How one woman’s found her true calling and helped better the lives of other women

20th Mar 2016
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She was busy checking all the ‘right boxes’ and climbing the corporate ladder in New York City when she first questioned her inner calling. Anu Ananthakrishnan was well on her way to achieving what she set out to do, and yet, she realised, she felt empty. An inner voice persisted, “Why am I not happy when I was sure this is what I wanted – to make partner at this accounting firm?” says Anu, the creative force behind Aria + Leya, a lingerie brand that inspires women to celebrate their individuality.

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From designing a strategy to making partner to designing bras for Indian women, it has definitely been a big double leap! This life-changing call to completely rewrite her story involved a decision to not play by others’ rules for self-worth and success, and to learn something fresh, which she says was both exciting and terrifying.

She also remembers tossing and turning on Sunday nights dreading the inevitable Monday mornings and saw this as her first clue. Despite having everything going for her, she felt trapped within the office walls and craved creative freedom. “I had gotten to a point where it was more painful to stay in the comfort of the only life I knew, rather than explore unchartered territory”, says Anu with complete clarity.

In her late 20s, this questioning was the result of something more than simple burnout. This prompted me to probe for deeper insight into this change of heart. After a few minutes of thought, she candidly says, “I realised I needed to listen to myself again, find my intuition, and shift my focus to ‘being’ rather than just ‘doing’.” She decided to find who she really was and be that person, completely and unapologetically!

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She mustered the courage to tell her husband, and with his and her family’s encouragement, she moved to Mumbai, her childhood home. This, she says, was her first big step, which provided her the impetus to start afresh. After she got over the initial panic of not knowing what to do, things got easier and she relaxed into the process. She realised she wanted her work to be meaningful and impactful, and that such decisions require time and patience. So, she took a year to travel, read, meditate, and meet people. Mumbai was exactly what she needed as she fell in love once again with the city, for all its soul and character.

By the end of that first year, she knew two things – she wanted Mumbai to be a home-base, and she wanted to work for and with women. This wasn’t an easy decision as her family and husband lived abroad.

And so she did what she had to: She redesigned her world to fit her passions. She moved continents, and persuaded her parents and in-laws that this plan would work. She planned to spend three weeks in Mumbai and three weeks in Hong Kong so she could see her husband regularly, and found a way to balance her personal and professional life without compromising what she believed in. She shares, “My husband has always said that if we both don’t grow, we won’t evolve or be happy together. So we must both do what makes us happy and find a way to make it work.”

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Like many others, her entrepreneurial journey started with an incredible idea and frustration. Her love of lingerie stems from the fact that, “It’s the first thing we put on in the morning, and something we can choose to wear just for ourselves”, she says confidently. But after moving to India, she never found anything that fit right because everything was either comfortable but frumpy or sexy but unwearable. The process of shopping for lingerie also left a lot to be desired. It was always a bit awkward: she’d walk into a shop where she’d be singled out and the salesmen would hand her bras without really knowing much about the sizing. So she would walk out of the store embarrassed and never quite be happy with the experience. The ‘ah ha’ moment came when she was talking to a few girlfriends and realised that they felt the exact same way.

“The production process was humbling to say the least and a huge learning curve for me. I read all the books I could get my hands on to understand fit, patterns, and even the lingo in the lingerie industry. And then, along with a technical designer I found owing to a combination of networking and luck, we began the difficult work — carefully sourcing each of our fabrics and searching high and low for factories that would work with us to produce our designs using superior materials” shares Anu.

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This became the bedrock of Aria + Leya, a brand that produces beautifully designed everyday lingerie, made with high-quality fabrics delivered direct to women online. And all at a reasonable price. “We focused on Indian women specifically by fitting all our sizes on Indian body types – this is definitely something unique to Aria + Leya!”

‘Be Bold. Be True. Be You.’ is not just their brand tagline but also their lens and USP. “Every one of our images, brand communication, and campaigns has our mission statement thoughtfully integrated and that is – to inspire the modern Indian woman to live her life deliberately, with courage and passion. I believe that wearing lingerie that fits well and makes us feel fabulous is just a tiny step in valuing ourselves as women, and carving our own paths. We each have our unique versions of success; what matters is that we are supported and support each other along the way”, expresses Anu confidently.

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She is designing a brand that resists the male gaze. Lingerie has been marketed for as long as we remember as a sexualised product, but Aria + Leya is here to change that. Their launch campaign carefully chose real women from different walks of life that live the philosophy of the brand. The festive campaigns were also conceptualised to empower women to pursue self-love and self-worth. They were well-received, and now the brand is on its way to build a strong community that relentlessly drives this message.

Most importantly, this idea didn’t make her dread Monday mornings. And the excitement of doing something ‘empowering’ for Indian women made her eager to get to work! “I love spending time with my girlfriends. When we get together, share stories, and encourage each other to dream, a little magic happens”, she said giggling like a little girl. Woven right into the fabric of the brand, is this ‘magic,’ – a social mission to build a community of women that shares ideas and speaks up about things they care about – about change, real beauty, and impact.“

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The brand extension is also witnessed in the backend process where they drive social change; By partnering with an NGO that works to train women from the Red Light District in Kolkata to sew the cotton bags Aria + Leya uses for their packaging, she has taken her first step towards empowering women towards more freedom in their lives.

As women, we are constantly conditioned that our second name is ‘sacrifice’, but it is up to us to reverse this conditioning if we want to write our own story. Anu’s story is an example of the fact that building this world starts with each of us: She hopes her story inspires every woman, who is reluctant to move mountains to make her dream come true, because anything is possible if we truly, deeply, desperately want it.

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