FREEDOM WITHIN A FRAMEWORK: Meet Blossoming Entrepreneur Vani Krishnamurthy (HBS ’07)

I meet Vani Krishnamurthy (HBS ’07) in New York City’s West Village bright and early one rainy Sunday morning. A former Fulbright Scholar to Chennai, India and a professional Indian classical dancer, Vani recently launched her own entrepreneurial venture after spending four years in management consulting.

Sidestepping puddles and sprinting the three blocks from the ACE subway stop to the coffee shop, I arrive soaking wet from head to toe desperately wishing I had brought an umbrella. Luckily, Vani does not seem to notice. She arrives a few minutes later donning rain boots, an umbrella, and a warm smile.

Vani moves with a dancer’s grace, neatly folding herself into one of the wooden chairs. The aroma of coffee and pumpkin spice muffins wafts through the air. I savor the warmth of my latte as Vani excitedly launches into a description of the motivation behind her latest business undertaking-a consulting venture for arts organizations and creative entrepreneurs.

While at Harvard Business School, Vani spent the summer between her two years of business school at New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts as a Social Enterprise Fellow. There, she worked on a multilingual outreach program-crafting a marketing strategy to draw multilingual audiences through the door.

Through the years she has also worked with smaller dance companies and individuals, and realized that she holds a unique credibility among the ranks of artists. This led to the genesis of Vani’s own venture in August 2009.

“Knowing that I am a dancer at heart, they [creative organizations] trust that my business advice will allow the organization to maintain the integrity of its creative ideas. I am able to strike a unique balance between trusting the creative process while bolstering it with management tools and practices,” said Vani.

Vani describes one of her immediate objectives as to harness her clients’ creative inspirations and fine-tune and structure them so that they can become a reality.

“In order to make these lasting impressions, creative organizations must spend time and invest in thinking strategically. This requires a few things-taking a step back and forming a more macro-view on the concept and the type of impact they’d like to make, the audiences they want to attract, the resources they need to make it all happen continuously and sustainably, and a reasonable way to implement all of their plans,” said Vani.

In the long-term, Vani is interested in applying these frameworks to the creation and management of cultural diplomacy initiatives-using arts, culture, and media to create mutual understanding between nations and people.

She believes that many creative organizations have the potential to make tremendous contributions to society, to push the public to view the world through a different lens, encourage open-mindedness and understanding, and help us envision the future as it could be.

HARBUS: So right off the bat, what sparked the idea for this venture?

VANI KRISHNAMURTHY (VK): I realized that I’m naturally someone who sits somewhere between being left- and right-brained. I’m passionate about the arts and the creative process, having been an Indian classical dancer for over 20 years, including professionally for the last five. However, I also attended Harvard Business School and worked at BCG and Bain. In the past, when I was entrenched in either environment fully-working with Indian dancers and scholars on the Fulbright in 2004 or being a consultant at Bain and BCG, I felt like something was missing. Within my time at Bain, I started being approached with freelance projects. I realized I could have the best of both worlds-to be involved with the creative process in these organizations, but then use my skills in administration to give them what they most need.

Because I’m a dancer, creative organizations felt I could be trusted to take their creative inspirations and not bastardize them. I would maintain the creative integrity of their inspiration and harness it in a way that allowed them to be even more creative. I’m able to strike a unique balance between trusting the creative process and bolstering it with management tools and practices. There’s a term I use that applies to Indian classical dance: Freedom within a Framework.

The way I would like to make a contribution in this specific realm is to work with as many creative organizations as possible-big and small-your one-man art shows to Lincoln Centers, and I want to construct frameworks for how you could manage creativity and how you could think about creativity in an organization.

HARBUS: Have you faced any big challenges thus far?

VK: Downturns present opportunities. If anything, the economic downturn has created ways for this business to survive and new ideas for me to envision its growth. In essence, it goes back to the “Freedom within a Framework” concept. The economy imposes a constraint, which requires me to be even more creative in finding opportunities for my business.

For example, some of my larger clients see the benefit of my services and would normally hire someone full-time. However, with the downturn, a consultant works better for them financially.

As for my smaller clients, they are so strapped for cash, that I have found ways to connect them with family foundations that would like to see the organizations flourish with the help of my services.

Mentors at HBS were invaluable in providing me with advice and encouragement in embarking on my venture at this time. Professor Nitin Nohria, in particular, has always been committed to my progression in this field-making time to give me his perspectives, connect me to the right people, and keep me confident in my endeavors.

He told me that downturns create opportunities. They open up pockets or niches, where if you occupy them at the right time, you can flourish in a way that other companies or organizations or people cannot in a regular economy. I really took this to heart. When you push within constraints, you end up pushing yourself to be creative to discover these pockets of opportunities.

HARBUS: Your day-to-day must be so different from when you were at BCG or Bain. What are the pros and cons of being an entrepreneur?

VK: There were two times in my life when I was truly happy in a professional sense: When I was on my Fulbright and my second year of HBS.

On my Fulbright, I learned what keeps me ticking, what keeps me awake at night, and what keeps me motivated on a day-to-day basis.

First, what keeps me ticking is having this end goal in mind. With the Fulbright, it was producing a coffee table book. That was the end goal I was working towards.

Second, what kept me up at night was uncertainty, not knowing certain elements. I did my Fulbright in India, which is an extremely chaotic place. People would promise one thing one day, and the next day it dies. Or they tell me “yes” one day and “no” the next.

Third, I aim to have one coffee, lunch, social or dinner every single day. That keeps me motivated. Whether that is with a potential client, an actual client, or a friend. That interaction, forming connections with people, keeps me ticking.

I need to have all three things present. I need to have a larger goal-creating frameworks that enable organizations or artists. What keeps me up at night now is the uncertainty of whether or not I’ll have a project. The way I managed that risk was getting a client that was totally unrelated to the arts-an education counseling company-that is a very stable business that gives me a steady flow of income every month. It’s only about 30 to 40 percent of my time. Then I don’t have to stay awake at night. The third thing is having those human interactions every single day.

HARBUS: Do you find yourself applying any lessons you learned at HBS to your current venture?

VK: Reading thousands and thousands of cases and being asked to think about a variety of problems within two years really did give me the confidence to approach my own clients’ needs in a determined and tenacious way. There’s a confidence that your clients develop in you, and that you develop in yourself to come up with an answer. It achieves so much credibility with your clients.

HBS has amazing professors. I mentioned Nitin Nohria. Youngme Moon also sends me such wonderful words of encouragement.

The professors at HBS are really rooting for you. I think they are really proud of students taking their strengths and using them in an interesting way.

The incredible HBS network. When people say networking, they mean talking to your friends and creating relationships that you enjoy, and something positive comes of it. It’s a natural thing that happens when someone cares about you, and cares about your work, and just wants to help you. I feel so blessed.

HARBUS: Do you have any advice in navigating the job search process?

VK: I have two pieces of advice.

Don’t feel constrained by what is before you. Use all the resources before you. Be creative. Use the Job Bank to the fullest, and then think beyond the Job Bank.

Remember that having a greater goal might require you to eat your spinach. You might not immediately get to exactly where you want to be-but work at taking small steps toward your greater goal.

Kay Fukunaga was born and raised in Hawaii. She attended Dartmouth College and worked as an economist in New York prior to HBS.