us to keep our product as simple and intuitive as possible.
When we launch a new language, we don’t just translate the features or communication, we also pay attention to the larger regional context to make it relatable for our users.
Q4. Give us a sense of the diversity in your own organisation (e.g., staff, Board)
We probably have one of the most diverse teams amongst start-ups in India across several dimensions including gender, age, geography, economic status, educational background etc.
Nearly a third of our staff identify as female. We have women in key leadership roles like Head of Product, VP-Engineering, Head of Legal, Head of Product for Pratilipi FM, and business head for IVM Podcasts. Nearly one-third of our team is below the age of 25; this includes the leaders of Pratilipi Comics and Write Order. Some of our business heads have been founders in the past, while for other leaders, Pratilipi is the first company they have worked in. Many engineers in Pratilipi do not have a Computer Science degree, some don’t have any engineering degree at all.
We have consistently received very high Net Promoter Scores (NPS) in team surveys conducted both internally and by independent third parties, ranging between 67 to 89. I believe that it is at-least in part due to the diversity we have.
Q5. Can you highlight some people practices at Pratilipi that promote diversity?
When we are hiring or promoting people, we don’t just look at their skills and experience, we also consider where they are coming from -- their past experiences and the challenges they have faced.
We have seen that when you focus on the “whole of the person” including their past journeys instead of focusing just on the present, it leads to much greater diversity.
As a simple example, typically we see that that everything else being the same, the struggles of a girl, a person from a less affluent background or someone not from a top tier school are much higher than for a boy, a richer person or someone fortunate to go to a top-tier school.
Second, Pratilipi has very few set-in-stone policies. Instead we treat people as mature adults who can decide what works best for them and their teams. This makes Pratilipi a good place to work for people who have diverse backgrounds and personalities.
Q6. How would you describe the culture at Pratilipi? What are the 2-3 key pillars you would identify?
Our culture primarily stems from our company values. Our first value probably determines half of our culture. It’s simply stated as “always try and do the right thing”. It is intentionally subjective and it intentionally focuses on “trying” against “achieving”. We encourage people to be themselves while doing the right thing (in their own best judgement) by others.
A second value is to encourage people to be transparent, open and curious. This helps us all learn from each other and keeps us accountable to ourselves as well as to others.
A third value at Pratilipi is high ownership and accountability. This works brilliantly for people who are themselves fiercely independent and are willing to match that with a high degree of ownership and accountability.
Q7. What are the advantages of such a culture and how do you connect this culture to Pratilipi’s overall strategy?
The major advantages of our culture are that people learn and grow at a faster rate. They don’t have to worry about watching their backs, so they feel more relaxed and motivated. And they form closer bonds with their colleagues.
As a result of all this, people who work at Pratilipi are generally very entrepreneurial. Pratilipi’s strategy is predicated on building an ecosystem, not just a single product, so people being entrepreneurial is almost a pre-requisite for us.
Q8. What do you think it will take to preserve this culture in the long term? How do/will you institutionalise this?
This has been one of my biggest worries, but we have made strong progress here. Our culture may have started with the co-founders and the early team, however, now it has become a part of organization’s muscle memory and is one of our biggest strengths.
Almost everyone who works in our org for more than a few months becomes a cultural flagbearer, because they imbibe the culture from the existing cultural flagbearers.
I do still think a lot about whether this organic process will sustain as markets, ways of working (e.g. remote work), our own team grows or our scope changes. We have included a few practices to try and have guard rails around this but it is an area where we will need to continue to learn and evolve.
Q9. How are decisions made in Pratilipi? How do you ensure diverse voices are represented in decision-making?
Our decision making process is fairly simple. Whoever is closest to the decision (or whoever will be most impacted by that decision) gets to make that decision. It is obviously not a representative way of decision making (we try to take care of that by virtue of our first core value - always try to do the right thing), nor is it the most efficient decision making process. However, we believe that this is the most effective way of decision making for our context, since this gives people more independence and forces them to be more accountable.
As an example, one of our engineers wanted to move to product management. Since he was one of our best engineers, it wasn’t an efficient move from the company’s perspective. But both he and the product lead made that decision. As it turned out it wasn’t the best move at that time, and he quickly moved from product to business. However, it has turned out to be a good decision now as his learnings as a product manager help him in his new role as the head of Pratilipi Comics.
Q10. Finally, how would you explain the importance of DEI as a strategic lever to a new founder? What would your advice to them be on getting started with DEI?
My advice would be to just to start from first principles. Read as much as you can, speak to as many people who you think do a good job, have informal chats with your own colleagues and then figure out what works best for your specific context. So much of what we do at Pratilipi is what we have learnt from other companies and organisations and we are just trying to push the bar a little bit further. So newer founders and leaders can hopefully learn from us and take it further still.
When you start thinking from first principles, you know that diversity is better both for your business and for the broader world. And true diversity (as against tokenism) can’t exist without equity and inclusion.
I see that leaders either want to be perfect or they give up saying it is challenging and risky, so why even try.
To them I would say -- you are a founder, you have already learnt that being embarrassed from your first product release is a feature not a bug.
Good products come from thoughtful and long-term evolution. Think of culture and DEI similarly. You don’t need to be perfect, you need to start and then continuously and consciously evolve over the long term.