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Ananya Birla

People April 13, 2019

Singer, songwriter, entrepreneur, perhaps most importantly, philanthropist – Ananya Birla is one of India’s most successful and inspiring young woman.

 

Ananya Birla has a lot of titles and achievements under her belt, but to put it simply, she’s a strong and independent business woman and musician, who’s followed her heart from the start.

At just 17 years old Ananya founded Svatantra, a microfinance company encouraging women in India to gain financial independence by starting their own businesses. Since then, she’s received several awards for her work and entrepreneurship, including the 2016 ET Panache Trendsetters award for Young Business Person.
As well as working towards female empowerment, Ananya is also a co-founder, alongside her mother, of MPower, a charity dedicated to raising awareness about mental health disorders, and tackling the stigma that surrounds mental health illnesses.

Alongside her business and charity work, Ananya has also pursued her passion as an artist and as a musician, writing and recording songs that have received a lot of attention from all over the world.

Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I’m a singer, songwriter, mental health campaigner and entrepreneur. I’m following my dreams, doing what I’m passionate about, and I’m hoping to encourage others to do the same.
Both in business and music, my aim is to connect with as many people as possible, and in doing so, hopefully help to change people’s lives for the better. I’m a big believer of the saying that everyone should leave the world a little better than how they found it.

How and when did your love for music begin?
I have loved music for as long as I can remember. My parents are both very musical. Not many people know this but my father actually sings really well!
When I was nine, I was encouraged to take up the santoor, a traditional Indian instrument, by my mother who plays it beautifully. I got more into rock and pop as a teenager so I started teaching myself how to play the guitar. I would watch YouTube tutorial videos and I used to love jamming with friends after school.
I spent some time in the UK whilst studying, and whilst there I went through a bit of a rough patch. During the hard times, I used music as an escape, and would go to London to perform at any and every gig I could. Regardless of how small the audience was, performing and playing music made the hard times easier, and I quickly came to realise that music was the path I wanted to devote myself to.

Tell us about your schooling and education.
For a long time, I dreamed of attending the University of Oxford, in the UK, and to my delight, it was a dream that came true. My application was accepted, and I studied Economics and Management.
My time there was amazing. Challenging at times, and so different to anything I was used to, but it was a hugely valuable experience and I met some really interesting people.

What instruments do you play?
When I was nine I started learning how to play the santoor, which is a traditional Indian instrument, like a guitar but with more strings and you play it on your lap. It was the best introduction to music, and I really enjoyed playing it.
Learning how to play the santoor gave me the foundation knowledge and musical understanding I needed to teach myself how to play the guitar and piano when I was a teenager.
I particularly enjoy playing the guitar and piano because with these instruments, I can play and sing at the same time.

How and why, at such an early age, did you decide to work for female empowerment?
I’ve always been very conscious of the huge income gap in India, even since I was very young. I wanted to develop a system to address this, which is why I founded Svatantra at the age of 17. We loan money to women in the Indian countryside to help them grow their businesses and become self sufficient.
As a female entrepreneur, I wanted to encourage other women to enter the world of business. In particular, I wanted to encourage Indian women, because traditionally they’re expected to stay at home and take care of the family, a role that severely limits their participation in the economy, and makes financial independence almost impossible. Financial freedom for women is not only essential for gender equality, but also for global economic growth.

Tell us more about your micro-financing project Svatantra.
I strongly believe that businesses should have a heart. They can serve as agents of positive change in the world, and still make money. So I wanted to create a sustainable business that would make a real difference.
Microfinance fit the bill perfectly because it provides opportunities which many capable people have been denied or have never had access to. I set up Svatantra when I was 17, committed to giving back to society but in a sustainable way.
There were many challenges; it was an industry dominated by middle-aged men and even my own team was much older than me. I had to prove to people every day that I knew what I was doing and that my vision was strong. I reinvented myself daily, getting tougher and more committed to making Svatantra the business it is today and delivering a positive impact. Now, the business is thriving and we have over 300,000 active clients across India.

Tell us about life in England. How did it change you?
Being far from home and on your own can make you quite introspective, especially when faced with an intense academic course combined with the usual teenage pressures.
The experience taught me a lot about myself, and it was in England that I became set on pursuing what I loved: music. I was very fortunate to realize at a young age what many people don’t realize until later in life: that there is no better way to spend your life than waking up every morning and doing what you love. Everyone should nurture the things that enable them to express themselves, and pursue the paths they enjoy.

We are interested to know more about your MPower initiative.
Depression and suicide rates are on the rise around the world, and people are scared to reach out for help because they fear being judged. The stigma around mental health is a global issue, yet it’s a topic that’s rarely discussed. When it is discussed, it is often trivialized, which only adds to the problem.
I set up MPower a couple of years, with my mother, to tackle and stamp out the stigma around mental illness by campaigning and proving world-class care. Our work is going extremely well, we organised a cyclathon through Mumbai last year, and put on a music concert to over 20,000 people. We’re raising awareness about mental health, and we’re beginning to get people to realize that someone’s mental health does not determine their ability or right to contribute to society.

How or where do you get inspiration for writing your songs?
When I write, it’s always authentic and emotionally driven. I’m inspired by my own experiences, or by stories I hear from others which resonate with me.
I then find the notes and words which bring emotions, experiences and stories to life, and create music that tells a story, music that people can truly connect with. I am particularly inspired by love, and stories of overcoming adversity.


How did it feel to be signed by Universal Music Group?
Universal first approached me in Mumbai in 2016, and asked me to come in to see them. I was excited of course, but so nervous for that first meeting. Once we got talking it became clear that we were on exactly the same page.
The Universal Music Group are doing some great work in India, and they’ve always been very supportive of me and my music. Two years on from that first meeting, and I’m so proud to represent them. It’s been the most amazing journey so far.

Your debut song “Livin’ the life’ is doing extremely well on Youtube.. how do you feel about it?
As any musician will tell you, it’s scary to expose yourself emotionally to an audience, not knowing how they will react. I put something personal out there, unsure of how well it would be received, and I definitely wasn’t expecting such a huge response, especially not on my first release. It makes me so happy to know that people are connecting with music and enjoying it.

Tell us about your new single “Hold On.” What new or different themes have you tried in this?
Hold On is inspired by people in relationships that gone through tough times, but held on to their love for one another. Sometimes in life, we are faced with the question of whether it’s better for us to hold to a love, to a person, or to let go.
Hold On ultimately encourages people to reject fear and confusion, and hold on to what they know is right for them. I think this is a really relatable theme for a lot of people right now.
I am constantly growing and developing as an artist, and I hope that my music reflects that. It’s also really important for me that my music is honest and relatable.
I am always amazed by music’s ability to engage people on a deeper level, no matter where they’re from, and I always want my songs to connect with people, to stimulate their emotions and hopefully to make them happy.

Who are some of your role models?
I am incredibly close with my family so my biggest role models are actually two of my close family members: my grandfather and my mother.
My grandfather was a true visionary, and I look up to him immensely. My mother is so compassionate and strong, and her dedication to making a positive difference through her schools and charities has inspired me to make the world a better place.

How was the experience working with Afrojack for the remix of “Livin’ The Life”?
It was amazing! I felt incredibly fortunate to have this experience so early in my career.
Nick (Afrojack) is great, he is incredibly cool, super talented and loves making music more than anything. I definitely enjoyed working with another talented musician, and the whole experience was transformative, and a huge learning curve.

What according to you are the 3 important keys to success?
Authenticity, passion and surrounding yourself with good people. I have always stayed true to what I believe in, in both business and music, and following my passions is what has led me to where I am today. As for good people, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help and support of the people around me, including my family, my friends, and those at the Universal Music Group.

What is your favourite quote?
‘Try your best and leave the rest to God’ is a quote that dates back to ancient Greek times, but I think it’s still as relevant today as it was then. We can do no more than our best, but more often than not, doing your best will get you where you need to go.

Who are some of your favourite singers?
There are so many talented artists out there that it’s hard to name just a few, but Zan Malik, Sia, Camilla Carbello and Ed Sheeran are all great artists, with a lot of talent, and they’re all doing amazing things right now.
As for my absolute favourite, it would have to be Eminem. He has this amazing ability to make his songs and the messages within them resonate with all types of people across the world, I think because of his honesty and vulnerability.

What message do you like to convey through your music?
I love music for music’s sake but also because it enables to me to reach out and share an emotional experience with a wide audience. Music is this amazing universal language that people can connect with regardless of nationality, gender, sexuality or social background.
When I write my songs, I aspire to connect with people, engage their emotions and hopefully to make them happy.

What is next for Ananya Birla?
My definition of success is constantly evolving. This year, I will continue to write and release music, and start touring internationally. I want to show the world that India can produce a musician who is successful, and globally recognized.
I also hope to continue to use my platform as positively as possible, to bring about worldwide social change. I want to spread the message of my mental health initiative, MPower, to help those struggling with depression and mental health issues. Right now, in India, one student commits suicide every hour. It’s more important than ever that we address this crisis. We need to stamp out the stigma surrounding mental health, so that people feel comfortable asking for the help they need.

Your message for your fans in Kuwait?
One day, hopefully soon, I want to come out and perform to you. I hear so many wonderful things about Kuwait and have always wanted to visit. Until then, carry on playing my music and get in touch with me on Twitter and Instagram!

Finally, your message for us and our magazine:
Find something that you love, then own it, work hard on it and go for it. The biggest barrier between you and success is fear!

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