Digital Cover

Entrepreneur India's First-ever Digital Cover Dons the Dauntless Ananya Birla

From starting a microfinance institution as a teenager to battling anxiety, Ananya Birla spills it all
Entrepreneur India's First-ever Digital Cover Dons the Dauntless Ananya Birla
Image credit: Entrepreneur India
7 min read
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When she enters the room, she can be whoever you want her to be.

A rockstar – who is always humming a tune and is matching her feet to it, or the lady boss -  managing her microfinance business with utmost clear head and great focus. 

Ananya Birla can also dribble a football while she talks about the importance of mental health awareness.

Having said that, you cannot ignore her roots either. The fifth generation member of the Birla family, one of the heirs of Aditya Birla Group and the eldest daughter of Kumar Mangalam Birla – she is a powerhouse in herself.

In an exclusive conversation with Entrepreneur India, Birla says understanding herself is a deep quest and she is the process of figuring out herself.

“If you just strip me down I am honestly just a normal girl with the same emotion that anyone else has. I want to follow my dream and make a difference in this world,” she quipped.

From Freedom to Empowering

For the next generation entrepreneur, who founded her first venture - Svatantra Microfin at the age of 17, entrepreneurship is like the game of lego – where you have vision but the blocks are very small and you have to put everything together and mould it, while the impact that a business can have in this world is absolutely humongous.

Talking about what prompted her to start Svtantra, she shares the idea was to develop a vehicle to address the massive income gap in India. “The goal was to bank the unbanked, to provide financial solutions to women in deep rural areas so that they could fund their businesses, and become an active part of the economy.”

But managing Svatantra was not an easy task for the shepreneur. She was running the show here in India while studying at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.

Between being a one-call away boss to getting good grades at the University or from playing as many gigs as possible to maintaining a social life like any other 20-something old, Birla silently started battling against anxiety and panic attacks.

And eventually, things turned sour as she struggled to reach out for help with a fear that people would undermine her abilities.

“It was not until I got back to India that I got the help that I needed. But in that process, I realised how difficult it was for other young people who were suffering,” Birla added.

This phase in her life inspired her to start MPower along with her mother Neerja Birla to empower individuals and their families dealing with mental health disorders.

She added, “We provide world-class holistic services in our care centre, and we run initiatives such as music concerts and cyclotrons to raise awareness and encourage education to stamp out the stigma. We have made great progress, but there is still a long, long way to go.”

Coming back to Svatantra, it has evolved from just another microfinance company to one-stop shop offering a bouquet of financial services including medical insurance and housing finance. In fact, to increase its penetration in the focused areas, Svatantra recently acquired Micro Housing Finance Corporation (MHFC). 

“MHFC offered a fantastic synergy because of an overlapping geographical presence, their credit assessment capabilities and the immense flexibility of their innovative IT platform. Because of its physical collateral, MHFC’s loan portfolio also helps de-risk that of Svatantra,” Birla said while adding that, “Diversifying and de-risking ourselves gives us some more room to experiment and challenge ourselves.”

So, what’s on cards for Svtantra?  She swiftly replied that the company can apply for a small bank or banking license while aiming to achieve a gross loan portfolio (GPA) of over INR 3000 crore by 2021 and reach out to more than 10 lakh customers across 12 to 15 states. Having said that, Birla also hints at an IPO for Svtantra.

Jack of All Trades?

Apart from donning the hat of a social and financial entrepreneur, Birla is also one of the celebrated singers in the country.

As an artist, she prefers authenticity and vulnerability in her music and hence, she looks up to people like Kurt Cobain and Eminem for inspiration and they have a huge impact on her songwriting.

She elaborates, “I want to able to write from my heart and be able to be vulnerable to the whole world. When I write my music so that’s when I can connect with people and they can try to relate to what I try to say in my songs. There is also a new mini-album coming up next, which is going to be more vulnerable and have more evolved sound.”

However, her upcoming is track is not even close to a deeper meaning. Spilling few beans on her new number she says “it's light-hearted and is full of fun.”

The Juggler

In today’s digital having multiple careers at the same time is not a big deal, but managing it is a herculean task.

And Birla has learnt it the hard way (Read: Anxiety and Panic Attacks) and yet, the glam lady has managed to master the art of juggling different roles with time and experience.

The 24-year old entrepreneur says, “I won’t lie – it is tough, but having the right team makes a huge difference. And also time management is very important. You need to have a go-getter attitude - that I am going to conquer my day.”

Having said that isn’t juggling multiple roles easy if you defined smaller things in life – such as happiness, stress or even success.

For Ananya, success is contentment, which evolves as time goes on. She is happy when she manages to reach an early meeting on time or by achieving a set target for her business. Hence, it is a variable factor.

While on the other side, she has made peace with herself and understands that there are compromises which once need to make to achieve our goals. But isn’t it all about working hard for your dreams.

“I always tell my parents this is the right for me to work hard which also means that my personal life has taken a toll.. but it is okay as it is a very conscious decision,” she added.

Talking about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, she notes, “Clear vision makes it much simpler. You got the right people on board because that makes a huge difference and they should be aligned with the vision that you have. Your values are in place which obviously means that you are very passionate about what you do.”

The Difficult Choice

Before bidding adieu to Birla, we asked her – if given a choice between music and entrepreneurship, which one would she give up. To our surprise, she promptly said none.

“I think without the one, the other side wouldn’t do well. I think both the art balances me out. My businesses have my mind and my heart and music are more of my heart and my soul. I don’t think I would be able to one and not the other,” she concluded.

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