Betting on the Small Guy: How Zilingo's Ankiti Bose Made It Big in the Fashion Tech Industry
Ankiti Bose says in her mind’s eye, she views the genesis of her company as a classic David versus Goliath problem.
“It was the same story we’d seen playing out in other industries: big conglomerates crushing the smaller guys. So we decided to do something about it,” says Bose, co-founder of Zilingo, a company that aims to help small fashion merchants across Southeast Asia, digitise.
Zilingo is a B2B platform that brings merchants and raw material wholesalers together on one platform to make sourcing easier. The platform started off with 1,500 merchants, and has now over 10,000 sellers, and over seven million active buyers, according to data from its website.
Bose stumbled upon the idea when she was shopping at a popular weekend market in Thailand, which had nearly 25,000 merchants selling their wares, but on a very small scale.
“We identified a few distinct challenges these sellers faced: The first was access to factories, or fabrics - basically the whole supply chain.
The second issue was access to financing, because even if they have a great product, these merchants don’t know where to go for loans, or when they do, moneylenders exploit them. The third was that they didn’t know how to push products across digital channels,” says Bose in an interview with Entrepreneur Asia Pacific.
“We realized that if someone didn’t do something about this, these merchants were either going to be left behind in all of this rapid digitization that was happening everywhere, or these big conglomerates that were going online would take over, and the small guy would vanish,” Bose adds.
Those issues provided a good jumping-off point, and Bose launched Zilingo - a play on the word ‘zillion’ - along with her next-door neighbour, Dhruv Kapoor. Initially, the company’s platform just featured products that small merchants across Thailand and Singapore were trying to sell, but today, Zilingo has grown into a full-suite business services provider, which helps merchants access financial services, inventory management technology, data analytics, as well as gives them the ability to scale operations.
Merchants now sell everything from clothes, accessories and home furnishing items, to electronics, make-up and bath and body products.
Zilingo so far has raised a total of $307.9 million in funding over five rounds, giving it a valuation of $970 million according to various media reports. Its latest fundraising round was in February 2019.
Fighting the Right Battles
Just $30 million shy of a unicorn status, Bose had to shatter some serious glass ceilings to get to where she is.
Recounting her early days, Bose says when she and her partner would go to meet a trader or a business partner, for example, it would automatically be assumed that she was a secretary.
“People would just assume that the man was the senior in the room. I remember once when I told someone I was the CEO of the company, he told me he thought I was there to model the clothes, which was highly offensive. But those are the stereotypes women have to deal with every day,” Bose says.
“There have also been times where we’ve just let men represent us in discussions with traders, unions, wholesalers etc, just because it was the easy way to get things done. You can’t fight every battle to win the war. You have to fight the RIGHT battle, again and again, and someday, hopefully, you’ll get there,” she says.
She notes though that things have changed for women since movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp.
“I think what’s interesting is that we were women in the workforce before these movements, and we will remain women in the workforce after all these movements. And it’s not like everything is fixed, but I do think things are changing quite fast, even if it’s just because people are afraid of discriminating against women, or even crossing a line, for the fear of being called out,” opines Bose.
A hardcore feminist, Bose says that women in power are able to understand the intricacies of being a woman in the workplace, and to truly create parity, more women need to occupy leadership positions.
“The 20 year-olds that are now joining our offices are seeing a lot of women in power, making important decisions. That’s already changing the DNA of how they think about women in workplaces. Also, this way, many don’t have a role model problem either, and they accept women in leadership roles more easily too.”
For now, even though gender-equality is somewhat of a pipe-dream, waking up to the truth that we’re still not at a level-playing field is half the battle won.