Cover story: Ankiti Bose, CEO of Zilingo, wants to level the playing field for women
Ankiti Bose is your typical idealistic millennial determined to make a difference. At 27, she is also one of Asia’s youngest female CEOs leading a start‐up worth nearly US$1 billion. Four years ago, she co‐founded Zilingo, a fashion platform based in Singapore, which raised US$226 million in its most recent round of funding from investors such as Sequoia Capital, Temasek Holdings Private Limited and Burda Principal Investments. Zilingo is currently well on its way to unicorn status with a valuation of US$970 million.
Idealism is considered by many to be an Achilles heel, but Ankiti has proven with her success that there is strength in daring to dream. As she shares Zilingo’s journey and her passion for empowering others, it is clear in her conviction that Ankiti is set on fighting for the underdogs. In fact, it was her seemingly simple idea of helping small businesses compete with larger corporations that led to the birth of Zilingo.
While on holiday in Bangkok in 2014, she visited the popular Chatuchak market, where she noticed how the local designers and micro‐entrepreneurs lacked the means to take their businesses further. Most of the vendors were simply putting their label on clothes from a wholesaler, then selling them at the market, she discovered. They were not trying to expand their businesses to become global brands, and they had no fight against the big international fashion brands.
But the Indian national saw potential in them and had a solution to help these small businesses grow. Technology, she believed, would level the playing field for these small businesses.
With experience in management consulting at McKinsey & Company and venture capital in the technology industry at Sequoia Capital, Ankiti started Zilingo in Thailand with her business partner and CTO Dhruv Kapoor as an online marketplace to help merchants reach more customers. Small businesses list their products for free and Zilingo takes a 10 to 20 percent cut from each order.
“I really want to help small merchants and manufacturers do better. It bothers me that some companies can make an 80 percent profit margin while others are struggling to keep the lights on,” says Ankiti. “And it’s not their fault because when you’re a small or young business, all the cards are stacked against you.”
After spending more time with the first 100 merchants that signed up and even trying to be merchants on Zilingo themselves to understand the user experience, Ankiti and her founding team realised that there was more to be done. These merchants lacked access to the same economies of scale that bigger brands had, such as in manufacturing. To solve this, Zilingo developed software and introduced supply chain capabilities in 2016 – the same year the company and Ankiti moved to Singapore. This meant merchants now had access to everything they needed to run a business, from design to product development, procurement services, distribution, customer service, data analytics and more. This business‐to‐business solution addressed a pain point for many merchants and is now the largest part of the business.
In 2017, the company started to offer financial services to merchants who needed capital. “This created a big shift because suddenly, if you’re a big guy with money, or a small guy without money, it didn’t make much of a difference,” says Ankiti. Zilingo is now a “full-stack platform that helps unlock massive value across the fashion supply chain by connecting the highly fragmented landscape”.
Merchants continue to be at the centre of the business. Today, Zilingo serves some 30,000 of them across 14 countries: India, Bangladesh, South Korea, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Australia, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil and the US. On top of the financial services, the company also ensures its merchants get access to benefits such as health insurance and even scholarships. Last year, Zilingo gave out scholarships to 200 of its merchants in Indonesia to learn English.
“We’re helping business owners scale their enterprise and, in turn, their livelihoods. Zilingo has to be, in every way, a better experience. A little bit more money is never enough incentive. It has to fundamentally be better for them, help them do business better, and genuinely make their lives better,” says Ankiti.“You can’t just change their lives; you have to change their lives so much that they won’t shift back to their old behaviour.”
She for she
In addition to helping small businesses, a second driving force in Ankiti’s life is to empower other women. Despite a hectic schedule that sees her working 18‐hour days and travelling most of the time, Ankiti makes it a point to coach and mentor young entrepreneurs and women on an almost‐daily basis.
“I love spending time with women who are also founding their own businesses or even women in our company. Because I really think that most of them are held back by an internalised misogyny we all have that causes us to automatically devalue ourselves. And I love to break that in people.
“You would be shocked at how many women undervalue themselves. For most of the women in my company, I have to convince them to ask for a bigger raise.”
Ankiti says this is an issue across her offices worldwide, both in more-developed cities such as New York as well as developing ones such as Jakarta. “Women are just so happy every time they get whatever they get. But you are worth so much more. I tell them, ‘Ask for what you’re worth and then fight with me for it.’”
With the tech world still being very much a man’s world, Ankiti is also taking it upon herself to change that. “At my previous jobs, men were always the majority and I was very often the only woman in the room. So even in my generation, we’re not seeing enough women leaders in tech.”
Representation is key to inspiring the next generation of leaders, she says. “It automatically helps if you see more women, or more Asians, or more LGBTQ leaders. Depending on what you stand for, you will feel like, ‘That’s possible for me.’”
Currently, women make up more than half of Zilingo’s staff. Almost half of the C-level executives, as well as Ankiti’s entire CEO’s Office team, which comprises her Chief of Staff, Business Associate and Executive Assistant, are female. “It’s great because girls will pull each other up and I intend to keep it that way. There’s a lot of feminism going around in this company, so much so that I always tell the people who join Zilingo as a first job that they have no idea what the real world is like.”
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She describes it as a utopia. “In our office, girl bosses are just walking around doing what they want and nobody bats an eyelid. Many of my younger employees may think this is normal when in fact, in many countries and other companies, it’s not true.”
It all stems from her desire to rebel against the system and make a difference. “When you’re a child, maybe it’s Harry Potter versus Voldemort or David versus Goliath. When you grow up, it starts to become about small business versus big business, or being a woman in a tech world, and you realise it’s a systemic problem. Power is always very concentrated and it’s impossible to change the world in one go. But I want to try and do what I can.”
She adds: “In order to make a big difference, there has to be enough women in powerful positions in tech companies, as founders and as investors. And I want to make sure that the 15- or 20-year-olds of today have it better than we did. I want young girls to know they can like make-up and coding. You can like Barbies and be a CEO.”
What goes around comes around
While she considers herself an exception to the rule, Ankiti acknowledges that the entrepreneurial journey is a rocky one often riddled with anxiety and depression. “I think I had an unfair advantage, because I’m a pathologically optimistic person,” she says. “I’m never sad because of failure, so I think I deal with it differently. We’ve had so many failures along the way because we were trying so many things and most of them don’t work. So you need to be extremely positive and resilient; you need to believe that something is going to work and that you will figure it out.”
Having said that, she concedes that her relentless positivity is not the norm among people around her, and that they might succumb to the pressure of “this high-speed, high-octane, high-adrenaline set-up, where you’re constantly worried about the consequences and what’s going to happen”. For this reason, she has made mental health a priority at Zilingo: Staff get medical leave for mental health and reimbursements for expenses if they choose to get professional help.
As of three months ago, the company has also introduced a coaching and leadership transformation programme aimed at strengthening the bonds between co-workers, and improving their professional and personal development. In workshops organised by third parties, staff get individual as well as group coaching and feedback. Ankiti also participates in the workshops, and says it helps to bring out some passive-aggressive issues among colleagues and resolve them. “It’s very emotional and kind of like work therapy,” she says. “Frankly, therapy is the best thing and we all need it.
“In a sense, we have therapy ingrained into our HR so that everybody has an outlet. This all also stems from one of Zilingo’s key values of continuous learning. We have to ensure that we are always becoming better versions of ourselves professionally, personally, mentally, physically – in every way.”
She adds: “You can’t learn or be a better version of yourself if something’s holding you back. And very often, that’s an emotional hindrance. So we want to help you stop yourself from stopping yourself.”
Instilling these initiatives and values in the company has helped to cultivate a strong camaraderie in and out of the workplace. Despite seeing one another every day in the office, says Ankiti, many of her colleagues also end up spending Friday nights and weekends with one another.
“It pays to be genuinely invested in people, rather than just thinking about the short term and what a person can do for the company. Because if this person really values the relationship with us and the company, then the outcome is going to be even more amazing.”
“You can’t just change their lives; you have to change their lives so much that they won’t shift back to their old behaviour.”
She recalls an incident two months ago that showed her the true value of what she was doing. “I was in New York and really upset because a massive deal fell through. I went back to my hotel and found two of my close colleagues in my room with a mug of hot chocolate. They poured a whole mini bottle of bourbon in it, handed it to me and we just had the most fun night.”
In striving to better the lives of those around her, she had inadvertently bettered her own. “It made me realise how important it is to like the people that you work with and care about them. They could have just gone back to their own rooms and gone to sleep. But they came over because they see me as a friend and knew I had a hard day,” she says.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about the money and the business. I’m grateful for the people that I have. If you give care, you’ll receive care, and karma almost always pays back in multiples.”
Annabel Tan is a watches, jewellery, lifestyle and features writer who is also a true pleasure-seeking Taurus pursuing the finer things in life. When she’s not enraptured by shiny objects she enjoys stimulating her other senses with food, fragrances, Freddie Mercury’s vocal range and, to her own surprise, fitness (hello, endorphins!).