Sabarinath M and R Sriram
The Economic Times
24 December 2014
Mumbai: The wider Birla family comprising the various brothers and their cousins with their far-flung empires is known for some crucial firsts in the history of Indian business. Much before gender equality and the role of women in leadership positions became a favourite talking point with consultants and talking heads on TV, women, such as Shobhana Bhartia, have headed key Birla group companies across diverse sectors such as media and commodities.
Aditya Vikram Birla, father of Kumar Mangalam Birla, built a business empire spanning continents much before globalisation became a virtue and the borders of the country were deemed too small to accommodate the ambitions of the aspiring Indian entrepreneur.
Ananya Birla, daughter of Kumar Mangalam and Neerja Birla and grand daughter of Aditya Vikram Birla, is not yet a household name. You would not yet see her in business conferences or award ceremonies nor does she grace the covers of business magazines or deliver homilies on accountability and responsible governance. She is just 21.
At this age, most business scions are either completing their education in western universities and getting ready to join their father in the family business. But Ananya's career path has taken a different route and exemplifies a bit of the restless spirit that imbued her grandfather when he was searching for opportunities to put his ideas to work several decades ago. For some months in a year she is at Oxford, studying economics and management as an undergraduate student. The rest of the time, she works out of a highrise overlooking Mumbai's famous Dadar locality on one side and the Arabian Sea on the other.
This is the office of Svatantra, India's youngest microfinance firm, funded by the Kumar Mangalam Birla family and headed by Ananya. It was started about one-and-a-half years ago and now boasts of 18 branches in seven districts across two states with about 100 employees.
"I just came from school one day and told my mom I want to start my finance company," she says laughing. On a more serious note, the idea of starting a microfinance firm came to her during the tumult in Andhra Pradesh. The alleged usurious interest rates charged by microfinance firms lending to poor borrowers aroused her interest. Ananya, who made a few trips to AP to learn what was going on, relates an anecdote from her Mumbai experience to stress the importance of access to finance for the poor.
"There is this nariyal pani wallah who sells coconut water nearby. Since I have been about 13, I have always stopped there to have coconut water. I never saw his business grow. So I just had a casual conversation with him and asked him why it remained the same. I have been seeing papa's business and how it was growing so fast at that young age. He said that he was sort of short of funds. And banks were not willing to lend to him because he didn't have any physical collateral to give to them."
Svatantra, Ananya says, is a complete startup. It was funded with money from the family but the family involvement stopped there except for some advice and feedback from time to time. "I have this passion for building things, so I always wanted to build a startup. I always wanted to start my own company," says Ananya. This obviously does not mean there will be no role for her in the father's business. Like Kumar Birla, who was groomed for a long time before he took over as chairman after AV Birla's demise, Ananya will also get her turn though she says that, for now, there is nothing in the offing.
Wouldn't it have been easier for her to walk up to her father and request him to let her work in one of his companies to secure the requisite business experience? "I wanted to prove to myself I can do something on my own. Not for the world, but for myself. To have that self-confidence. I knew that it was going to be a fulfilling experience and 10 years down the line I will look back and be very proud of myself, knowing that I started right from scratch, and I took the tougher way, and I have progressed so far these 10 years.
"I feel very grateful and blessed about the opportunities that I may have in the future, but I haven't really thought about it at this stage. I want to complete my education, learn more about life, build my personality and keep expanding Svatantra," she adds. Her father and family helped, but not by direct decisions or intervention.
"My father has never influenced the strategy anywhere. We do have work-related discussions. I talk to him and say, papa, this is what is going on. I keep updating him." Microfinance can be a tricky business because of regulatory hurdles and vulnerability to political interference. She says Svatantra has taken care to ensure that incidents that got the industry into trouble do not recur.
For instance, Svatantra does cashless disbursals to borrowers through their bank accounts. Agents and field officers do not carry money with them. Joint lending groups in villages ensure everybody stands guarantee for the other. She says that the firm does not have NPAs yet but that is bound to change as it expands and becomes bigger. "I started from scratch, built a team, built the processes, did the research work."
The passion for starting something new is not restricted to Ananya alone, though she may be one of the few business family scions to study and manage a business at the same time. Kavin Mittal, son of Sunil Bharti Mittal, is another one to launch a startup and create something new.
Others like Rishad Premji and Rohan Murty have either joined the father's family business or begun working on a new initiative started by the family. Business experts like Kavil Ramachandran of Indian School of Business (ISB) believe this is an excellent strategy to groom Ananya as a responsible inheritor of the family's business wealth.
"She is learning and proving her mettle as an entrepreneur, that too in microfinance. It is by acquiring deep insight into the realities of life that one becomes a great leader, whether in business or life, and not by starting one's career as a board member. She will thus be able to command great respect when she sits on the board of the group at a later date."
That date may not be far off considering that the grooming of Kumar Mangalam Birla also began at a young age. But while the father learnt his spurs in the group's enterprises, the daughter has struck out on her own to build something at a young age. If successful, she may be able to command respect among senior colleagues of the vast Aditya Birla group, not as a passive inheritor but as an entrepreneur who created something of value at a young age in a difficult business.
Dr. Pragnya RamGroup Executive President, Corporate Communications & CSRAditya Birla Management Corporation Private LimitedAditya Birla Centre, 1st Floor, 'C' WingS.K. Ahire Marg, WorliMumbai 400 030.
91-22-6652 5000 /2499 5000
Fax: 91-22-6652 5741/ 42