LIVIN’ THE LIFE

She is the daugh­ter of lead­ing In­dian in­dus­tri­al­ist Kumar Man­galam Birla and phi­lan­thropist Neerja Birla, and scion of the il­lus­tri­ous Birla clan. Twenty-two-year-old ANANYA BIRLA, how­ever, is un­wa­ver­ing in her re­solve to build her own legacy. With two st

Marwar - - Contents - Text Sneha Ma­hale

She is the daugh­ter of lead­ing In­dian in­dus­tri­al­ist Kumar Man­galam Birla and phi­lan­thropist Neerja Birla, and scion of the il­lus­tri­ous Birla clan. Twenty-two-year-old Ananya Birla, how­ever, is un­wa­ver­ing in her re­solve to build her own legacy.

She re­fuses to let her fa­mous sur­name over­shadow her in­di­vid­u­al­ity. “I have found my space in the world. I have found what I want to do and what I want to achieve. And now I am go­ing all guns,” she says. We are meet­ing up with the 22-year-old Ananyashree Birla on a breezy Fe­bru­ary af­ter­noon at the des­o­late Mukesh Mills in Co­laba, Mum­bai. Her com­posed and self-as­sured de­meanour be­lies her age. But then, she is the daugh­ter of Aditya Birla Group Chair­man Kumar Man­galam Birla and phi­lan­thropist Neerja Birla, and a scion of one of In­dia’s most il­lus­tri­ous busi­ness fam­i­lies. Busi­ness ac­u­men and the drive to pur­sue her dreams are in her DNA.

saw a lot of wealth in the coun­try and a lot of poverty. I just wanted to bridge that gap, make a dif­fer­ence and make some­one smile. Top and above: Ananya Birla ini­ti­ated Svatantra in 2013. To­day, it has a client base of 1.6 lakh ru­ral women en­trepreneurs

But Ananya, as she is called, chooses to take the fam­ily legacy for­ward on her own terms. In 2013, at the age of 17, she ini­ti­ated a mi­cro­fi­nance ven­ture named Svatantra to em­power women in ru­ral In­dia. Three year later, her sec­ond ven­ture—a lux­ury e-com­merce por­tal called CuroCarte—was launched. Then in Novem­ber 2016, she stunned all and sundry by emerg­ing as the new­est mu­si­cian on the block with her de­but in­ter­na­tional sin­gle, Livin’ The Life. The young­ster also col­lab­o­rates with her mother Neerja to run the ini­tia­tive Mpower, which aims to break the stigma as­so­ci­ated with men­tal ill­ness.

As she gets com­fort­able in her van­ity van, the se­rial en­tre­pre­neur, mu­si­cian and ac­tive men­tal health cam­paigner opens up about her child­hood, branch­ing out of the fam­ily busi­ness, break­ing stereo­types and more.

Grow­ing up

The emi­nent Birla clan has been syn­ony­mous with extreme wealth and in­dus­trial great­ness for well over a cen­tury. It was Ghan­shyam Das Birla who laid the foun­da­tion of the busi­ness em­pire in In­dia by set­ting up Grasim In­dus­tries, Hindustan Mo­tors, Hin­dalco, Cen­tury Tex­tiles and much more. Years later, his grand­son Aditya Vikram Birla—un­der the Aditya Birla Group—di­ver­si­fied into tex­tiles, petro­chem­i­cals and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, while dar­ing to dream of es­tab­lish­ing a global busi­ness em­pire, as far back as in 1969, by set­ting up plants in South-East Asia.

His un­timely demise saw Kumar Man­galam Birla take over as chair­man in 1995, at the age of 28. In the time that he has been at the helm, he has ac­cel­er­ated growth, en­hanced stake­holder value and in­creased the group’s turnover from US $2 bil­lion in 1995 to US $41 bil­lion in 2015. Ananya is the el­dest of Kumar Man­galam Birla’s three chil­dren—she has a brother, Arya­man Vikram Birla, and a sis­ter, Ad­vaite­sha Birla.

To­day, the young­ster cred­its her mother for her un­con­ven­tional up­bring­ing. She says, “Even though there were strict rules that we had to fol­low—like when you meet an el­der you must do pranaam—we always had the free­dom to ex­press our­selves, to be who we are and to talk to mom about any­thing. That’s why she is my best friend to­day. I feel grate­ful and blessed for the up­bring­ing she has given me and my sib­lings. It was the best of both worlds.”

Ananya’s dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion to fol­low her heart was vis­i­ble even when she was a child. She be­gan to learn to play the san­toor at the age of eight, honed her pas­sion for chess to emerge as a na­tional-level player and opted to home-school when she re­alised that the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem’s rote-learn­ing ap­proach didn’t work for her. “I didn’t think I was ap­ply­ing my­self,” she ad­mits, non­cha­lantly. So she went to Amer­i­can School of Bom­bay to com­plete the 11th Grade, home-schooled to take the A-lev­els (the qual­i­fi­ca­tion re­quired to study in Eng­land), took a gap year and then pro­ceeded to the Univer­sity of Ox­ford in Lon­don to study eco­nom­ics and man­age­ment.

En­ter­pris­ing times

It was dur­ing her gap year, at the age of 17, that she started Svatantra Mi­crofin Pvt Ltd, which com­menced op­er­a­tions in 2013. “I saw a lot of wealth in the coun­try and a lot of poverty. I just wanted to bridge that gap, make a dif­fer­ence and make some­one smile,” ex­plains Ananya, elu­ci­dat­ing her rea­sons for set­ting it up.

Com­pe­ti­tion was cut-throat, the bar­ri­ers to en­try were high and the tar­get au­di­ence was based in ru­ral In­dia. And those were only some of the chal­lenges. For nearly six months, the teenager would come home from of­fice ev­ery day and cry in the bath­room. “I was 17. I was try­ing to build a team and to get peo­ple to be­lieve in me, but I was get­ting side­lined and re­ceiv­ing dis­cour­ag­ing com­ments. It was quite tough for me at the time. But noth­ing big ever comes easy,” she says.

What sep­a­rates Ananya from other girls her age— apart from her fam­ily’s fi­nan­cial sta­tus—is her re­solve to as­cer­tain that her ideas are heard and im­ple­mented. One of them was cut­ting the in­ter­est rate to 20 per cent when the av­er­age was 26 per cent, thus mak­ing Svatantra a vi­able op­tion in ru­ral In­dia. An­other was 100 per cent cash­less dis­burse­ment through bank trans­fers, thus en­abling tech­nol­ogy dis­rup­tion and fi­nan­cial in­clu­sion in those ar­eas. Suc­cess fol­lowed. To­day, the com­pany is on the path of ex­po­nen­tial growth with a gross loan port­fo­lio (GLP) of `230 crore. It now has a pres­ence in Ma­ha­rash­tra, Ut­tar Pradesh, Mad­hya Pradesh and Ch­hat­tis­garh, with 83 op­er­a­tional branches. The growth is ac­com­pa­nied by a client base of 1.6 lakh ru­ral women en­trepreneurs, who, with the loans pro­vided, have taken up self-em­ploy­ment projects that will serve to gen­er­ate self-sus­tain­able in­comes.

The sec­ond ven­ture CuroCarte, on the other hand, is an e-re­tail com­pany that started its jour­ney in 2015 and went live in Septem­ber 2016. It re­de­fines lux­ury by col­lab­o­rat­ing with crafts­men in In­dia, Thai­land, In­done­sia, Viet­nam and the UK to trans­form rare crafts into el­e­gant and con­tem­po­rary life­style dé­cor. “Our ba­sic aim is to get hand­crafted prod­ucts from across the world and de­sign it our­selves for the 21st cen­tury. Ev­ery piece is ex­clu­sive, oneof-a-kind and made with a lot of love,” says Ananya. The ven­ture is still in a nascent stage.

The start-up gen­er­a­tion

Gen­er­a­tion Y com­prises a host of young en­trepreneurs who have proven that they have what it takes to start and build a suc­cess­ful busi­ness. Ananya—with Svatantra and CuroCarte—too has im­bibed this gen­er­a­tion’s col­lec­tive en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit, which has seen these Mil­len­ni­als be­ing dubbed as the ‘Start-up Gen­er­a­tion’.

“If you can mon­e­tise your pas­sion, then you will be happy ev­ery sin­gle day. That apart, I think you need to be a leader who is loved and not feared. You also need to be se­cure, and to be se­cure, you need to know why you are do­ing what you are do­ing,” she says, elab­o­rat­ing on the skills re­quired to suc­ceed as an en­tre­pre­neur.

have grown up see­ing my dad at work. So of course, sub­con­sciously, I have taken in some of his amaz­ing qual­i­ties. I know I have his sup­port and can ask for his guid­ance. But I haven't.

Jug­gling mul­ti­ple ven­tures means one can­not be present at one place all the time. So hav­ing the right team in place be­comes crit­i­cal. “I am still hands-on. For ex­am­ple, I ask my PA to take a video of the hud­dle that hap­pens ev­ery Mon­day. I look at the video and give my feed­back. But I don’t mi­cro­man­age. I take on a more strate­gic role,” she says.

The young­ster knows she has parental sup­port in her en­deav­ours, but prefers to learn on the job. “I have grown up see­ing my dad at work. So of course, sub­con­sciously, I have taken in some of his amaz­ing qual­i­ties. I know I have his sup­port and can ask for his guid­ance. But I haven’t. I have learnt from my own mis­takes. I have a great team, and so far, so good,” she says.

Mu­sic and lyrics

Set­ting up two ven­tures wasn’t enough for her though. Last year, she hit the high note when she was roped in as a record­ing artiste by Uni­ver­sal Mu­sic Group. Her de­but in­ter­na­tional sin­gle, Livin’ The Life, was pre­sented to the world in Novem­ber 2016. It was co-writ­ten and pro­duced by Jim Beanz, who has worked with the likes of Nelly Fur­tado and Demi Lo­vato in the past. It has over 51 lakh views on YouTube. A remixed ver­sion by Dutch DJ Afro­jack was launched on March 3.

Ananya ad­mits that her love af­fair with mu­sic be­gan when she was young. She be­lieves that the time she spent learn­ing the san­toor as a child made her more at­tuned to­wards mu­sic. Later, she taught her­self to play the gui­tar, learn­ing through tu­to­rial videos on­line, mainly YouTube. She also loved to write po­etry, a hobby that even­tu­ally honed her skills as a song­writer and com­poser. But it was her time at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford that un­locked her true po­ten­tial as a mu­si­cian, the city’s vi­brant mu­sic scene and bustling gig cul­ture in­spir­ing her to con­sider trans­form­ing her pas­sion into a ca­reer. It was there that she started per­form­ing live, even­tu­ally singing and play­ing the gui­tar at re­port­edly 70 gigs in two years. The young en­tre­pre­neur had found a new call­ing. The rest, as they say, is his­tory.

To­day, she counts A R Rah­man, Eminem and Ed Sheeran among her ad­mired artistes. But when it comes to writ­ing mu­sic, two things come into play: an ex­pres­sion of self and what is rel­e­vant in to­day’s day and age. “You can’t be too self­ish and write about only what you are feel­ing,” she says.

Fam­ily and in­ter­ests

In her spare time, Ananya loves to read. Her favourite author cur­rently is Kelly Link, whose work tra­verses the gen­res of mag­i­cal re­al­ism and fan­tasy. Other favourites in­clude Jef­fery Archer and John Green. And when she does not have a book

Left: Kumar Man­galam Birla and Neerja Birla Top: (L-R) Hrithik Roshan, Neerja Birla, Ananya Birla and Dr Zi­rak Marker at an event or­gan­ised by Mpower Fac­ing page: Prod­ucts avail­able on CuroCarte

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