Female Entrepreneurs: Meet Ankiti Bose, Zilingo's 28-Year-Old CEO
Ankiti Bose may be the CEO of one of Southeast Asia’s near-unicorn companies but the 28-year-old still battles a stigma that will probably be all too familiar to many women.
“If I go to a meeting with a male colleague, most people will automatically assume he’s the senior one, or that I’m the assistant. It’s not super easy to be a woman on the ground in the commerce or trade business,” says Bose, who launched Zilingo, a technology platform for the fashion industry, with co-founder Dhruv Kapoor in 2015, when she was just 23 years old. Still, she has not let this obstacle stop her from growing the company to its US$970 million valuation today—just $30 million short of the magic US$1 billion figure to be termed a unicorn. Its backers include US venture capital firm Sequoia Capital and Singapore state investment company Temasek Holdings.
Her secret, she says, is that instead of taking offence when she is mistaken for the underling, she chooses to focus on her goal of empowering the underdog through her work.
“Gender inequality is a systemic issue, so I think it is more important that we focus on making more women successful. When more people see women leading, this view will no longer be commonly perpetuated,” she told Tatler Singapore over a Zoom call from her home in Singapore during the country’s circuit breaker period to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
These may sound like lofty words but levelling the playing field in various ways is exactly what this dreamer has been doing since she made the jump to entrepreneurship in 2015 after working as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company and an investment analyst at Sequoia.
She first got the idea to start an online platform while shopping at the Chatuchak market in Bangkok. She noticed how the sellers were suffering from reduced footfall due to the proliferation of online shopping. This sparked her idea to create an e-commerce site that sellers could use to reach out to a wider pool of customers around the world, and Zilingo was founded. In 2016, a year after launching Zilingo for small businesses, she had another realisation that she could expand the platform to include larger swathes of the fashion industry’s supply chain.
“We realised small businesses have many more problems. For example, when they source goods from factories, there are agents that destroy their margins. Or they do not have credit history for loans. It’s super unfair as everything is stacked up against them,” she says.
In a bid to “make the fashion industry fairer, more transparent and more sustainable”, she decided to expand Zilingo’s services to the B2B sector. For example, factories can source for trims, buttons or ribbons directly from suppliers, and merchants can buy products from factories via the site. “By connecting the supply chain, transactions happen with clarity on the platform, the middlemen are gone and everybody is held responsible for their end of the bargain.”
She sees this disruptive move as one of the turning points in her path to growing Zilingo to become the behemoth that it is today. Today, while the e-commerce portal still exists, the bulk of Zilingo’s business comes from its B2B services, which connects over 75,000 small and medium-sized businesses to more than 4,000 factories. Most of these businesses are located in Southeast Asia as well as India and China. On top of this, the company also provides its merchants across the supply chain with software and financial services to assist them in making the transition to the digital space.
Next, she is setting her sights on continuing to empower females in fashion, a cause which is close to her heart. Besides the fact that workers in fashion tend to be female, about 60 per cent of the merchants who work with Zilingo have at least one founder or partner who is female, notes Bose. “Our business in general is such that it empowers women, so as long as we strive to do better each day, I think we’re going to keep helping more and more females. That’s an important personal purpose,” she says.
This mission is evident in the organisation as well. “We have women’s circles, which is where we come together and talk about issues that are holding us back from leaning in more,” she says. The company also holds female-specific coaching sessions to equip women with skills to navigate their careers. “The challenges women face are different from men. Most struggle with expectations of managing their home and children versus what they’re expected to do at work. So, managers and coaches keep that in mind—it is incredibly important that there’s empathy for the expectations that women have to meet.”
Still, the golden girl of Southeast Asia’s start-up scene has not managed to escape some controversy. In April, Zilingo made headlines when it laid off about seven per cent of its 900-strong global staff. Axed employees, which included those based in Singapore, expressed their unhappiness that the lay-offs were poorly handled.
Admitting that this has been the most difficult decision she has had to make, Bose tackles this issue head-on. The big challenge, she acknowledges, was having to conduct the exercise via video calls. “The absurdity of the Covid-19 situation is that we had to make these tough decisions and relay them over calls. The result is that some humanity is lost in the process of doing restructuring.”
Since the retrenchment exercise, the company has been in constant contact with affected employees almost daily on a one-on-one basis to address their concerns. “Non-compete clauses have been rightly waived while we’re working hard to ensure they’re placed well by creating a roster with professional details, reference letters, and tapping into our own networks,” a statement issued by Zilingo elaborates.
Bose also set the record straight on initial reports that most of the affected were Singaporeans. This is factually incorrect, she says. The majority of the retrenched employees were from the company’s US and Australia offices, which Zilingo recently closed, following a restructuring to focus on its core business in Asia.
This move, Bose says, had been in the works for a while, but was accelerated by the pandemic. “Retail consumption patterns in the US and Europe showed that big brands were already not doing so well but what Covid-19 did is to basically cause consumption outside of Asia to drop to zero overnight—there was no discretionary spending,” she explains.
Bose also believes Asia will be the first part of the world to recover from the crisis, hence it makes sense to focus efforts in this region. She is placing her faith in the resolute response of governments in Asia, including China, India and Singapore. “I think Asia will bounce back fast. We’ll adapt very quickly to the changes that need to happen and will emerge stronger out of this crisis.”
She has also sprang into action to help the company’s partner suppliers pivot their businesses. To counter the decrease in fashion manufacturing, Zilingo is working with factories to transform their production lines to make personal protective equipment, which is currently in short supply globally.
In the longer term, while Bose predicts it will take up to two years for the economy to recover, she is confident Zilingo is well-placed to thrive in a post-Covid world.
“This is such a long crisis and it’s making us all stay at home and think hard about our lives and become very thoughtful about retail. So now more than ever, we need companies that will straighten out the supply chain so that there are no leakages. We will play the role of the digital backend to make the fashion industry more tech-enabled and transparent,” she says. “It’s impossible to physically do business now, so I think only the digital businesses will overcome the challenges, survive and become stronger.”