Friday, July 22, 2016

Meeting Abhinay Renny - The Man Behind TEDx VNR VJIET (And Other Things)

Abhinay Renny has just graduated from VNR VJIET. The young mechanical engineer added a few more tags while finishing his engineering course - tags of novelist, poet, basket ball player, romantic, altruist and ideator. He is also the TEDx licensee for the event conducted at VNR VJIET on April 2, 2016. I have been intrigued by what he does and why and wanted to catch up - I'd never have done anything like the above and not many would too, at that age.
Me and Abhinay
Abhinay now has job with the TCS. I figure that it must have been an eventful 4 years at college that must have come to an end. (Somehow I feel a bit of the sadness I felt when I left college to go into the world - wonder why?) Abhinay hopes to do his Masters in the US. As we chat at home, he comes across with intelligent observations, candid and transparent ways and a pleasant and peaceful demeanour. Also what comes across strongly is his learning mindset (I always say I don't know - I don't even know the meanings of some of the words I wrote in my book! he says) in the way he speaks about books, issues or the way he records our conversations. Quietly. Unobtrusively.

I asked him what made him go and get a TEDx licence and conduct the event. He said that the story actually began earlier than the TEDx event. It began with his writing journey. And his writing journey began with a railway journey that never happened because he and his his basketball teammate Vikas missed the train. Ok, to put the horse before the cart, it all started when the VNR VJIET team had to play arch rivals St. Martins in a final. Vikas was selected to play an Inter varsity basket ball game for JNTU in Orissa - but stayed back to play the important game for VNR VJIET. (If they won, they promised he'd get to fly!) Unfortunately the team lost and with it all promises of flying to Orissa too. With little time to lose and little money (and a low battery charge), the two boys sped away to the railway station in their basketball clothes to get Vikas to Orissa in time. Vikas was a good basketball player but was unfamiliar with the process of getting to Orissa without tickets. And that's when Abhinay's altruistic nature kicked in.

You see, you can't do things in petty measures. You have to do them by the heartfuls. Abhinay Renny had no business going with his friend really. But he seems like the type who will always go beyond the call of duty.

The train was missed. The boys somehow went to Vijayawada railway station with general tickets, missed trains, got into wrong trains, finally got the right train, pleaded with hostile ticket collectors, got space in the general compartment and finally got a hesitant Vikas going to his destination.

'I returned to Hyderabad with little money, still in my basketball clothes and went and drew some money from the ATM. Straight to the hotel and I ordered a biryani. I must have looked a sight!' he said.

Why would he do that? I don't know. But that's the kind of a person this boy seems to be. Vikas, is so big, but he cannot handle this stuff sir, felt Abhinay, who feels that its his duty in a team of eight of ten to help. So the slightly built, energetic Abhinay helps his team member along, going to Vijayawada too.

After he returned, he decided to write about this experience of missing trains. He went home in the holidays and he wrote and wrote for 20 days. 24000 words he says proudly. He also remembers his mother feeding him as he consumed page after page.

Abhinay says - 'I had no idea what a novel was, what a novella was and how to get published. I checked google and got all the information and went ahead and got it published. I found a free publishing site in the US called Create Space and they helped make my book a reality.'

The boy who did not like reading much and who thought people who read books must get a life was slowly converted into a reader, a writer. Much credit must go to his friend Swathi who got him reading books like AR Rahman's biography and Ramanujam's biography. (She reminded me of Anjali who somehow selflessly buys gifts for her friends.) 'Somehow the idea of One-world got formed in my head,' he said. 'That's a theme that stayed with me.' It's a good theme to hold young man.

Two of the speakers - Ramana Gogula and Sandhya Kode 
For his book launch at the college on August 18, 2015, a big event where the Principal and Board members came, Abhinay invited me as the Chief guest and I was glad to go. It was a fine program. I did not expect to see much more of Renny really. Why would anyone? A book written and published while in the final year. What more could anyone do?

But then, I did not know Abhinay Renny well then.

Within the year, or say, a few months, the boy wrote another book 'Rainy Summer'. But before that, he applied for a license to host a TEDx event at his college. VNR VJIET was to be the third college in Hyderabad after IIT, Hyderabad and BITS Pilani, Hyderabad. With a word from his senior Tejaswi Reddy who, before she left for Dubai, spoke to Renny and told him that he must conduct the TEDx event to improve the college reputation , Renny took it upon himself.

'I wrote to all TEDx licensees in India to get some information and got some information - most of which was misleading,' he laughs. 'They said it would cost some 5-6 lakhs. Where can we get that kind of money from?'

To make matters worse, most people he met were doomsday predictors who said - No way, this will not happen. Be it students, lecturers or whoever, the predictions were gloomy.
"It was almost as if they were afraid that it might just happen,' he said with surprising clarity.

Undaunted, Abhinay got a small team of like minded people to help him - Meghna, Samhitha, Charsisma, Vineeth. 'I was very clear I wanted a team that would listen.' But at that stage there was nothing - no permission from the college, no license. Just a dream. And a team.

Permission at college was getting tough because there was protocol, disbelief and red tape. He had to convince people that an event that was not a festival, and not a money spinner, was actually good for the college. Time was running out because if he wanted to do the event before he left he needed the license from TED, the permission from the college and then actually organise the event before his final exams in April 2016. On top of all this, there were exams and there were placements. By December, Abhinay Renny decided, I need to get this license sorted out.

Then after some more work and being assured that he could pull it off, Renny filled in an online application to TED. His application came up for review (he had to book a slot for interview which normally comes after a three week gap) in a midnight interview. The interview did not go well, and his first attempt failed.

The first rejection was a blow but he was asked to speak to the TED Hyderabad organiser. He did. 'I was seven minutes late to meet him and that delay set me back by an hour and a half,' recalls Renny.
'He is a busy ophthalmologist. I made up my mind then and there that I would be as busy and important as he was one day.'
Speakers, Abhinay and VNR VJIET Management

After a few words and a recommendation from the TED Hyderabad organiser, Abhinay applied again (and still without permission from the college - the boy was still winging it). This time he got the license after another long interview. Now that he was in business, one would think all would be well. But after the license came the drama of getting the college to give its nod still remained. Apologies, protocols, permissions, budgets. At a time when Abhinay Renny found himself giving up almost, he found inspiration from his senior Anurag who asked him to be clear about his purpose - and also asked him to watch the Simon Sinek TED talk 'Start with Why'. TED helped itself in that sense.

Clearer about his purpose and much inspired by Sinek's brilliant TED talk, Renny went about picking his speakers and being clear on the theme of ideas and not personalities. 'My purpose was that I wanted to change the thought process,' says Renny clearly.

Costs were high *Rs. 2 lakh at least), funding was low but he kept his cool and his team supported him throughout. Finally he got his money, his support, his event. Unshell, was the theme. In fact at a critical moment when he was stuck with no money Abhinay recalls that the coordinator gave money from his pocket. 'Murli sir gave me sixty thousand from his pocket,' he recalls. At the same time, Abhinay, frustrated as the D day was approaching, shot off an emotional mail at 1 am to the secretary Mr. Prasad. He received a reply at 130 from Mr. Prasad who was abroad then, with cc to all others involved. That got things started moving,

'We curated an audience of 100,' said Abhinay. 'From 600 applications we picked 100. They paid 500 bucks each to attend.'
I did not know that. Wow!

'Picking the speakers was an interesting experience. There were many who wanted celebrities. But TED is clear - the ideas are more important. I did not want to compromise on that. Ideas must be original, worth sharing,' he says.

'All through I kept my mind clear about my purpose, my why - to change the thought process,' Abhinay says. 'That's the line I used everywhere - with my management, with TED in the interview. The 5 minute talk with Anurag and his showing me the importance of purpose changed the outcome.'

The D day was April 2, 2016. It all went well for Renny and the team. A big job done.

I remember they were ice cool about it. Every box was ticked, every whim was indulged. Like Meghna who would call me in all that chaos and coolly check - whether I would want transport - the last call at 1130 pm the night before had to be one with a checklist. 99 out of 100 would have skipped that call but not she. When the right energy happens, It all unfolds perfectly. the air, the atmosphere, the energy was perfect. I told my friends that I have not seen such professionalism any where else. Abhinay himself gave a fitting thank you speech which was as good or better than any talk that day.

The story was fantastic to hear from the man himself.
'My turning point for thinking I could pull this off was my writing my first book in 20 days sir,' says Abhinay. 'I felt I could do anything if I could do that.'

Ah, smells like ownership.

I asked Abhinay, who spoke to me through the day, if he could share his tale of ownership with the team from Gap Miners. Abhinay said he would be happy to. Like a seasoned pro he got into the act, spoke beautifully and honestly about his journey and connected amazingly well with the audience.

'I always say I don't know... I told my placement officers that I know little about languages but I will learn... I spoke about Pawan Kalyan in my job interview.... I just organised myself and worked backwards to get the event done as per plan.'

I could see it had a huge impact on the audience and I knew this boy was now a seasoned speaker himself. More importantly he understood ownership, was extremely adaptable and had a learning mindset. He quickly picked what was required, spoke those points, did not get flustered and delivered tellingly. Not a word more, not a word less. Superb stuff.

'I went to Infosys Mysore where they had a TED conference. I was impressed that a thought, an idea like TED could be a bigger brand than Infosys. If we do what we believe in with focus, I guess the world will chase us,' he says.

I could not but help give him copies of all my books. If anyone deserves them, he does. Well done Abhinay Renny and team TEDx VNR VJIET and I am sure you will do great work wherever you go and impact many hundreds of lives as you flit by unassumingly, unaffectedly. Take a bow!


Anonymous said...

Wonderful Stuff.....Abhinay's story; his basketball trip, the book, his chase for the TED license, all very inspirational. Kudos Abhinay!! Also the insightfulness and sensitivity with which it's been written. Touches deep.

Harimohan said...

Thanks Anon. :)

naveen said...

Abhinay and team achieved extraordinary considering the constraints. I also like how you narrate such events - close to real experience.

Thanks you.

Harimohan said...

Yes Naveen. Rock stars all of them. :)

Rajendra said...

The toughest permissions to get are those closest to you- the institute, home...

Harimohan said...

Yes. Our biggest teachers. What would we be without them? :)

.C said...

Very well narrated, Harimohan gaarU, as usual! I have always liked the way you eloquently make it a very natural flow. I am glad that I had a role in bringing Abhinay to you. :) I am happy for the boy that he has found an inspiring mentor of sorts in you. Kudos to you, sir!

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing the insights sir. was glad to be there at Unshell. Abhinay :)

Harimohan said...

Thanks Sadanand. For being there and for visiting the blog and leaving your acknowledgement here too! Keep coming. :)

Harimohan said...

Thanks so much C. I am really amazed at the way we connected long ago and how one thing led to another. Abhinay's book launch, the TEDx experience, meeting a whole lot of young, wonderful people at your college - its been a ride that's opened up and keeps opening up new possibilities every day. I am so thrilled to be on it and to share and learn. :)

So - its actually many thanks to you for setting me off on this ride and the many associations it brings up everyday. Thanks so much - some 60 fold - because that's about how many wonderful people I met I think.