Ankiti Bose: India’s First Female Unicorn Founder

Ankiti Bose,
Zilindo PTE LTD

A unicorn, a startup valued over 1 billion USD, is statistically rare. It becomes even rarer and more special when such a startup is founded by a very young woman entrepreneur from the APAC, especially India. This is the case with ‘Zilingo’, the fashion e-commerce platform that’s re-imagining the fashion industry. It was established in 2015 when the CEO and co-founder Ankiti Bose was just 23 years old and the CTO and co-founder Dhruv Kapoor was only 24.

In an interview with CNBC exploring Zilingo, Ankiti shared that the startup is successful in part, because she’s a fashion junkie, having strong cross-cultural sensitivity and a ‘pathological optimist.’

A Business Idea to Strengthen the Fashion Industry

It all began in 2014 when Ankiti visited the world’s largest and most diverse market named ‘Chatuchak’ in Bangkok with over 200,000 regular shoppers. She quickly observed that the market was limited with little scope for growth as none of its 11,500 independent vendors knew how to sell online. Being well-versed with the tech, e-commerce and business world, she saw that the smaller, local retailers, vendors, producers, and suppliers needed help to expand. And although Southeast Asia is one of the world’s largest manufacturing hubs, the business of countless local merchants suffered here. It was because they sought third-party distributors to set up shop, at the cost of profit margins and working conditions.

Ankiti decided to set up a single online platform to aggregate and to serve the independent vendors from Southeast Asia, in particular. She knew that the region’s micro-businesses would face immensely bigger shopping malls, brands, e-commerce companies and retailers such as Amazon, Flipkart and more. And so, her ambitious plan required the support of the right tech skills to sustainably launch, to provide quality services and to grow. In the CNBC interview, she explains more, “Hundreds of distribution agents all over Asia are leaking away margins from the real people that deserve it, and I think it is only technology that can solve that.”

Her search for the professional with the right talent and skills successfully ended when she met Dhruv Kapoor, a then 24-year-old software engineer, in a chance social meeting. Being an entrepreneur himself, he was greatly interested and they decided to combine their skills and work together. In roughly six months, with savings of 30,000 USD each, the two quit their jobs and along with a few trusted colleagues took steps to realize the e-commerce service.

The Startup’s Strong Value Proposition is Guiding its Growth

Once established as ‘Zilingo’ to primarily serve the fashion industry, Ankiti travelled across Southeast Asia to meet and to convince numerous retailers that Zilingo can help them to grow.

Ankiti told CNBC, “Everybody was solving for access to the internet, but what about everything else that goes on before you actually sell the product?” Bose said, listing procurement, design, and financing among those hurdles. “We said ‘hey, what about if we plug all those gaps?’” Simultaneously, Dhruv worked on developing the technological capabilities in Bangalore, with a high emphasis on user-friendliness.

The team soon set up head offices in Singapore and Bangalore and raised millions of dollars as funds from many investors, including Ankiti’s former employer, Sequoia Capital India. Investors saw the new startup’s potential to disrupt the traditional fashion supply chain by making it fair, connected and transparent for each player. It would also create opportunities for young designers and businessmen to enter new markets and could also enable consumers around the world to connect with the region’s fashion community.

The service initially began as a mobile-first eCommerce marketplace. Slowly and steadily, the service grew into a tech platform that allows independent merchants to sign up, self-list products and sell them to a much larger user base. Initially, each seller is evaluated by the company for quality, authenticity, and pricing among other metrics. Once approved, the seller will be admitted onto the site and granted access to technical support, sourcing, marketing, financing, insurance, and more services. The startup also overlooks B2B operations by matching producers, brands and suppliers, and develops software and seller management tools.

By the end of 2018, the startup’s revenue grew about four times and has recently raised very high funds earlier this year, with a final valuation nearing the ‘1 billion USD’ mark.

An Inspiration Story for All Women Entrepreneurs

So, Ankiti is the first female entrepreneur who co-found a unicorn startup in Asia. This would put her among the only 23 female founders of unicorns of the 239 venture capital-based, according to Pitchbook (a market research data provider).

Concerning countries’ ability to nurture women entrepreneurs, Mastercard’s Index for Women Entrepreneurs listed India 52nd out of 57 countries. In light of this, Alison Eskesen, the Vice-President of the Centre of Inclusive Growth, MasterCard said, “The success of Ankiti Bose illuminates how women can transform industries as leaders and innovators”. She recognized Ankiti’s achievement as a milestone that inspires young women to fight for and pursue business dreams.

Today, the startup’s operations span many global locations such as Indonesia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Philippines, Australia, India, and the USA. And it works with nearly 50,000 partners across the global supply chain tending to 7 million active users and is supported by over 600 employees.