This pop star means business

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This pop star means business

23-year-old Ananya Birla may hail from one of India's richest families, but she's making a name for herself with ease. Find out how


Janice Rodrigues

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Published: Thu 14 Dec 2017, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Sat 23 Dec 2017, 11:48 AM

If you hail from India, or even if you simply have a good grasp of world business news, then you'll know that the Birla name carries weight with it. Aditya Birla Group happens to be one of the largest corporations in India and its chairman, Kumar Mangalam Birla, is the seventh richest man in India, according to Forbes. So, it's easy to assume that coming from such a family background would make one laidback or relaxed. Not Ananya Birla though - the eldest child of Kumar Mangalam Birla and Neerja Birla, Ananya seems to have hit the ground running as soon as she left school. At 17, she chose to forego a seat in the family business in order to start her very own microfinance company. Since then, she has launched an e-commerce venture, campaigned to raise awareness on mental health issues. and released two hit singles. It's a lot to have accomplished at the age of 23 - but Ananya doesn't think so.
"My age is not a factor," she explains. "I've always been this way and suspect I always will be. It may seem like a cliché but I really do want to make the most of every single day and experience as much as I can. I want to make a positive impact on the world and that's what keeps me going."
Still, we press on, trying to understand what it is that motivates her; there must be a certain amount of pressure to live up to the family name, right?
"The amazing work my family has done in the past is more of an inspiration than a burden," she muses. "I really value being able to talk to them and learn from their perspectives and experiences. They helped me understand, at a young age, what is truly important - using your skills and blessings to make the world a better place." 
And make the world a better place she has. When Ananya was 17, a student at Oxford, she decided to use her background in economics and management to launch Svatantra (which means freedom in Hindi) - a microfinance company that provides loans to disadvantaged rural women who are looking to set up their own business and become self-sustainable. Unlike traditional banking institutions, Svatantra has a much lower interest rate while its technology allows it to provide customers with cashless services.
"My interest in business is one thing I picked up from my family," says Ananya. "I have always been interested in the entrepreneurial side of things, particularly start-ups. There is something magical and incredibly exciting about creating something new, particularly if it can serve as an agent of positive change. I like to call it 'a business with a heart'.
"Besides, I saw microfinance as a great vehicle for empowering women," she continues. "and empowering women isn't just the right thing to do - it's hugely important for the sustainable development of India, and for global economic growth."
Ananya seems to be a force for good in more ways than one. Last year saw her co-found mental health initiative Mpower with her mother Neerja. The aim? To stamp out the stigma that surrounds mental health issues in society. This year alone they ran a cyclathon so fitness aficionados could spread the message that wellbeing expands beyond the physical. Moreover, on World Suicide Prevention Day, they launched an online campaign called EarForYou, encouraging people to speak out about mental health. 
"This is a cause that's close to my heart," says Ananya. "I hate to see stigma and inequality, and nowhere are those two things more evident than in how we, as a society, treat mental health. It is a topic that is rarely discussed and when it is, it is often trivialised. There is a lack of education and information; in rural India, you still see parents taking unwell children to temples instead of hospitals."
"Greater investment is needed in providing proper care. But the first challenge we face is the taboo that prevent us from even discussing mental health. Type 2 bipolarity should not be more difficult to discuss and less likely to be treated than Type 2 diabetes." 
One might think that heading two different organisations would keep her hands full but juggling multiple hats is clearly her forte. Last year also saw her become the founder and CEO of CuroCarte, an e-commerce platform that sells premium products curated from across the world. And if that's not enough, last year, Ananaya released her debut single Livin The Life - an uptempo beat that was co-written by American producer Jim Beanz, who has famously worked with celebrities such as Demi Lovato and Nelly Furtado in the past.
"Ever since I was young, I've been obsessed with anything to do with music or singing," says Ananya, whose shift to the field of music is unlike anything attempted by anyone in her family. "Whether I was listening to it, playing it or writing it, music is a huge part of my life and always will be. It is my best friend in good times and bad."
Ananya learnt how to play the santoor at the age of nine, mostly because of her mother's influence (Neerja also plays the instrument). This helped her teach herself the guitar and piano when she was a teen. By the time she went to college in the UK, she was writing her own music and playing in small venues. "That's when I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life," she says.
If you're wondering how she manages to balance three different companies and her musical career, Ananya claims it's all about having 'an amazing team' that gives her time to focus on her music. Clearly, it's working - this year, she released her second single. Meant To Be was developed with Mood Melodies, which has, in the past, produced for artists like Sia and Jessie J. And, just last month, Meant To Be went platinum - making Ananya the first Indian artist with an English single to go platinum. "It's crazy," she says. "I'm so lucky to be able to do what I love and have this creative outlet to express myself. Being able to make a career out of it is an amazing feeling."
It's a tough act to follow, but Ananya has big plans ahead. Her next single releases early next year as will her album - which even contains some songs recorded in Dubai, a city Ananya admits she has a soft spot for.
"Dubai has always had such a special place in my heart. I've spent so much time here over the years and it has such an amazing vibe; the city is always evolving and creating new things, and it attracts such diverse people. The contrast between the beaches, desert and buildings is really powerful and inspiring to me. Also, I know people find it intense, but my favourite thing about Dubai is the heat," she laughs.
So, when can we hope for a concert? "I'm excited about 2018 - I'm doing a lot of live performances and will definitely be performing for Dubai at some point," she gushes. "I want to continue to create and release music, and I want to prove that India can produce a successful, global musician. Stay tuned, Dubai." 
The rest of the world should stay tuned too. Ananya Birla is only getting started.                       

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