Young and Feisty
Svatantra Microfin’s Ananya Birla wants to make her mark in the start-up ecosystem
Ananya Birla was just 17 when she told her mother that she wanted to start a microfinance company. She had just got back home after a long day at school. The query from her mother revolved around what a microfinance company did, to which the teenager explained the concept in detail. At the end of that conversation, her mother’s response was, “Do it.”
Now the obvious choice would have been to go to her father Kumar Mangalam Birla with the idea. After all, KMB does know a thing or two about starting a business, but Ananya has never discussed business with her father. “I know it sounds funny, but I will call him for the silliest things like what he thinks of a name. It is always around the creative side on which I normally get his opinion,” she says. In her opinion, this exhibits the trust that Birla has in what she does. “He will often say how proud he is of me or that I have an emotional quotient of a 40-year old. It is nice to hear all this, but there is no business talk,” she says with a laugh. It is her mother that Ananya is closer to. “If there is something that bothers me, I will speak to her. We are the best of friends, but she is still my mom!”
The interest in microfinance was preceded by a lot of reading and discussion at that point. “It was then that the microfinance crisis was at its peak in Andhra Pradesh,” says Ananya, who is now 22 and has just launched her second business venture, CuroCarte, an e-commerce platform selling high-end luxury products.
Born into an illustrious family — her father Kumar Mangalam Birla, runs the $41 billion Aditya Birla Group and mother Neerja Birla, is a scion of the Kasliwal family — did not necessarily mean Ananya would get into the existing businesses. “I was given the freedom to do anything that I wanted, but the advice from my parents was to give my best in whatever I did. It was coincidental that my interest was in start-ups,” she says, seated in her sprawling bungalow on Mumbai’s tony Carmichael Road.
The importance of a famous surname and what it meant, sunk in when she was around 12. “I realised I had a lot more than many others. I consider myself quite fortunate to be in this position,” she says. Her debut start-up, Svatantra Microfinance, with seed funding of Rs.5 crore, has so far disbursed Rs.500 crore across one lakh borrowers in five states — Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. In all, there are 90 branches and she expects the business to break-even this year. Svatantra offers financial assistance to women entrepreneurs in areas with limited access to finance.
Though they haven’t applied for a license yet, she has her eyes on setting up a small financial bank, as the next step. Her great-great-grandfather, Ghanshyam Das Birla founded UCO Bank in 1943, before it was nationalised in 1969, along with 14 other banks. “Now, I want to do a 360-degree turn and start a bank. His effort was taken away and I want to recreate that,” says Ananya quietly.
Though it is early days for CuroCarte which went live this September, Ananya’s mind is already ticking. “We will have something later this year around music. It gives me a chance to turn my passion into something professional,” says the young entrepreneur, who is also an avid strummer.
While Ananya was growing up, conversations at the dinner table centered on routine issues like what she did at school or some project work. “Even today, we leave work at the office. It surely plays on our minds but is never discussed,” she says. With time and busier schedules, it gets difficult for family time. Her father is back home by around 8 pm, while she works quite late. Her mother usually spends a lot of time with her brother and sister. “To us, Sunday afternoon is family time, when all of us have lunch together,” she says.
If there was no conversation around business, there are memories of it in other forms. Ananya recalls that when she was around seven, she visited her father’s office in Industry House — the group’s iconic headquarters before moving to central Mumbai’s Worli area — and enjoyed a dosa in the cafeteria, while Birla was constantly on the phone discussing an upcoming deal.
Her interest in start-ups comes from the opportunity of creating a big idea from scratch. “I really think a CuroCarte product can be in every home. It could just be a 4×4 phone cover,” thinks Ananya. She is sourcing handmade products from nine countries — India, Spain, Portugal, Thailand, Morocco, France, Indonesia, UK and Vietnam. In all, there will be around 1,500 products across 70 product categories, including vases, coasters, picture frames and mobile phone covers. According to her, it is the potential of a small idea that can be transformational. “The fact is every large business, that one sees today, was once a start-up,” she says.
Ananya may have just begun her entrepreneurial streak, but there is no masking her will to succeed. “When it comes to business, I am actually an extremist. I cannot be number two,” she maintains. Over time, she has understood that emotions have to be demarcated from business. “I was a lot more emotional while setting up Svatantra than CuroCarte,” she says. The transformation is more obvious to her. “I am more confident with a greater sense of self-awareness. I understand business better and think I have been able to create a name for myself in what I do,” she says confidently.
At University of Oxford, from where Ananya acquired a degree in economics and management, there was no procrastination on her work related to Svatantra. She would wake up at 6 am and spend about half an hour jogging or at the gym before getting on a Skype call with the team in India. “It was not easy, but I think I was quite determined and that helped,” she says on how she juggled responsibilities.
The schedule at Oxford also had her playing football at the university. However, her interest in sports, in some form, was inculcated quite early through chess. Ananya struggles to remember when she got started, but by the age of 12, she was playing at the national level. “I practised for six to seven hours daily and was mentored by a coach who motivated me,” she recalls. Currently, she only plays twice a month with her younger sister, Advaitesha. “We play only for leisure and I allow her to win,” she grins. In work though, chess has been a big learning. According to her, there can be many approaches to a situation, but to take the right one is always a challenge. “The importance of the right approach is what I picked up from chess,” says Ananya.
In every possible way, she likes to keep things simple and devoid of any jargon. She cites the case of Svatantra, where it was important to understand every term for greater clarity. “It just helped me simplify everything,” she says. Since then, she refrains from indulging in business jargon. “In the end, it is all about how much effort I put in and how much I get in return. If you understand that conceptually, there is no place for jargon,” she believes. This has been her approach at the workspace as well. “I keep telling my team, ‘I do not want to know what you learnt during your MBA’,” says Ananya.
From the time she set up the Svatantra office, which in her words was nothing more than a corridor, before moving into something larger, it has been quite a journey. Ananya admits that there are risks in the microfinance business. “To address this, we do intensive groundwork to reduce delinquency and attrition. The mentality among our target segment is that cash is king, but I was clear we had to go cashless,” she says. Svatantra payments are done through bank accounts.
Her initial success with Svatantra gave her the confidence to sink her teeth into the e-commerce business, one she had been tracking for a while. According to her, the game today, is not about discounting. She therefore saw the market for something like CuroCarte emerging for the youth, who aspire for luxury goods. “These are people who start their jobs early and travel a lot, hence they are aware. There is a huge opportunity in new-age design and handmade products,” she says. Here too, she took her time before telling her father. “I was not sure if we could get it right on the model, where we are currently sourcing from nine countries. When I told my father what it was all about, he said it was a path-breaking idea,” says Ananya, with glee. The plan for the business, which has got off the ground with an initial funding of Rs.6 crore, is to source from more countries. “Now, my mother wants to be the first CuroCarte client,” she quips.
With two start-ups under her belt and the third around music in the works, she has her hands full. Along with incessant travelling, Ananya quite enjoys all the effort that goes into the execution of an idea. When asked if she ever contemplated being anything than an entrepreneur, she takes a minute to think through and answer. “This is my passion and this is what I was meant to do. It just feels right and I am really at peace with myself,” she trails off.