Malini Gowrishankar: From IT to Voice-overs to Travel Entrepreneurship and back to IT

I chose the name ‘Uncommon Transitions’ in the plural to showcase the plurality of transitions across a group of people, not a single person. And the trend so far has been exactly that: each person has had one major transition. But my guest in this episode breaks that trend, and how! Over a career spanning sixteen years, Malini Gowrishankar has been through multiple transitions spanning very different fields. She started in IT, then became a Voice-Over artist, dabbled in between as a Radio Jockey, founded a travel company for women travellers in India, and now she’s back in IT part-time in a very different role to the one she began her career in. 

I love this conversation for the way it brings out Malini’s curiosity to see what’s on the other side, her drive to embrace heterogeneity, her desire for social impact, and her business acumen which she’s developed not through some fancy MBA program but by building businesses and their brands from scratch. I learned so much from this insightful conversation, and I hope you do too.

This podcast is hosted on Buzzsprout and is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast players.

More on Malini’s vocations and public appearances

Voice-over Website: Voice of Malini

Travel website: F5 Escapes

TEDx Talk: Pushing Margins

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

When I was looking at your profile, it struck me that when I compare your profile to the others whom I have interviewed on this podcast, the kind of transitions and the number of transitions you’ve been through is very different. To use your own words on your website, you say your “career graph is quite strange. My experience spans multiple industries – 7 years in IT industry, over a decade in voice-overs and 7 years in travel.”  We’ll spend some time on all those as we go through your career arc, but I want to start with the voice-over part — one, because you are in the voice-over industry right now and secondly, it is probably something not many people know too much about. So what does a voice-over artist do, and how does a day in the life of a voice-over artist look like?

Honestly speaking I never even thought that one day I would actually be asked to speak about this journey of uncommon transitions. So, thank you for starting this podcast, and I feel validated in a way that all these jumps have indeed been very fruitful and it looks interesting and potentially helpful to other people with their career journeys.

Coming to the voice-over industry, I did not know that there is an industry called voice-overs. I had a lot of exposure to media as a teenager but that was where it stopped. I was happily in the IT industry but sometime in 2006, someone told me that you have a good voice and you should probably try voice-overs. This was at a studio where I went to record my singing voice so they said there is an opportunity why don’t you do it? So I asked what is voiceover and what do I do? And they told me what they currently have is a project which involves lending a voice to the character of Parvati which was a series of Ganesha stories. This was an animated CD ROMs project, and I said yes and that is how the first voiceover happened.

Over the years, I realized that this industry is not just limited to animated CD ROMs, this industry that encompasses multiple applications which include audio books, radio jingles, television commercials, telephone IVRs and many more. So that is how I got into the voice-over industry and that is exactly what voice-over means. You lend your voice to all these different applications.

All these things you mentioned like radio jingles, TV commercials and so on — it is a broad list that I saw on your website. Do you have any preferences for the kind of voiceover projects you do?

As I told you, I started off with an Animated CD ROMs. My voice use to be a lot shriller a decade ago, so my voice perfectly fit the bill for a young girl or a parrot or a dog so for those kinds of voices. So, strangely I started my voice-over career giving voice to several of these cartoon characters.

While I was exploring voice-over as a hobby, I also took up e-earning project where you narrate a corporate learning module or something like that. So, e-learning pays by the hour and it requires hours and hours of voicing. After doing few hundred of hours of e-learning, I realized this is not something I would want to do in the long term as it was a lot of strain on the voice. So that was when I started looking at projects that require a lot of modulation and voice acting which include radio jingles, television commercials — where the actual voicing part is very minimal but it requires a lot of skill.

Building one’s own personal brand is a learning I think every single person should get at some point in their lifetime, because it is an incredible learning… And building a brand is easier when you can offer multiple related services.

So I transitioned into that aspect of voice over, and today I’d call myself as commercial voice as I do a lot of explainer videos, social media promotions, radio, TV commercials and so on. So, that is where I am most comfortable, and I try to avoid projects that require hours and hours of usage of your voice which is also not very good for your voice in the long run.

In the context of this podcast, I was also thinking about my own experiences with listening to people who have done this kind of voice-overs, and couple of instances come to mind. One is the museum audio guide. You have done this medium as well and I found that interesting because unlike others, this is something where you immerse yourself. You go into a museum, you take up this audio piece and that voice stays with you through the journey of your museum tour.

The other thing is film dubbing. The German film industry (unlike others where they subtitle most of the foreign language films), tends to dub foreign films. In my early years in Germany, I used to watch some of them on TV just to get familiar with the German language, and what I noticed is that somehow across different character, different actors playing different roles, the voice seemed the same. It was a little jarring at the beginning, before I realized that it is the same dubbing artist who has been used across different roles! Have you done some film dubbing as well?

I have done few short films one or two here and there and I voiced one for a Kannada film trailer but I have not explored that side much. In fact, I had a dream of voicing in one of the Maniratnam movies. Maniratnam is a popular south Indian director and he is popular across India. So, I once had that dream but film dubbing is a different world all together. You need to be the part of a union and various other things. And I discovered a world which was so big even outside the film industry so that I didn’t bother much to delve deeper into that aspect of voicing.

I did watch a movie recently about a voice-over artist. It’s a Hollywood movie called “In a world”, Lake Bell is the director and she also acted as the main character. It is a comedy film but it also looks at the typical sexist attitudes that you would find in some industries where it’s hard for women to break through the barriers. What has been your experience on this and also what is the typical gender ratio that you see in voiceover projects? And how have been the attitudes towards women in this industry?

Honestly speaking I haven’t really experienced much of gender related disparity or discrimination in this industry. That’s probably because you need all different kinds of voices. But I have been in instances where it can potentially get a little embarrassing.

For example, early in my voiceover career I landed a project which was a government helpline on rural sexual health for women. It was a rural sex helpline for women and it was incredible to even think that I would be that voice that would help rural women in their language to know about the various different doubts or questions or concerns that they may have and interact with me as in the helpline in my voice. So, that was very amazing for me (in terms of the impact it would make), but recording that was definitely little embarrassing because generally in the studios, I have hardly come across female sound engineers, very few female sound engineers. Mostly the recordists are men.

This is probably a good time to step back a bit, go back in time to look at the overall arc of a career. So, let’s go back to the beginning, you finished your B.E in electrical and communications engineering and graduated in 2004. And 2004 is when you started in the IT industry and you were there full time until 2011. Tell me about those years in the IT industry. What kind of roles did you have and how was that journey like?

I started off with as an IT support engineer in one of the big IT firms in Chennai. I was supporting a bank with their website — backend support. That’s where I started and then I moved on to another company in similar banking and financial services domain but for a change this time it was more about development of a product. Then my third company in the IT industry was with ThoughtWorks.

[Travel] was a totally different ball game, totally different industry, and no one in my close family circle that I know is an entrepreneur.

And there I got to work on multiple social impacts IT projects, and that was where I realized that you can marry technology and social impact. I got to work in couple of social impact projects back-to-back and that gave me a very clear picture as to how technology can impact the world around us. So, that was my IT career. And my exposure to social impact through technology in that company definitely was a stepping stone to how the next phase of my career would look like.

So, the seeds were sown there.

Kind of. I always had been a person who is a little concerned about the things that happen around me. When I was a teenager, I used to regularly present poetry in All India Radio. At that time, there was this radio producer, when I went to audition for my voice, and she told me: “imagine a big group of villagers sitting around a single transistor that is available — transistor as in the radio — for the village and listening to you reading out your poetry about female infanticide or blood donation or eye donation, imagine the kind of impact you can create as a young teenager”.

What she said that day just stuck with me, so the seeds were sown there. So the first time the medium of creating an impact was poetry, and this time the medium of creating impact was the developer writing code. Later on it would be travel. So, the medium changes but impact stories remain.

And of course the nature of impact also changes. I think one can look at the arc of your career through different lenses and what you just said is probably one way to look at it —to see the kind of impact you have been having as it has grown over the years, and also impacting different communities.

I don’t know how others look at it but for me that is how I look at it because I like interacting with people, I love these conversations, and in case I am able to bring in some impact through my work that gives me a crazy high. That has really helped me making this decisions and transition.

So, you were in IT all those years and also got to do bit of social impact related stuff as well which is very interesting. Then in 2011, you moved into voiceover, but before you moved full time, you were already doing that part time — so, how did that evolve? What triggered this whole start into getting to a voiceover industry and at what point of time did you say, I want to leave IT and take up this full time and why did you make that decision?

The voice-over hobby started when I lent my voice to Parvati’s character in that Ganesha series. That was back in 2006 and by the time I quit IT industry, it was 2011. Over those 5 years, I actually started exploring more, reading up and reaching out to fellow voice-over artists on Linkedin, building that network. I was just intrigued that I could actually get paid for doing something that I love doing on a daily basis.

So I started exploring the voice-over industry more. I think I attended one workshop and several online courses, reached out people shamelessly all across LinkedIn. I would send my samples to them and ask them to give me feedback. So all that happened in those 5 years and I started getting quite a bit of work. Of course, it was not something that could match my IT salary, but money was not the thing. There could be an alternative career path where you can actually make money.

If you think about it once you go through a professional course and then you get into a job, we never realize how difficult it is to actually make money in this world. So, I got that experience step by step. Honestly that was what it was —  it was my alternate world. What if I had not had a professional degree, what if I had not gotten placed right after college into a job that paid me fairly well, etc? Then I would have gone through a career path that would have shown me the real world where making money is tough. I got that opportunity, I built that side of myself and once I got some level of confidence that yes, I need to try this. I thought I will take a sabbatical at one point. I thought I will get back into IT but it never happened at that point.

Learning lies in discomfort, and every time we have a different set of people who are challenging our ideas, we are put into that discomfort zone and that is where our own learning begins.

This thing about making money is very interesting because if you join a big firm that part about how the firm makes money and how you get paid is a black box, right? You just go there and do some work and you get paid for it. And the relation between the kind of impact your work is having and the connection to revenue the firm is making is just not there. Unless you are in sales where you get some sales done and you know exactly how much you have impacted the bottom line. But not for lot of careers specially in R&D. I also have been into IT so I also have felt this disconnect between what I am doing and what they are paying me, because it’s hard to know how valuable my work is or the the kind of impact I am having on the bottom line. And you are right, if you do something by yourself then it is much harder to make money but you really see the line between the work that you do and the money that you earn, and of course it is much more satisfying as well.

So you laid down the ground work from 2006 to 2011, and in 2011 you took the plunge. Can you take me to that moment, what went through your mind when you finally decided to stop IT work and get into voice-overs full time? Was it an automatic decision or did you agonize over it?

It was very hard because salary is a drug. It is very addictive to let go of good salary, and I was in one of the respected companies and it is not very easy to get into such a place. Every single person around me told me what’s wrong with you? Why would you even do this? But for me, for some reason there was a disconnect that had already happened.

More than a disconnect I was just curious as to what was on the other side? How would it be? I have experienced this cushy life so what does it mean to be on the other side? What does it mean to fend for myself? Every single payment that would come in or every single project that would come in, I was generating it that was a crazy high and that was teaching me the fundamentals of business. For me, that was my alternative to MBA.

At that time I was doing a remote MBA in finance and I was able to understand whatever I was studying in that course — I could practically apply those things in this particular side business where I can actually generate my own income, maintain my own books of accounts and things like that. So I had developed an interest in how businesses work and that was also because I was exposed to these social impact businesses for which we did technological intervention in that company. Those companies in social impact realm, I was able to see what kind of impact our work was directly creating. I was able to understand the company as a whole. It was not too big for me to get overwhelmed by, it was understandable so I really wanted to apply my learning and understanding of a small business into building my voiceover business as well as an individual. So, that was the moment and it was not easy, it was very hard.

And once you started then there is the aspect of brand, right If are a large company you really don’t think about one’s own brand but as a freelancer, you have to think about brand and building that brand like you talked about needs reaching out to people, networking and so on that comes in. So, how difficult was it to create a brand? Now when I see the website, it seems like you have strong brand and you have got experience across different types of voiceover works — but that’s been through hard work That kind of brand you have generated through a lot of work but how was that experience?

Building one’s own personal brand is a learning I think every single person should get at some point in their lifetime, because it is an incredible learning. From transforming an individual to be known for some particular thing and thereby generating your revenues is incredible. So, the entire way you look at money generation, income generation and income generation is not income anymore, it is revenue. So, it is a very different way of looking at the whole thing and the revenue comes because there are people who place their trust in you as a brand.

So for that what are the fundamental qualities for people to trust any kind of trust what does it involve, how do you built trust? The first time they work with you, you create a good impression and stick to certain aspects like punctuality, business ethics and going beyond what is expected and delivering satisfaction and happiness and joy over just a project.

Building a brand is easier when you can offer multiple related services. For example, I am a voice-over artist but I am also a script writer. I also record and read my own samples and at one point I even learned some basics of video editing. So, the more related services you can provide the more value you are bringing on to the table and the more valuable your brand becomes. The ‘Voice of Malini’ brand is something that I seriously started looking at only in the past couple of 2 or 3 years but as Malani Gorishankar, I have been around for a decade or so and my workshops also help me build that brand image better.

This is fascinating and there’s so much to learn there. This workshop thing was a point I was going to come to. So, you are also a voiceover artist trainer and you conduct these workshops for others — what lead you to that?

One thing about brand building is that we only gain when we share. Our brand only becomes better when we give and when we go beyond what is just expected of the brand. That is the number one learning that I have seen in brand building.

I have applied this across travel and voiceovers. In travel, we were a tour operator (F5 Escapes) but we started doing these events called ‘Just Go’ which were offline events across the country, bringing travelers together and giving them a platform to discuss and debate travel related topics. There was hardly any financial gain out of it as they were all free events but it helped us position ourselves as friends of the community and actual community builders: this brand brings people together.

So like that I wanted to be known in the voiceover side as someone who does not hesitate sharing, and who is not worried about making the pie bigger. So that sharing definitely helped me. I have created this lovely little community for myself about 200 plus people who have taken these workshops and some of them have become voiceover artists. And it opened a whole new world of people to me like very popular RJ’s, journalists and public speakers who have come to my workshops to understand the voiceover side of things. So, I am very grateful for having started the workshop because it has really given me an amazing network that many people would envy.

We’ve talked a lot about voiceovers and that angle to your whole career. Let’s move on to the whole travel part which is again a very fascinating transition not directly related to the things you have done previously. You founded this travel company called F5 escapes — let’s start with what the whole idea behind in F5 escapes is and what led you starting something like that?

I was doing pretty well in the voiceover domain at that time. This was the year 2012 and that was when the Nirbhaya rape happened in December 2012 and I was doing pretty well in my current stint as a voiceover artist. I was getting enough projects, etc. but at the same time, I just could not stop myself from thinking about Nirbhaya almost every single day.

At that time because I was a freelancer, I was also getting time to travel. So, I always had an interest in travel and all through my 20’s, I have travelled quite a bit in India specially. I love exploring different cultures, meeting people from different culture and visiting different places. Marrying this idea of making public spaces safe for women in India with what I can do in travel came about as I thought more and more about Nirbhaya. I started closely following the repercussion of that incident. Women were not allowed to go out much and India was termed as unsafe for women and that definitely had a big impact on the travel industry as well.

I was just curious as to what was on the other side? How would it be? I have experienced this cushy life so what does it mean to be on the other side? What does it mean to fend for myself?

So that was when I thought, why not encourage more and more women to take to the road — that was how F5 Escapes came to be. Again it was less to do with the business angle of it than the impact angle of it. Putting more women on the roads that was the impact I was yearning for. Completely stereotyping a country by saying it is unsafe for women or don’t take the roads — that also curbs personal freedom to some extent. Oh India is unsafe and you shouldn’t go out or you should not travel by yourself etc. That definitely is not going to help our country in anyway and help our society in any way.

That was my thought process at that time and within 2 or 3 months of that incident, I wondered what I can do as a person to put more women on the roads in India. I started thinking about these women travel groups idea and one thing I noticed was there were only these rich women who are travelling outside of India. There were hardly any women who were travelling within India at that point in groups, so I thought why not open up a business which would help women travel in India in groups, or also enable them to travel solo. I also believed that it was more to do with the mindset, with taking the first step, overcoming that fear of travelling. That was what the intention behind F5 escapes.

In April 2013, I reached out to NSR cell in Bangalore with a rough idea of what I had in mind and in June 2013, I launched F5 escapes. My co-founder Akanksha joined me the next year. So, we built the company together over the next few years and it became a brand in itself. In fact we have conducted a few hundreds of tours, worked with few thousands of women and helped even a few foreign women travel in India, foreign groups travel in India.

It must have been a big step for you for starting a company like this, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on whether you would have been able to do this without having the experience of being a freelancer. Do you think that experience of building a brand as a freelancer helped?

I would say it made the process easier but freelancing as an individual is very different from building a company. Because a company is different from the individual whereas as a freelancer, you are the brand. But definitely the experience of building myself as a brand helped but that also meant that I am completely from a different industry, and people could wonder what I would know about travel. So, that can also be a deterrent if you think about it for somebody who is a prospective client.

During the initial days I had to tell people that I have traveled on my own and I have planned trips for other people. I did not have a tourism degree I did not even have a certificate course to show, so it was very new. It was a totally different ball game, totally different industry and I had nobody in my family tree, no one in my close family circle that I know is an entrepreneur. I am the first-generation entrepreneur in my family but at this point I should also tell you that I was not alone in this journey. I joined this course in IIM Bangalore which was a tiny one-month course for women who are starting up as entrepreneurs and there was a professor, Mr Suresh who was a great support. He was my mentor there and he also pointed me towards Headstart Network Foundation which is one of the biggest grass root level entrepreneurship communities in India. So, he told me to go meet the people there and be part of the community, learn from them etc. that actually led to me going for not just attending their events but volunteering with Head Start for the next 4 years and building up their content strategy, anchoring their flagship events etc.

And of course, you mentioned the pandemic has halted the travel related offerings that you people have. It is interesting to see on your website this banner which says “stay home, stay safe, reminisce” and that “travel can wait”. Which is actually refreshing because usually you would see such companies trying to push the whole business forward by promoting travel So, how do you see going things forward in travel space especially for your F5 escapes?

Just hoping for the best. This is something that really makes me feel very sad definitely what had happened with the travel industry but it is also a lesson for us to be more sustainable in what we are selling. And it is not just about livelihood but it is also about how much mother earth can take.

Salary is a drug. It is very addictive to let go of good salary, and I was in one of the respected companies and it is not very easy to get into such a place. Every single person around me told me what’s wrong with you? Why would you even do this?

And to be very honest even if I talk as a cut-throat businessperson, the supply chain has definitely broken at this point. It requires a lot of demand generation again in the travel space for travel to flourish as an industry again. The inbound industry, as in people from other countries visiting India, was a big contributor earlier to our economy but that is going to suffer and I am not sure how much of it will come back in 2021. So, we are just hoping for the best and as of now the brand remains, the company remains, but the operations has been temporarily halted. We have a very good name in the industry as a very trustworthy brand and when we give out our offerings, they are trusted by women across India, and we wouldn’t want to do anything that is half baked and make people lose trust in us. That is of prime importance to us.

Now moving on to the last part of the career transition, where recently you have returned IT part time. Which is again fascinating — returning to IT again after about a decade — and I wanted to learn little about that journey too. Like what kind of role have you taken up now and what triggered this move of getting back to IT?

Actually I was not planning to move into any kind of corporate work. I was doing my voice-overs, my workshops all thorough this lockdown but F5 gave me that challenge, I constantly faced challenged and that is something I thrive on. And I was looking for some kind of challenge, part time assignment that would challenge me and push my boundaries because that’s the person I am. And through a reference, they created this position for me.

This is a company which had a very unique people policies and people friendly policies and highly ethical business etc. So, I thought why not? And it is a small company about 100 people strong and I could still measure the impact that I was creating — that is the driving force. The reason why I wouldn’t want to come back to corporate is I would get paid very well but I will never know what part I am playing to generate the money that is coming in — and that is a bummer. I really need to know that, what value I am adding to this organization. So, I thought this might potentially be a place where I can have a stint.

There are two major roles that I am playing here. My role is called Glue, or enabler. This company has a flat hierarchy, and my role is mentoring the youngsters on the team and keeping the team together, working towards the common goal and playing the bridge between the client and the team. It is a very high-tech project and hence I get to play all these roles. This is one part of my role here.

And the other part is actually….. the gender ratio is slightly skewed at this point, so there are lesser women compared to men in the organization. So I am also looking at finding ways to improve the diversity in the organization — gender diversity and also how to motivate women in the organization. These two roles help me see the impact and value that I am creating on a daily basis.

If you think about it, once you go through a professional course and get into a job, you never realize how difficult it is to actually make money in this world.

And it must be a very different IT world you are entering now after 10 years so what are the some difference that you have seen…

Yes, totally. AI is everywhere and big data. So, it is a completely a different world but the strange part is I am still able to relate to it. The basics don’t change, so as long as we have our basics in place actually it’s the tools that change, programming languages change, the concepts can change but the fundamentals never change. As long as we are strong with our fundamentals we can work anywhere for example I was using Trello in F5 but I am using Jira here. In fact even in F5, we have automated a lot of things as I understood the power of technology. We used a SaaS tool to automate most of our workflows which would have otherwise required one or two people to be doing those things. So, as long as we stick to our core fundamentals and are very strong in those things, we can apply those learnings anywhere.

Absolutely and the learning also crosses different occupations. Like you said, your knowledge on software helping you in automating stuff at your travel company.

I was really taken aback to know that the value an entrepreneur has in the corporate world is immense. There is so much respect that an entrepreneur gets whether you are a failed entrepreneur or a successful entrepreneur, doesn’t matter what kind of exit you had.

We have actually covered the arc of your career, and what strikes me is there is so much of diversity in whatever you have done. And there are clear benefits of life spanning multiple occupations, one of which is that interfacing with diversity — a point you also bring out in your TEDX talk, the one where you talk about intentionally seeking heterogeneity in our own social, profession or personal circles. It makes us expand our own margins or boundaries as you say, and I think that has been a constant theme throughout your career — you have been pushing those boundaries, you have been seeking out these kinds of interaction beyond your comfort zone. Especially in today’s polarized world, where we are in our own bubbles and we hang on to our own beliefs, not really listening to others — so that’s why it struck a chord. To quote you again: “Heterogeneous mingling which makes you constantly challenge your own ideas and belief system” — which is so important, isn’t it?

Yes and there is nothing wrong in being in a homogeneous society all through your life. It’s just that the learning will also be limited. Learning lies in discomfort, and every time we have a different set of people who are challenging our ideas, we are put into that discomfort zone and that is where our own learning begins.

A lot of our confidence is drawn from our inner selves and our inner selves relate to the immediate circle around us. That’s also probably the reason why, for example, if you are in an amazing college you automatically start believing that you are among these great performers or start believing that you are also really great performer when it comes to your career, and so you will win. So, you already create that mindset and when you surround yourself with that kind of people; it will definitely have an impact on how your career is going to evolve.

So that is also one of the reasons why I have been a part of so many communities. Sometimes I am representing IT, sometimes I am a tour guide, sometimes I am a voice-over artist and sometimes I am a mother. I am also a part of lot of mom’s communities. So, I am a mother and sometimes I am a part of single parent communities. And each one of these have so many different thought processes and beliefs that sometimes it butts heads with each other. And honestly the salaried sets of people think of business people very differently and the business people think of salaried set of people very differently — but I belong in both places. I have thoughts on both of these scenarios and I can embrace both of these people. I don’t identify myself as either or.

It’s a very rare quality these days. Of course opportunities are lot but people embracing these opportunities are not so many. And the thing about getting to meet people from different backgrounds and learning about their motivations, inspirations, life stories etc is also one of the reasons I started this podcast. And learning about your journey and the journeys of others so far has been a fascinating experience. Which is also why the TEDX talk also struck a chord.

It has been a fascinating look into this fascinating journey, and as we wind down I was wondering if looking back, would you have done some things differently?

Absolutely not. Some choices were probably wrong at that point in time which I probably realized later on but those wrong choices made me the person I am. Every single learning has been important in my journey. So, absolutely no regrets and I am very glad that things have panned out the way they have.