#73: Storytelling, standing out, and doing no harm
A Q&A with Anjali Ramachandran
Longtime readers will know that many Pass It On Q&A guests don’t fit neatly into the tech or non-profit bucket. That’s part of the point—to show that the lines are blurrier than we realise, that we have more in common than we might think.
This week’s guest, Anjali Ramachandran, is one such person. Former Head of Innovation at PHD Media, Anjali is currently a director at the audience strategy and content production company Storythings, where she’s worked with non-profit clients ranging from The Rockefeller Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to tech companies like ADP and Experian. Anjali is also the co-founder of Ada’s List, the 10,000+ strong women-in-STEM community that recently merged with US-based community Tech Ladies, and a trustee at tech non-profit Chayn, a global organisation supporting survivors of gender-based violence. (Chayn’s CEO, Hera Hussain, was a Q&A guest last year.) On top of all of this, Anjali is an angel investor focusing on underrepresented founders and the creator of her own Substack,, where she writes about creative and technology news outside of the US, UK, and Europe.
In addition to being an impressive leader, Anjali is a lifelong student of stories. Her ability to understand the power and mechanics of storytelling, and draw from the breadth of her professional experience, made for a fascinating conversation. I hope you enjoy it.
You believe that storytelling can have a significant impact on impact-focused organisations. How do you define storytelling? And what does it look like when it's done right?
Storytelling is how you bring the impact that you are making—or want to make—to life. It's a vital part of community-building, especially in today's world. Thanks to constantly changing algorithms and monetised technology platforms, reaching an audience is getting harder and harder. That's why having a direct line to your audience (whether through your own newsletters, podcasts, or similar) is so important.
When you get storytelling right, people understand why you exist. They can explain who you are and what you do to others without you being there. They help you grow by bringing more people into your community.
One example from Storythings is Nevertheless—a podcast and platform we created to hero the less-heard stories about women in STEM. On top of the podcast, we commissioned women illustrators from eight countries to create posters. They were downloaded over a million times. People put them up in classrooms, workplaces, even the atrium of the Frost Science Museum in Miami! When people feel seen and want to express themselves through objects or content, they will take the stories you tell to places you don't expect.
Another major advantage of storytelling is that it can lead to heightened global awareness of challenging, complex issues. Take women's health. Commercial incentives aside, we can still appreciate the consequences of brands like Dove and Bodyform taking a stand. Were their projects perfect? Absolutely not. But they got the world talking about taboo topics, and that's a positive thing.
What's the biggest challenge within non-profit marketing today? Are these challenges any different from those in the tech world?
The single biggest challenge is having the courage to stand out. Like tech companies, so many non-profits are working in similar spaces. If you want to make a difference, you need to stand out.
The first step to standing out is a clear audience strategy. Too many marketing campaigns fail because they try to speak to everyone. At Storythings, we always do solid audience research before developing a content strategy. We look at how attention patterns are evolving and what a specific audience's media interests are. What platforms are they using? What might make them share something with a friend? Only after that groundwork do we get into production—we have confidence in what will resonate.
Even with the right audience strategy, daring to stand out is hard. Perhaps that's why shock tactics and pity-evoking are still present in many charity campaigns—it's a safe model. How can non-profits increase their discomfort level?
Daring to be different is easier said than done. One way to build the confidence is by practicing outside of work. Could you try something that gets you out of your comfort zone on a personal level? It will build your courage and, with time, empower you to challenge yourself and others professionally.
Another tactic is to expose yourself to different ideas. After all, the best and most popular ideas are rarely 100% original—they're the product of multiple sources of inspiration. Talent borrows, genius steals!
Pro tip: subscribe to theSubstack by my friends Rosie and Faris Yakob.
If you spot a successful campaign or innovative idea, go one step further and ask yourself what made it great. This week, I spotted a fantastic piece of work from London’s Southwark Council called Through Her Eyes, a campaign to combat sexual harassment. The message resonates because of the psychological work it requires you to do. Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean. It reminded me of David Allain’s work and the Fake Views - Operation Black Vote video he directed to encourage people to vote.
At Storythings, we've built a habit around unpacking great ideas with our. In each issue, we take successful creative formats and break them down, and that constant analysis helps us come up with better, more unexpected ideas for our clients. Creativity is a muscle. If you want to build it, it helps to have some skin in the game!
New to Pass It On? Why not join us for free:
I want to turn to your story now. What led you to start Ada’s List in 2013? If you could travel back in time and give your younger founder self one piece of advice, what would you say?
There are four co-founders behind Ada's List: Merici Vinton, Nicki Sprinz, Rosa Birch, and myself. Initially, we wanted to create a place for women in tech to get together. A space where women operators could ask questions they might be uncomfortable asking their male colleagues, find out about upcoming events, learn about open roles. We also wanted women journalists to find sources for stories and women entrepreneurs to find co-founders.
Over time, Ada's List evolved into something much bigger. We realised that we didn't only want women in tech to meet; we wanted them to advocate—first for themselves, then their colleagues, and eventually for their industry. Ada's List had 10,000+ members when it merged with Tech Ladies last year. I'm proud of the impact it's had on so many people's lives.
If I could go back and advise myself as a new founder, I would say: take the time to think more strategically about growth. Ada's List was, for the most part, a volunteer project. We had this amazing community for whom we were doing bigger and better things, such as our annual conferences, in our spare time. I don't think any of us envisioned that Ada's List would grow as much and organically as it did. Front-loading the conversation about the possibilities and consequences of growth would have been extremely useful.
Free exposure doesn't pay the bills, and it's downright insulting when you're asked to do it for a profit-making event or a company that has raised several rounds of funding or has IPO'ed.
What, if at all, do you wish the tech sector understood better about the non-profit sector and vice versa?
I wish the tech sector understood that the non-profit sector also needs to make money to survive and make change. I can't tell you the number of non-profit people I know who've been invited to speak at conferences for free to enhance the 'diversity' quota. Or who've been asked to run free training programs in exchange for 'exposure.' Exposure doesn't pay the bills, and it's downright insulting when you're asked to do it for a profit-making event or a company that has raised several rounds of funding or has IPO'ed. It also perpetuates the economic imbalance between men and women—men often ask for a fee and get paid for these appearances, while women don't ask, so don't get paid. And so the cycle continues.
On the flip side, I wish the non-profit sector embraced more agile ways of working to get more work out of the door faster. Too many non-profits are too beholden to bureaucracy, and it's slowing them down. Ultimately, this comes down to culture. I think many non-profits would benefit from reading the culture manifestos of tech companies like Netflix and Spotify.
How can the tech and non-profit sectors come closer together?
The best technology exists to make people's lives easier and better in some way. Non-profits exist to improve people's lives, too. So step one is realising that, in some sense, we have common goals.
I'd love to see more organisations leveraging technology in service of the community—in an intentional way that doesn't harm anyone. A great example is Karya, a non-profit data startup in India. Self-defined as “the world’s first ethical data company,” Karya's approach to selling data to big tech companies is different.* Instead of keeping lots of cash for profit, they cover costs and give the rest to the poorer rural communities in India. On top of a higher-than-average minimum hourly wage, Karya lets its workers own the data they create. Whenever that data gets resold, the workers get the proceeds on top of their salaries. Karya / कार्य is the Sanskrit word for "work that gives one dignity." Check out the recent deep dive in TIME magazine.
“This is not some dream for a fictional better world. We can pay our workers 20 times the minimum wage, and still be a sustainable organization.” — Manu Chopra, CEO of Karya.
Another example is Chayn, whose CEO Hera you interviewed last year, and where I'm a trustee. Chayn leverages technology to help trauma survivors of gender-based violence across borders. Our approach centres around transparency, participatory design, and community-driven decisions. Many of the volunteers creating resources are survivors themselves, and we invite our volunteers to our operational and strategy meetings.
*Big tech companies buy data from companies to train their AI models.
Which three books or other media have impacted you most as a leader and why?
Brené Brown's Dare to Lead — because leading effectively starts with learning to be your true self. I have found it incredibly hard as a woman to be vulnerable. It's still not something that comes naturally to me, but I'm slowly trying.
Amy Edmondson's TED talk on how to turn a group of strangers into a team — because it is one of the hardest, most impactful things a leader can do. If you get it right, you can unlock so much productivity.
They Got Acquired podcast — because there's so much to learn from leaders who successfully sell a business. This podcast has introduced me to companies and entrepreneurs I'd never heard of yet but am very inspired by. If you like this podcast, you'll also like Gimlet Media's Startup.
Thanks so much for reading!