What does it take to be the first? From the numerous interviews we’ve conducted with successful disrupters, there seems to be a formula of key attributes, personality traits, and, yes, failures that pave the way for female pioneers, or as we like to call them, Womaneers. By definition, she’s a woman who defies societal norms with heroism and tenacity to become a pioneering voice in her field. Each month, we will share a new womaneer’s story to uncover their vision, grit, persistence, grace, and drive to keep going despite the odds. The time of the womaneer is now.
Have you ever thought back to what you were doing at 17 years old? I was just wrapping up my last year in high school and planning what college I was going to attend. But for the talented musician Ananya Birla, this was the year when she launched her first business, Svatantra (a microfinance organization that helps empower rural women and makes them economically independent).
Notice how I said "first" business. That's right. Birla is a passionate philanthropic entrepreneur who also runs a mental health initiative called Mpower that works to dispell the stigma associated with mental health illnesses in India. Oh, and she is the first Indian artist with an English single to go platinum for her last two singles Hold On and Meant to Be. No biggie.
Did we also mention that Birla is just 24 years old? This is certainly a woman to watch and fits the womaneer profile perfectly. Read on to hear more about how she broke into the music industry, what her biggest barriers have been, and what it really takes to be a female pioneer.
Can you recall that light bulb moment or the trigger that motivated you to pursue your current path?
I have always loved music. For as long as I can remember, it has been a central part of my life and a constant companion through good times and bad. I was not always convinced that I could make a career out of it. I harbored a secret ambition to enter the music industry, but there were pressures to do something more conventional and, at times, I was scared to turn my passion into a career.
When I was at Oxford University in the UK, I had a bit of a difficult time adjusting and began to use music as an escape. I was writing my own music and performing on a regular basis around London. There was nothing that made me happier.
I remember one particular occasion when I was playing a gig at this slightly grungy venue in Camden, right next to where Amy Winehouse started out. I was singing a few originals and a few covers, on a pretty dodgy and quite sticky “stage” in the corner of a dark room to a small crowd who were there drinking, chatting, and doing their own thing. I think that the whole setup might have been disheartening for some people, but it just made me realize that wherever I was, and whoever I was playing to, this was what I loved more than anything and what I wanted to devote myself to.
It made me feel complete.
Later that night, people began smiling and grooving to the songs. I began to see the amazing magic of music, how it can impact the way people feel and make them happy. That is always my aim with my songs, to engage with people on an emotional level and bring a smile to their face.
Did you face any immediate challenges? What was the biggest barrier you had to overcome?
I’m naturally a very a shy person, so I found it very difficult to make myself vulnerable to the world. Since launching my first single, and particularly since going platinum at the end of last year, I feel like I have a duty to my fans to share a part of myself with them in every single. That’s an amazing honor but also a lot of pressure.
In the music industry, as a woman, you are expected to look, act, and talk a certain way, and it’s been a challenge to maintain my sense of self and not buckle under pressure to only show this perfect, poised version of me. I love being a woman and I am incredibly proud of it; my female friendships are everything to me.
I think I have a responsibility to my female fans to stay as authentic as possible. I’m constantly on social media without a scrap of makeup, wearing jeans and a Spongebob T-shirt, and being silly with my girlfriends. I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not in order to get ahead in the industry. No career is worth sacrificing your values for.
What are some of the earlier experiences that helped to shape your career/path?
Since I was really young, music has helped me to deal with difficult times in my life by giving me the ability to express myself when I’m struggling to articulate and vocalize how I feel. I have also always been in awe of the way music can reach and share an emotional experience with a wide audience around the world.
Throughout my life, there have been songs from artists of all genres, like Kurt Cobain, Eminem, Demi Lovato that have had a huge emotional impact on me. I really related to the feelings behind them and in many cases, they have had quite a transformative effect on me. I see music as this amazing universal language that can connect with people regardless of nationality, gender, sexuality or social background.
Now, tell us about your movement MPOWER. What was that pioneering moment like for you?
I established my mental health initiative MPower with my mother. I had struggled with anxiety and panic attacks during my time at university and witnessed first-hand the self-defeating results of putting yourself under so much pressure to perform.
When I returned to India, the issues around addressing mental health became even more evident. I realized that while I had received help and support, the vast majority of people didn’t. With MPower, we wanted to support people with mental health issues who are frequently ignored or discriminated against. We campaign and provide amazing care for people and their families when they are going through a tough time.
How did you turn this initial concept into a successful organization? When did you notice the need for it?
I noticed the need for it after experiencing my own mental health issues, personally feeling the shame that surrounds it, the difficulties speaking out about it, and the barriers that can hold people back from getting support.
Currently, someone attempts suicide every three seconds in India, and there are only around 3500 physiatrists serving the 1.3 billion people living there. These are just a couple of the shocking statistics that clearly show the need for organizations like ours.
Do you think it's harder or easier for female entrepreneurs to start out today? Why?
I think that depends where you are in the world; it’s important to acknowledge that different women experience different social, cultural and economic conditions which affect their path in life. Some people are in areas or situations where education and access to opportunities are a lot more plentiful and have fewer barriers to entry.
I believe that regardless of where they are born, all women have a huge amount of potential, and it’s up to everyone to make sure that they have the freedom and opportunity to seek self-fulfillment and self-actualization.
For example, in India, women face a whole range of unique cultural conditions that mean they lack access to financial tools that women in other parts of the world might take for granted—credit, for example. Whereas in some parts of the world we might take our bank accounts and overdrafts for granted, in India many rural women simply can’t get them because women tend to have no collateral (ownership and wealth is traditionally kept on the male side and passed down through the male line), or because women are simply expected to stay at home and tend to everyone else, or because being way out in the countryside means the nearest bank or access to banking technology is a few days walk away.
That’s why I started Svatantra, which offers fair and accessible microloans to women who have started building small businesses and want to grow their enterprise and improve their quality of life.
What does being a Womaneer mean to you? What qualities and attributes do you think it takes?
For me, it’s about sensitivity coupled with fearlessness. It’s about going on your own journey of self-discovery and using what you learn to leave the world better than you found it.
It’s also about living in a way that’s totally authentic to yourself, being brave and making yourself vulnerable and in turn creating a space for other people to do the same. That’s something I hope to do with my work around mental health advocacy and through MPower, I think it’s up to people like me with a public platform to take a stand and do something about shattering the stigma.
How do you shake off the fear and doubt to pursue your dream?
Strong self-belief is crucial to successfully pursue any dream. When I started Svatantra at 17, the industry was overwhelmingly older and male, so I had to dig my heels in and find the confidence to say I have a right to be here, and my opinions are valid. I had to balance out my lack of experience with my enthusiasm and willingness to learn.
I also have a trusted circle of people that give me honest feedback and that I bounce my ideas off. It’s massively important to have that outside perspective to quell any unnecessary doubts and help you look at things a little bit differently, through someone else’s frame of reference.
While we can often be tempted to focus on everything that might or did go wrong, other people can help us put things back in perspective and keep our attitude in a positive place.
What is the one thing you think every woman needs to become a pioneer in their own field?
We need to give women the space to take risks, and in order to do this, we need to allow women to fail. Failure is an inherent possibility for every pioneer, and we need to remind women that it’s not something to be afraid of or paralyzed by.
For me, this ties in rejecting the notion of perfection, and instead aiming for excitement, originality, and impact. I think society puts the burden on females (be they entrepreneurs, artists, or simply members of our family/friendship group) to be perfect or at least strive to maintain the illusion of perfection. How boring! I would rather get messy, experiment, push the boundaries of myself and those around me.
On a day-to-day basis it’s all about the balance of not worrying about the outcome, but constantly working toward it. Push forward, but be totally present whilst doing so.
Ahead Birla shares some of her favorite, empowering reads to help inspire and motivate you in your career too:
“It’s a raw, intense, and beautiful exploration of female identity, social expectations, creative ambition, and mental health. I think a lot of Womaneers would relate in some way to the themes that The Bell Jar journeys through. Warning: This book may make your jaw drop and rip your heart wide open. But it’s worth it.”
“It’s a heavy read, but it’s worth persevering (and finding online guides and notes to help you digest it). If you have ever experienced self-doubt or wondered if you are on the right path, it can really help. It puts things in perspective and reminds you that we humans have been grappling with the same inner battles for thousands of years.”
“This book is a metaphorical story about not accepting the limits imposed on you, even if they come from well-meaning people who love you. It also taught me the importance of doing things for the sheer love of them, rather than because it’s what is expected of you or because you expect to get something out of it.”