“Business with a heart appeals to me”- Ananya Birla

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This girl, all of 23, has many introductions. Unarguably the first would be that she is the daughter of Kumar Mangalam Birla, Chairman of the Aditya Birla Group. Inspired by her mother Neerja Birla, she was barely nine when she learnt santoor, pegged as a tough classical instrument (to learn).

She was 17 when she founded Svatantra Microfin, a company that makes loans to rural Indian women and has over 600 employees across 70 branches in India. She went on to study Economics and Management at one of the world’s leading institutions- Oxford University in the UK. Inspired by her grandmother’s magnificent collection, she also founded Curocarte, a digital platform that works with artisans around the globe to make their work fit into the 21st-century lifestyles and links them directly with buyers.

 

Her fourth music single “Circles” was released in June 2018. She is a rare Indian who broke records of viewership on YouTube for her “English” songs, her first release to be specific (touching 14 million back in 2017 according to an open internet source) for her first release!

Not many of her age would say this, unconventionally and phenomenal are her answers we concur…her favourite holiday destination is ‘Rishikesh’ and she wants to make a positive impact on the world! Interesting things for a 23- year old to say – straight from her heart and she feels them genuinely!

Here is a piece of conversation with The Lifestyle Journalist giving insight into her personal world!

Who is Ananya Birla from your standpoint?
I am a musician, mental health campaigner and entrepreneur who believes that we should all strive to create positive change in the world, and enjoy ourselves while we do it. In everything I do, I want to encourage people to realise that they can break down barriers and stereotypes, follow their passions and hopefully achieve their dreams.

How did you fall in love with music?
I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember. It is something which defined my childhood. Growing up, there was usually someone singing, dancing or playing an instrument around the house.
I was inspired by my mother to take up my first instrument, the santoor, when I was nine. I was in awe when I saw her playing it and was eager to learn. As a teenager, I craved the ability to play along with my favourite pop and rock musicians, so I taught myself the guitar and piano using YouTube tutorials. When I got into college at UK, I was writing my own music and performing on a regular basis at small gigs and open-mic nights around London, and I knew that music was ultimately what I wanted to focus on.
Song-writing is more than a job, it’s a cathartic emotional process which has helped me to deal with some difficult times in my life; it gives me the ability to express myself when I am struggling to vocalise how I feel.

Almost everyone in India has grown up hearing about the Tatas and Birlas. How does it feel to be a part of a noted family? Does it bring some sort of stigma as well?
I am very proud of being a Birla. My parents and grandparents have worked so hard and done a lot of amazing things. I love to hear stories about their lives, the places they have been to and the people they have met. But at the end of the day, we are a family like any other. We love, we laugh, we argue, and we try to do our best.
Some people make unfounded judgements and jump to conclusions about me because of my surname, which is inevitable. I know how lucky I am to have the support that I have in life. But growing up came with all the usual challenges and pressures. Discovering who you are and what makes you happy is not an easy task for anyone!

 

Do you at some point feel that no matter what you does your family name will overshadow your personal achievements?
I love my family, but I am an individual and I am trying to find my own way. My focus is on what I can do myself. There have been some great people in my family and it would be hard to live up to what they have done. But I try to use them as inspiration to create positive change in the world, rather than be intimidated and hide away for fear that I won’t equal their achievements.

One memory you will never you forget from your days at the University of Oxford?
Oxford is an amazing place, and I have some fantastic memories from my time there. I also made some wonderful friends. My favourite memories are of heading to London on weekends to perform at little venues around the city. However small the audience, it would make me feel a sense of belonging and warmth. It was there that I realised that music was what I wanted to devote myself to.

What does “feminism” mean to you? Any social issues that are close to your heart or you are involved with?
Feminism means slightly different things to different women depending on their experience of the world, but I think we all share a common goal: equality and safety for women. Some people focus on very worthy issues like equal pay, domestic violence or education, but I thought I could make the most impact by looking at financial inclusion and access to opportunity, which is why I started Svatantra Mircofin. Our focus was giving rural women access to affordable finance so they could grow their businesses and become self-sufficient.

 

Would you have thought of becoming an entrepreneur if you were not a part of a family that belong to?
Definitely. Business fascinates me and I have always loved start-ups because it’s an extremely creative process: you can build something amazing from nothing at all and impact people’s lives in unprecedented ways. In my case, I set up my microfinance company Svatantra because I was passionate about empowering other female entrepreneurs. I then set up Curocarte because I wanted to provide a digital platform for artisans around the globe to sell their products and keep their craft alive. ‘Businesses with a heart’ really appeal to me, and I believe that entrepreneurs have the potential to make a direct and positive impact on the society.

What kind of benefit has your company Svatantra Microfin Pvt. Ltd provided to women since its inception? Do you think your innovation proved instrumental in bringing a change?
Svatantra is a microfinance company which uses pioneering fintech to give small and affordable loans to women in rural India who want to expand their businesses. I was always very conscious of the huge income gap here and I wanted to develop a vehicle to address this, to give back to society but in a sustainable way that encouraged social progress and self-sufficiency. I believe it is more valuable to empower someone to do something for themself. I wanted to enable women to make their presence felt in India’s economy and, most importantly, to be financially independent.
Svatantra is doing a fantastic job in shaking off the outdated views that a women’s place is in the home, taking care of the family. Women should be able to live up to their potential as individuals, not feel stunted because of the restrictions imposed on their gender. Svatantra is also showing that when women work, not only do their lives improve, so do the lives of their families and communities. We now have over 260,000 clients and are continuing to grow.

CuroCarte is a unique concept. When did you first think of it? And did you have any doubts back then?
Curocarte is a digital platform which works with artisans around the globe to make their work fit in to 21st century lifestyles and links them directly with buyers.
I have always loved hand-crafted goods, it is a passion inspired by my great grandmother who had a magnificent collection. A few years ago, I noticed a renewed appreciation of skills and makers, and a massive untapped potential for the meeting of traditional skills with modern design tastes. I wanted to provide a platform for artisans around the globe to share their products sustainably and keep their cultural heritage alive.Like all of my ventures, Curocarte is born out of a personal passion. I have always believed that life is too short for people not to follow the thing which sparks a fire in their soul. Over the years, that passion has always overridden any doubts.

What does “success” mean to you?
For me, success is about doing what you love. I believe that if you have a dream, you should own it, work hard and go for it. I think my definition is constantly evolving as I grow, in the future I see myself continuing to bring together my personal passions and my passion to make the world a better place.

You played music at bars and pubs when you were still discovering your song… did your family ever object to it?
My parents are incredibly supportive. They have always encouraged my siblings and me to pursue the things we love.

Share your experience of working with Alan Walker?
It was great to work with Anders (Mood Melodies) on Hold On. We were introduced via Universal and next thing I know I am flying out to Norway to write and record with him.He has worked with superstars like Sia, Jessie J and Alan Walker so I was honoured he wanted to create a track. We got on really well, and I think we complemented each other’s creative processes. He is always totally relaxed in the studio, incredibly encouraging and really funny. We still speak and I am sure that we will work together again soon.I really like to collaborate, I am so lucky to have already worked with such talented people like Anders, Jim Beanz and Afrojack, I learned so much from their experience.

Do you have any dark secrets? Would you like to share any such unexpected thing about your personality?
Nothing too exciting, I am disappointingly normal! I am obsessed with my dog Skai, and I definitely get through too much chewing gum, which is a bad habit, but not too much!
What importance does ‘money’ have in your life?
Money is not what defines someone’s value as a person. Like everything, money has a positive and a negative side depending on how you use it. For example, it has enabled me to do things like founding a mental health organisation, MPower Minds, which provides support and advocacy for those living with mental health issues.
Share something about your tattoo and its connect to your real personality
I have a tattoo on my wrist which says conquer. It is a reminder to make the most of every single day.

What, according to you, should be the qualities of an entrepreneur?
Self-discipline, passion, persistence and a desire to make a positive impact. For the best entrepreneurs, personal gain is secondary; they identify a problem and work out a way of making people’s lives better or easier. Each of my ventures is based on personal experience and passion. I think that’s important for an entrepreneur because when it gets tough (which it inevitably does) you lose motivation unless you really love what you’re doing. In business and music, doing the things that I love is what drives me.

Are you dating anyone currently? What qualities do you desire in your partner?
Not right now. With all of the travelling I am currently doing with my music, I don’t think it would be easy!For me, kindness and a good sense of humour are the most important things.

Do you get stage conscious?
Not really anymore. I absolutely love performing live – it’s the best feeling in the world! I’m usually quite a shy person, but being on stage brings out this different side of me. I don’t think there is a better way of truly connecting with your audience than performing live and for me, that’s what music is about – connecting with people and seeing them enjoy themselves.

Any of your habit that you dislike and wish to get rid of?
Sometimes I let work take over my life. I can struggle with time management, I don’t always get enough sleep and I compromise on seeing friends and family. I know I need to get better at ‘switching off’ but I really love everything I do which makes it feels a lot less like work!

 

Why “Mpower”? What kind of change do you aim to create with your initiative?
My mother and I set up MPower a few years ago. It is a cause which is close to both of our hearts because of the battles which we have had and seen all around. We wanted to make it easier for people to get help and to empower individuals and their families dealing with mental health disorders. We provide world class holistic services in our care centre, and we run initiatives such as concerts and cyclathons to raise awareness and stamp out the stigma.There is a serious crisis in India, depression and suicide rates are continuing to rise and people are afraid to reach out for help because of the debilitating stigma that is engrained in our society. When people who are suffering do reach out, there is just not enough support available.
At MPower, we hope that eventually people will know that their mental health does not determine their right or ability to contribute to society. And that sometimes it is okay not to be okay.

Any sweet memory from your childhood that you would like to share?
I love to travel and I think my greatest memories of childhood are of exploring different parts of India with my family. Places like Goa, Rishikesh and Rajasthan which are all magic, but in completely different ways. You could spend a lifetime exploring all the magic that India offers. My dad and I especially used to love going on long walks together.

Do you think women, in business, get equal treatment as their male counterparts?
Yes, for a start there is still wage inequality in India and across the world which means women get paid less than men for doing the same job even though they are equally (or more) capable and qualified. Many factors create this environment of inequality: cultural expectations and ‘traditional’ gender roles, discrimination, even early education – we can’t ignore the fact that the literacy rate for women in India is far lower than the rate for men, and more girls drop out of school. This affects women’s access to opportunity and their ability to ascend to positions of influence and power where they are able to create change.
Across the world we are seeing a movement of women speaking out against the violence, intimidation and discrimination they experience in all sorts of industries, from entertainment to finance. This is the first step: to name the problem and allow those who experience it to talk without stigmatizing or punishing them.

Have you faced any sort of personal or emotional crisis ever? If yes, how did you cope up with it?
When I was at the University in England, I went through a difficult phase. On the surface it all seemed fine, and I was doing really well academically, but underneath I was suffering from anxiety and I found it difficult to talk about because I did not want people to undermine my abilities or label me.
Eventually, I was fortunate enough to get the help that I needed. Knowing that there are so many people in India who would not be able to receive the support that I did is what inspired me to start MPower.

When you heard that a noted media house has named you ‘One of Asia’s Women to watch’, what was your first reaction?
It was obviously very flattering to be acknowledged. But more significantly it was exciting and inspiring for me to see what other women are building and to feel a sense of community with them. I believe that the world is at a tipping point; women are striving towards equality and making their presence felt culturally and economically.

What is style for you?
Sometimes it is about expressing a part of my personality – embodying my playful side, or experimenting with my glamorous side. I don’t feel like I am defined by what I wear or how I dress, it is very fluid and led by my mood. There is nothing like a bright colour or a killer pair of shoes to boost my confidence when I am feeling timid, or curling up a cosy hoody when I am travelling and feel homesick. Often, for me, style is simply about feeling comfortable in my own skin.

Favorite holiday destination
Rishikesh

Pet’s name
Skai

Favorite musician
Eminem

Favorite Food
Udon Noodles

Favorite Song
Come as You
Are by Nirvana

Favorite Movie
The Walk

A dream country you want to own a house in?

I really love India and would always want to spend most of my time here. However, I would love to be based in Los Angeles in the USA at one point in my life.

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