She definitely stands out among the youngsters of her generation, but Ananya Birla is much more than her surname and family legacy, writes Boski Gupta
People who can justify the meaning of their names would be very few in the world, and Ananya Birla is one of them. She comes from the illustrious business family of the country with immense wealth behind her, but what distinguishes the eldest daughter of industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla from the rest of 23-year-olds of her generation is her individuality.
Her family legacy notwithstanding, Ananya has made a place of her own in the industry dominated by old and, experienced men. At 17 – when school children are aping popular icons or dreaming about their crush – she set up a microfinance institution that provides loans to low-income, rural women to help them grow their businesses. She also is a singer-songwriter-performer in her own right, and tours the world for her shows. And though her idea of fun may be different from other youngsters, she sure knows how to keep herself happy. Excerpts from the interview…
Your latest song Meant To Be has been garnering a lot of attention. Tell us about your musical journey.
I grew up in a household where music had a constant presence. I had learned the santoor at home by the time I was nine, then with the help of YouTube, I taught myself the guitar.
I started writing poetry as a teenager, which was how I got into song writing. I find the process incredibly cathartic, and it has helped me to deal with some difficult times in my life. It gives me the ability to express myself when I’m struggling to vocalise how I feel.
When I got to college in the UK, I was writing my own music and performing in small venues and I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life.
You were very young to pick up music…
For as long as I can remember, I have always loved music. Not a lot of people know this but my father is actually a very good singer and my mother plays the santoor and is the one who encouraged me to take it up when I was nine.
What was the response when you told your family about your musical aspirations?
My family is incredibly supportive. Although no one went into entertainment, creative outlets have always been important to us. One of the qualities that my parents instilled in me and my siblings was the courage – and discipline – to follow our passions. We were encouraged to do the things we loved, to always give 100% and to learn from the mistakes we were bound to make.
You are from business family so getting into business would have been an obvious choice?
I do have two businesses. When I was 17, I started my first organisation Svatantra, a microfinance institution that provides loans to low-income, rural women to help them grow their businesses. I also started CuroCarte, a digital platform which works with independent artisans around the globe to develop unique collections of handmade products.
What paved the way for Svatantra Microfinance?
I have always been very conscious of the huge income gap in India, and I wanted to develop a vehicle that could address this. As a female entrepreneur, I also wanted to empower other female entrepreneurs. In particular, because Indian women were traditionally expected to stay at home and take care of the family thereby severely limiting their participation in the economy and ability to be financially independent.
I was also keen to give back to society in a sustainable way. I think it’s more valuable to teach or empower someone to do something for themselves than to do it for them on an ongoing basis. Microfinance fit the bill perfectly.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
It took three-and-a-half years for us to become profitable. This was because I initially cut the entire industry interest rate quite significantly. I knew we would take a hit on our profitability, but it was very important for client satisfaction and loyalty. Now, profits are great, our client relationships are very strong and our portfolio continues to grow. We are very positive about the future.
What challenges did you face when you were starting out?
When I started at 17, the industry was dominated by established, middle-aged men. Even my own team was much older than me. That posed challenges. Being so young, it was not easy to prove to people that I knew what I was doing and that I had a strong enough vision to see this through. I reinvented myself daily, getting tougher, stronger and more committed to making Svatantra the business it is today and delivering a positive impact.
What is one marketing strategy that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
For CuroCarte, we make the most of digital channels. Used correctly, the internet can be a 24-hour showroom, open to a massive audience. It is also a great place for really defining what your brand is about and helping people to build a relationship with your business.
On the other hand, with Svatantra, the best marketing tools we have are our customers and our on-ground marketing activations and interactions. People often hear about us by word-of-mouth.
How did the idea of CuroCarte come up?
Since I was very young, I have always loved handmade objects. My grandmother introduced me to it, and she had this collection of amazing jewellery boxes. Since then, everywhere I go in the world, I always try to take time to check out the local markets and meet with artisans. I am lucky that my music career allows me to travel to interesting places with unique cultural histories that inspire our CuroCarte collection.
With CuroCarte I wanted to tap into the potential for the meeting of traditional craftsmanship with modern design tastes. I also wanted to provide a platform for artisans from all corners of the globe who are fighting to keep their ancestral arts and crafts alive.
We talk of women empowerment, but gender equality is still a far cry.
Women are an incredibly powerful force and I hope they begin to realise this more consciously. Women’s empowerment can come from connecting with other women, by giving and receiving support from each other we can all experience empowerment. It’s important that we see the value in women from all walks of life, not just those who look and sound like us. However, to completely eradicate this problem, I think the sole definition of power needs to be eradicated in this case. It’s not about empowering anymore, it is about no matter whether you are a man or a woman, it’s about embracing the fact that you are unique and have your own identity. I stand for equality.
Women have to support women and men have to support women, and women have to support men. The minute that starts happening, the world will come around. Practically, it is all about realising what the situation is, being your own person, standing up to your own demons in a sense, and just pushing forward. As a force coming together. Nothing can stop us. It is important to hold on to positivity and remember that there are many men out there who do support women and want to ensure equality. We should think of it in a positive manner and continue to achieve another milestone with various things like equal pay and such.
But do you think gender equality is feasible in a country which still lives in 15th-century mindset?
Around the world and especially in India, women continue to suffer from a lack of economic opportunity, inadequate health care and education, and discrimination. We know that women and men should have equal rights in their public life, professional life and private life.
If we come together, it is feasible to achieve gender equality. People are beginning to understand and embrace the fact that a more equal and non-discriminatory society creates more successful and sustainable economic growth. I think this will provide the impetus to change for those still clinging to outdated and rigid mindsets. Women are just as capable as men, and we need to stop getting in the way of their access to education and opportunity, and allow them to thrive.
At an age when youngsters are still to find direction, you have your own company and a music career. How do you do all at such a young age?
If you have a dream, you should try to own it, work hard and go for it. In an ideal world, everyone would follow their passions and do the thing which makes them happy and encourages them to conquer every single day. That is the key to finding that sense of direction. I consider myself lucky to be able to pursue a career in business and in music. Both of these spark a fire in my soul so neither feels traditionally like ‘work’. I love what I do and that is what drives me.
In all of my ventures, even my music, I want to show people that they can break down barriers and stereotypes to follow their passions, achieve their dreams and make a positive impact.
But you have fun like normal kids of your age…
That totally depends where I am in the world. When I am back home in Mumbai, fun is about spending as much time as possible with my best friends, family and my puppy. I have been travelling so much for my music this past year, recording in LA, Oslo, London and Dubai and I really miss them when I am away. We enjoy getting together to watch a movie or going for a big dinner.
I don’t take a lot of days off, it makes me a little anxious; I like to be busy. When I do, I like being in bed so that I can give my body a break, reading a good book or watching an interesting documentary. I exercise most mornings. Keeping healthy is so important. It is not just about how I look but also how I feel. I set up a mental health initiative with my mother a couple of years ago called MPower which aims to stamp out the stigma around mental health by campaigning and providing care. Because of the work we do at MPower, I understand the relationship between physical wellness and mental wellbeing.
Who inspires you the most? How did your parents and family respond to your ideas in music and business?
I am close with my family and they have always been so supportive. I am inspired by different people in different ways. My mother inspires me with her compassion, my father inspires me with his focus, and my grandfather inspired me with his leadership. Every day I meet people who inspire me with their stories.
Would you say your family name helped you a lot in what you’re today?
I understand why people might jump to conclusions about me. I am incredibly lucky to have had the support that I have had in my life but growing up came with all the usual emotional and social complexities. I felt the pressure of expectations coming at me from different directions. Working out who you are and what makes you happy is not a simple task for most people, and I’m no different.
My family’s emotional support and love has been incredibly helpful to me, but I strive to be my own person and work towards my own individual sense of success and fulfilment.
How do you deal with criticism, especially when whatever you do personally with your hard work is associated with your family name?
As a musician, I understand that criticism comes with the territory. It used to really affect me, but it is important to remind yourself that everything creative is subjective, people are entitled to their opinion and I have so much love coming in! I acknowledge the criticism but don’t dwell on it, you have to move forward in a positive way, and focus on the love and positivity.
There is a big difference between destructive criticism and constructive criticism, and it important to be able to distinguish between them.
I just released my latest single ‘Hold On’. It is about the realities of holding on to a relationship through the ups and downs, it’s something we can all relate to. This year hopefully I will be doing more live performances and also releasing an EP.