I was 13 when Mint was founded, the same age as my little sister today. Naturally, the last 10 years have been transformative. If there is something I have learnt in this time, it is to make my path and follow my beliefs. I went from playing state-level football, starting my first business before I had left school, to making my international music debut in the midst of three start-up ventures. Our country, too, changed at an incredible pace. We found evidence of water on the moon through Chandrayaan, won our first individual gold at the 2008 Olympics and came through the financial crisis as one of the fastest-growing economies on the planet.
While the West seems to be frozen in fear right now, the optimism in India is palpable. I believe this has to do with the support for our country’s youth. The most obvious is that we don’t always see change as bad now; where some people might want to marry beyond their castes or faiths, others might not want to get married at all, and Indian pop songs don’t have to be central to Bollywood.
There is room for change and an opportunity for Generation Next to earn respect. At age 17, when I said I wanted to run a microfinance organization, many people said I was far too young. They would have said the same if I had started at 22. But I proved I could do it and in a fresh way, using technology. Today, Svatantra Microfinance operates across four states, at the vanguard of what I call Microfinance 2.0. By enabling people to receive and pay money via their mobile phones, avoiding costly cash collections and deposits, we can deliver lower interest rates to customers than our competitors.
This kind of innovation shows how technological change can be positive and benefit young and old alike. The driver is, of course, the Internet. Nowadays, our predecessors are just as well-versed in learning about the world online, or shopping, or connecting with the next generation. Perhaps the only area where youth has a head start is the ubiquitous social media. This means we are perhaps more comfortable with expressing our personal feelings and doing so more publicly. As millennials start their own businesses or enter the not-so-often trodden space, self-expression is becoming the norm across society.
I believe, though, that the direction to follow should be one of self-awareness. Honest expressions on social media lead to an overall attractive outlook and, personally, I think the application is redundant if one is not true in one’s expression of the self.
Take mental health. When I was at university in England, I worked at a telephone helpline for students struggling with work, relationships, and just being young in a high-pressure environment. Many of the callers talked about depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. I learnt that mental illness affects one in five people during their lives, with most conditions readily treatable. My mind boggled when I thought of how many people were suffering unnecessarily in India, in complete silence.
When I returned to Mumbai, I set up an initiative with my mother called Mpower Minds, to raise awareness of mental health issues and to improve access to good treatment. One of our biggest challenges was the taboo on discussing mental health. To combat this, we created a digital platform to encourage sufferers to speak out. In just six months, large numbers were coming forward on social media, wanting to talk about their personal situations, confident of a fair hearing. This has the makings of profound, positive change that could eventually influence the well-being of hundreds of millions of Indians.
Such openness is quite novel for India, and perhaps at odds with the rest of the world, where society is trending conservative. I believe this opening up will continue in the next decade, and become an important cultural force in our country’s development: through literature, art, design, fashion, the media, and my first love—music.
I chose to take up music as a career path as it is a language that transcends boundaries and helps communicate with today’s youth globally in a language we can identify with. Technology is the enabler, to share my thoughts, gauge sentiments and build communities of like-minded people.
In the same way that music brings together different elements, we collectively can make a positive change.
By marrying technology with creativity, we can change India and the world for the better. And to do that, we’ll need everyone behind us.
Ananya Birla is an entrepreneur turned pop star
This is part of a series of articles in Mint’s 10th anniversary special issue that look at India 10 years from now. The entire list of articles can be found here