Vocalist, songwriter, entrepreneur, mental health activist—Ananya Birla is all of these rolled up into one tireless youngster, who’s learnt to manage her time and compartmentalise her tasks rather successfully. How else could someone so young handle multiple responsibilities as the founder and leader of Svatantra, a financial technology company; the co-founder and vice-chairperson of Mpower, a movement that holistically promotes mental health and well-being; and, of course, a passionate vocalist and lyricist with several singles and collaborative releases to her name!
Actually, it all goes back to her formative years. When she was very young, she wanted to be an astronaut, Birla says. She was a very keen student, extremely studious and her typical day would be a mix of school, homework and extracurricular activities like swimming, table tennis, football, chess, playing the santoor, and more. As a child, she also loved playing with toys that involved putting together interlocking plastic bricks imaginatively to build animals, vehicles, buildings and the like. This fascination for the process of creation, Birla feels, not only evolved into her love for start-ups, but also led her to carve out a career in music later in life.
Ananya Birla taking part in a beach cleanliness drive in Mumbai
Acutely aware of the inequality faced by women in India, especially in rural and semi-urban areas, Ananya Birla’s desire to do something to empower them saw her step into the world of enterprise while still a teenager. “At 17, I discovered that microfinance was a potential permanent solution to enable people to have better lives. I then founded Svatantra, which started as a microfinance company,” she says. Actually, it all stemmed from the idea that small amounts of money can make a huge difference to hardworking families. Today Svatantra has grown to be a financial technology company with various other product lines. It boasts 4,000 employees and presence in around 70,000 villages. It provides cashless financial solutions to women entrepreneurs in rural and semi-urban India, where traditional banking systems cannot penetrate. Also, from micro-loans and house-extension loans to insurance, financial training and other offerings that enable financial inclusion, Svatantra provides it all. “We have recently acquired a micro-housing company and have ventured into the housing space as well to provide a holistic package to our clients,” adds Birla.
Passion for music
Beyond her love for enterprise, Birla, however, also felt an innate connect with music. Listening to music soothed her and watching her mother play the santoor inspired her to learn and play it as well, as a child. Later, as part of the school band, she self-taught to play the guitar and started composing songs as well. “I would spend hours writing and singing,” she says, recalling those days. This passion for writing music proved to be a form of expression for her and very cathartic too. Years later, it still remains so. It has reaped rich harvests for her besides, given her rising career graph as a vocalist.
But, how did she successfully traverse the road from a music lover to a performing artist, considering that it isn’t an easy one? In response, Birla says, “I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in music. Initially I was just worried about what people might think until I realised that life is too short and the happiness it brings to me outweighs the fear.”
Making a splash
And with that she dropped out from the University of Oxford and took the plunge to pursue a career in music. Her lucky break came by way of getting signed by the Universal Music Group, as a recording artist, in 2016. Soon after, she released her international debut single ‘Livin’ the Life’, which earned millions of views. To add a second milestone to her career, Afrojack (well-known Dutch-Surinamese DJ, record producer and remixer) proposed to officially remix it, which jumpstarted her budding career; and there has been no looking back for Birla ever since.
Apart from singing, Birla also involves herself with the songwriting process, which usually starts with her picking a concept or emotion, or even an experience. She then sits down with a producer and maybe another writer to pen it down. But its music that is authentic and straight from the heart, she says.
Asked why the deviation from enterprise to divide her time with music, Birla says, “I think that life is too short to not follow what you’re passionate about—and with a bit of time management and putting together the right team around you, there is no reason why you cannot follow everything you are passionate about.” Fortuitously, her creativity and her business acumen seem to fuel each other, as she has discovered, and that she is able to apply what she’s learnt in business to her music too, and vice versa.
After ‘Livin’ the Life’, more singles followed, including ‘Meant to Be’, ‘Hold On’, ‘Circles’ and ‘Better’ and then collaborative performances as well with the likes of Jamaican-American singer, songwriter, rapper and record producer, Sean Kingston (‘Day Goes By’). Success followed in tandem, and as of today, Birla has three platinum and two double-platinum selling English language singles to her credit, which is a first for an Indian artiste. Also, since her debut single in 2016, she has hit over 300 million global streams and 100 million YouTube views! But the going wasn’t easy. “It has been a really tough journey to get here, but I feel so lucky and full of gratitude every single day; and I don’t take any of it for granted,” Birla says.
Having interspersed her releases with live performances at well-known concerts like the Global Citizen festival, Sunburn Festival and Oktoberfest, Birla also makes her love for performing live evident, having come a long way from her low-key gigs around London during those early days. Fans also got to hear and cheer her recently during her Five City India Tour and when she opened for Wiz Khalifa in India.
After the amazing response she received at these events, Birla says she can never tire of the feeling of being on stage, singing to the audience, hearing them sing along and feeling the energy of the crowd. “There is nothing like it in the world!” she exclaims.
Ananya Birla performing at the Sunburn Festival in Pune
A caring heart
If it’s music at one end of Birla’s spectrum of activities, at the other end lies her devotion and contributions to the cause of mental health and well-being. The stigma of suffering from mental illness or psychological issues usually poses myriad challenges for both those who suffer from it, as well as those who want to help. Given India’s highly repressive society, battling this stigma proves to be much more difficult. India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and one of the reasons for this is that people suffering from mental illnesses either do not seek help, or even if they do, they seldom find it, given that there are very few qualified professionals around and treatments tend to be very expensive.
To address these issues, she and her mother, Neerja Birla, decided to do something about it, and with that Mpower was born in 2016. Mpower’s aim was to promote mental health and well-being holistically through various verticals, outreaches and clinical services, and serving it as Co-founder & Vice-chairperson was Ananya Birla. Ever since, the mother-daughter duo, together with the Mpower team have been campaigning tirelessly to stamp out the stigma around mental illness, while providing holistic care, intervention and treatment to those affected. Usually these are people who have been ignored or discriminated against. “We want people to know that it’s okay not to be okay sometimes, and that help is at hand,” says Birla.
Accordingly, one of Birla’s latest initiatives has been to set up a toll free 24×7 helpline number, where those affected or anyone else can talk to a certified therapist. Till now, we are told, nearly 1,00,000 people have called up.
Beyond these, Ananya announces the launch of her brand new charity endeavour ‘Ananya Birla Foundation’ that cements her standing as a serial philanthropist.
Given her multiple engagements, Birla has enough on her plate as a 26-year-old. But she seems to manage it all with surprising aplomb. Her mantra behind this ability to be optimally productive, we are told, is giving as much importance to time management as taking time off to achieve balance. Also, practising self-care is crucial. She thus makes it a point to meditate and exercise every day without fail, even if she is engaged in a marathon session at the studio. Last but not the least, Lady Luck seems to have played a role too in putting together amazing teams for her, who have the kind of talent it takes to make all the difference.
The name and fame that Birla has amassed thus far, especially as a singer, makes her a bit of a youth icon today, one would aver. But rather than bask in the glow of this achievement, Birla is quick to point out that she too has her flaws, revealing a modest side of her that makes her feel blessed instead that she gets to do what she loves and with all the support and love that comes her way. As for her accomplishments, be it as an entrepreneur or musician, all she says she wants to do is show people that they can break down barriers and stereotypes to follow their passions, achieve their dreams, and most importantly, make a positive impact.
Though the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic seems to have put the brakes on Birla’s plans to do more tours in the UK and USA (like the one in India), it has not been able to stop the spirited singer’s enthusiasm, who has just released a new single ‘Let There Be Love’. The release marks yet another major milestone in Birla’s career in that with it she has launched herself as an independent artist, with renowned American music management group Maverick representing her (Maverick is known for managing top icons like The Weekend, Paul McCartney, U2 and Britney Spears, amongst others). ‘Let There Be Love’, we learn from Birla, has already received an overwhelming response, with Sirius XM Hits 1, the renowned ‘Top 40’ pop radio station in the USA, playing the number a week before release and also naming her as ‘Sirius Hits Artist To Watch Out For’. The song has also received support from Radio Disney and Nickelodeon.
‘Let There Be Love’ was in response to the ongoing pandemic and what the whole world is going through right now. While also acknowledging the sparks of hope and joy that have been witnessed along the way, the song goes on to serve as a poignant reminder that love is all we have and it’s family and friends to which love comes down to, in these troubled times.
But there’s more coming, about which, perhaps we’ll have an opportunity to talk to Birla some other time.
Ananya Birla (extreme left) with father Kumar Mangalam Birla (standing), mother Neerja Birla (sitting in front), sister Advaitesha Birla (sitting at the back) and brother Aryaman Birla (sitting, extreme right)