Zilingo’s Ankiti Bose slated to be the first Indian woman to run a unicorn business
When it comes to entrepreneurship, Ankiti Bose is something of a legend. Thanks to the rapid success of Zilingo – the business-to-business e-commerce platform she co-founded with Dhruv Kapoor in 2015 – she is on track to become the first Indian woman to found a billion-dollar start-up. And she is only 29 years old.
To succeed so quickly – she co-founded Zilingo at the age of 23 – it seems that entrepreneurship is part of her DNA. But this is in fact not the case. Ankiti’s education has been surprisingly humble. His mother was a lecturer and his father worked for the government; a passage that saw Ankiti move from one small Indian town to another.
So how did this former McKinsey & Company management consultant make the fateful leap into entrepreneurship? In his words, “foolish courage”.
“There was a lot of insane courage in the start-up,” says Ankiti The CEO’s magazine. “It was a decision driven entirely by passion and optimism. I saw the opportunity in South East Asia; the growth of the area looked to be phenomenal as it was super under-penetrated. But if I had overanalyzed the situation, it would have been more difficult to make a decision.
Coming from India, Southeast Asia was a whole different animal. It was an area full of new things for Ankiti – new countries, new cultures, new foods, new currencies and new languages. Even more, she would say goodbye to her family and friends. “I was leaving a country I knew. The people, the food, the language – everything was going to change, ”she recalls. “While it was definitely a tough decision to make at the time, I’m glad it worked.”
And it worked. Ankiti helped to grow Zilingo at its valuation of $ 970 million today – just $ 30 million less than the magic number of $ 1 billion needed to achieve full unicorn status. While this is a tremendous achievement that most businesses only dream of, Ankiti is more thrilled with Zilingo’s impact than his status.
“Being a unicorn business has never been the goal,” she admits. “And it was never about selling clothes to companies and somehow working in fashion. Zilingo was truly created to make fashion fairer, more transparent and more sustainable. We believe we are making a difference and making the world a better place. So to us that valuation really doesn’t mean anything unless we get some really solid results for our shareholders. “
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While Zilingo started out as a way for small merchants in Thailand and Singapore to sell their products online, it has grown to be that and more today. In 2017, Zilingo transformed into a B2B platform, bringing together merchants and wholesalers of raw materials on a single platform, making sourcing easier and more transparent.
“We saw a problem that we knew we could solve that none of our competition was solving,” says Ankiti. “The whole value chain before the product reached the sellers on our platform was broken. So our move to B2B happened to help us do the things our merchants really wanted us to do. It was about providing them with added value while remaining faithful to our mission. And in doing so, it positioned us in an ideal position in the supply chain, where our merchants needed us. “
And it couldn’t have happened at a better time. If COVID-19 has taught the world anything, it’s the importance of digitization. If Zilingo didn’t exist, the small and medium businesses on its platform probably wouldn’t be here today. “The pandemic was that kind of random black swan event that forced digitization,” Ankiti says. “For companies that have benefited from digitalization, they are moving forward. But for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t, well, they had to face some really difficult consequences.
“The industry has been hit hard and many businesses have collapsed. If they weren’t using a platform like ours, they actually struggled a lot last year because they didn’t know how to offload their inventory, how to create cash flow, or how to access products that were still manufactured and shipped during the pandemic. . “
It has been a difficult time to say the least, and the long-term ramifications are still largely unknown. But luckily for Zilingo, he has managed to stay virtually pandemic proof through it all.
“For us it has been phenomenal because most of the companies that we should have convinced to use our technology already know they need it. Now all of our pitch doesn’t even have to happen, ”says Ankiti. “Our business has actually grown in the sense that it has become more profitable over the past year.”
And in truth, during this difficult time, Ankiti made sure that Zilingo did his part to help those who were not so lucky. In the midst of the pandemic, Zilingo began supplying essential personal protective equipment to hospitals in India, Indonesia and Singapore. Later, Zilingo began shipping essential PPE supplies around the world.
This is certainly not the first time Ankiti has stepped in to help others. As a young Asian woman, she has faced her fair share of bias on her journey to the top. Even when success hit and Zilingo made it big, she still found herself in meetings where she was mistaken for an assistant or a model for the products on the platform. However, instead of letting it get to her, Ankiti uses it as fuel to get things done and pave the way for success for other women.
“Today, women like me are the exception, but I hope for the next generation we are the rule.” – Ankiti Bose
“The world is not on an equal footing. And I think anyone who says or thinks that is wrong, ”she said. “There are certainly biases in every industry, and it is more difficult for minorities, for women and for LGBTIQA + people to climb the corporate ladder.
“So you can choose to fret about it, or you can choose to understand that people come from a deep conditioning space and stay true to the journey. Fix your eyes on the long-term agenda and try not to let these negative experiences break your mind. Because I believe the only way to create lasting change is to make more people like me succeed, which will make it easier for the next generation of women to come after me. Today women like me are the exception, but hopefully for the next generation we are the rule.
Ankiti Bose: leading the way
To lead this change, Ankiti is ensuring that Zilingo speaks with a workforce of at least 50% women, with a majority of those women also in leadership positions. However, while it is great to place women in these positions and give them opportunities, it only scratches the surface of a much deeper problem that needs to be addressed.
“Society almost vilified women between the ages of 28 and 35 if we didn’t have children and weren’t married. There are people who will truly despise a woman for not being a mother and focusing on her family, ”she says. “But at the same time, if you are a woman with children, you are often penalized in the workplace. We just can’t win. It’s like the system is rigged for women who want to have it all. “
And, she says, it gets even worse for less privileged women in unorganized work, especially in the fashion industry. Often times, they don’t have the support of their partner and their employers aren’t likely to bypass their schedules, ensuring that their careers are maintained while they support their families. “These workers have no options,” says Ankiti. “And society wonders why these women don’t push each other, when on the other hand, it punishes them for doing so.
“At least within our network, we try to do whatever we can to support these women. We recognize that professional and personal development need to be different for women, especially of childbearing age, so we frame them a little differently. We have women’s circles where women support each other. And, of course, we are also very flexible with our maternity policy etc.
More so, Ankiti stresses that the men Zilingo employs must also be on board with the mission of strengthening diversity within the organization. “So many men often say it’s just a women’s problem. But it’s not a women’s problem; it’s a people’s problem, ”she said. “Ultimately, it will deeply affect the organization if it does not have diverse leadership. We have to train men to be part of the solution because you can’t solve a problem for half the population without involving the other half.
And when she thinks about how far she has come and how successful Zilingo has amassed, it leaves her almost speechless – almost. “It upsets my mind,” she beams. “To think that in this day and age it’s possible that a young brunette woman could start something that in a very short time becomes a huge business is actually pretty amazing. Hope my success will make more girls believe they can do whatever they want.
“When I look at the success of the women around me, whether it’s Kamala Harris or Bumble Founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe, I am incredibly happy; not just in a sense of “Oh my God, this is happening”. But in the sense of “Wow, that’s doable” – a 31-year-old woman with a baby in her arms rings the bell at NASDAQ. It is simply amazing.