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
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.
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.
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