While starting up, think about the opportunity and the magnitude of what you can build, despite the challenges: Ankiti Bose

In a fireside chat at YourStory’s TechSparks’ 2021, Ankiti Bose, co-founder of Zilingo, spoke about the challenges faced by women in the workforce. She also shared insights from her entrepreneurial journey and Zilingo’s sustainability secret.
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The journey of fashion tech startup Zilingo began in 2014, when Mumbai-based Ankiti Bose, then an analyst with Sequoia Capital, joined hands with Dhruv Kapoor to start the platform. It enables small merchants from the street markets of Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore etc., into the e-commerce fold supported by distribution, cataloging and financing services. 

In a fireside chat with Sindhu Kashyaap, Associate Editor, YourStory at TechSparks 2021, Asia’s largest tech startup conference, Ankiti remarked that she had “a lot of foolish courage and optimism” when she started Zilingo. 

“Everybody should have the courage and optimism, irrespective of age and gender, to keep them going. Nine out of 10 things go wrong when you are an entrepreneur, and you must keep charging on. The crux of getting started is always thinking about the opportunity and the magnitude of what you can build, despite the challenges,” she said.

She reflected that everyone faces challenges depending on age, gender, ethnicity, orientation etc., on a personal level. Then there are business challenges depending on the business model, product-market fit, among several others and all of it makes up for what an entrepreneurial journey is.

Accelerating the path to leadership

To support women entrepreneurs in their entrepreneurial and professional journey, YourStory launched a community-based program, Elevate, during the conversation with Ankiti. 

An invite-only platform, Elevate will connect a shortlisted cohort of high-performing, mid-career women with CXOs across the startup ecosystem to accelerate their path to leadership roles in 2-5 years.

Mentors for the first cohort include Ankiti, Aditya Ghosh, board member at Oyo and Fabindia; Varun Khaitan, co-founder of Urban Company; Shradha Sharma, Founder, YourStory; and Priya Mohan, an investor with Venture Highway.

Why is the road to leadership rocky for women?

Throwing light on the low numbers of women in leadership positions, Ankiti said, “A lot of challenges that women leaders face on the path to becoming successful entrepreneurs, CXOs etc. face is systemic and fall into two categories. One, do you have the infrastructure in your personal life so that you can make decisions in your professional life with freedom of choice? Secondly, do we as a system promote, mentor and coach women enough so that they can step up in their careers?" 

“It is a spectrum, and there are no quick fixes, and an effective way to measure growth is if women can progress in their careers and lead large companies. But the problem in many countries, including India, is that women fall off the corporate ladder despite being qualified. Other than having ramifications in a woman’s career has deep implications on the economy. So, an initiative like Elevate is truly needed,” she added.

With more women-friendly initiatives launching in the country, India ranked third in the world for women working in senior management positions, according to the Women in Business 2021 report by global accounting firm Grant Thornton. The country stands above the global average in women in senior management at 39 percent, while the global average is 31 percent.

Importance of having allies

Being a young entrepreneur in an industry that deals with supply chains, traders, the traditional economy is no child’s play. While traditional businesses in the fashion and design industry realise the need for digitization, Ankiti remembers that at the start of her entrepreneurial journey “it was easy to be dismissed.” She overcame this by employing experienced people in her team who could lead conversations with conventional businesses.

 

“One needs to have male allies - allies from the same geographical location, which helps create a support system that can help us succeed,” she said.

If not Zilingo, then what?

As Zilingo marks its presence in the coveted $1 billion valuation club, Ankiti recalls a shopping trip to Chatuchak market in Bangkok in 2014 that prompted her to start up. If she hadn’t made that trip, would she still have started Zilingo and be a top VC?

She replied, “I think I would have still started something on my own in fashion because I have a passion for the subject. I love my job. So maybe it would have been a different thing altogether but in a similar space.”

Keeping up with dynamic times

In 2019, Zilingo acquired Sri Lanka-based B2B software company nCinga Innovations in a $15.5 million cash-and-stock deal. This acquisition helped the Singapore-headquartered company bridge the most significant gap in the fashion supply chain, which increased visibility into manufacturing units of fashion products.

Ankiti discusses the new opportunities in the fashion supply-chain industry and how Zilingo has kept up with the fast-paced innovations. 

“Since most startups are doing new things, there are going to be a lot of iterations. The best way to grow is not to keep our teams large but by letting tech scale it. Over time, we have learnt to build and leverage relationships in different countries, which has helped us move ahead. Preserving the local flavour in regional teams is also extremely important when your work is spread across countries in a region. Another thing is that bringing in people that complement the skills the leaders have is also beneficial,” Ankiti said.

Promoting sustainability

While sustainability has become an ‘IT’ term in fashion over the past few years, Ankiti dived into why that’s happening. 

“Over the three-four years, what has changed in fashion and retail is that fundamentally, everybody who thought that Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), sustainability and taking a responsible stance towards climate change is inherently more expensive for businesses, have realized that the reality is different.”

The entrepreneur busts myths around sustainability being pricey. 

She explains: “The perceived cost of sustainable options has changed as when you digitise every workflow in a fashion-led business, you drop all the middle-men and any inefficiencies in the value chain, and save a lot of money, which you can invest into making better fabrics, ensuring that the factories are using the right kind of labour, they have environment considerations, the water and the waste is being treated, and so on. 

On the other hand, you also convince traditional garment businesses that digitisation and bringing transparency into where the products are manufactured can lead to higher margins.”

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Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan

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