The Woman Behind Southeast Asia’s Near-Billion Dollar Startup

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In 2014, a group of friends visited Bangkok’s famous weekend market, Chatuchak, while on holiday. Among them, was then 22-year-old Ankiti Bose, an investment analyst at Sequoia Capital. With over 25,000 merchants and thousands of fashion stalls in Chatuchak, it got Bose thinking about how to give these sellers opportunities to expand beyond their cramped shops.

In her role at Sequoia Capital, Bose was working with companies investing in Southeast Asian businesses. She was firmly placed to see a wealth of opportunity in the region “(but) this was in 2014. Southeast Asia didn’t have any unicorns yet,” says Bose.

Her early inspiration from Chatuchak was not forgotten, however, when she happened to chat with 24-year-old software engineer Dhruv Kapoor at a house party in Bengaluru, India. Both found common ground in their ambitions to build their own startup, and realised they had complementary skills to bring their ideas to life.

The result was Singapore-based start-up Zilingo - a play on the word ‘zillion’ - an online platform that allows small merchants in Southeast Asia to build scale. With the latest round of funding valuing Zilingo at $970 million, Bose is among the youngest female chief executives to lead a start-up of this size in Asia.

From Zero to Zilingo

The early days of Zilingo saw them helping small fashion merchants sell to consumers, but it soon evolved to offer much more. “As we were spending more and more time with merchants, we realized that we could help them solve problems and create real value in the process,” says Bose.

“We started looking back and looking more upstream, trying to understand where merchants were sourcing from. There were factories, agents and distributors all squeezing margins out even before the product gets on marketplaces. We finally said, okay, this whole thing is so old-school. Let’s fix this.” Bose remembers. She became determined to help what she terms as ‘little merchants’ in fashion by putting them shoulder-to-shoulder against fashion behemoths like Zara or H&M. “Just by themselves, there’s no way their economics could be competitive or comparable to a large conglomerate.”

Today, Zilingo is an end-to-end cloud platform that connects everyone along the supply chain—from the fabric supplier to the brand manufacturer—enabling them to do commerce with each other. With service offerings like inventory management, sales tracking, cross-border shipping, sourcing and more on a single B2B tech-platform, merchants are better equipped to run their business. Since 2018, Zilingo has also worked with financial technology firms to provide working capital to small merchants so they can buy raw materials like yarn or cotton to produce their goods.

Embracing Southeast Asia and diversity

While some firms struggle to understand Southeast Asia, Bose chooses to embrace its diversity and apply it to their business model. “Painting this region with one brush and putting it in a single bucket is a Western construct. Just think: Within Southeast Asia, these countries don’t really have that much in common with one another. The language, culture, food currency; everything is different,” says Bose.

In fact, she ensures that each country in the region is led by a local leader, who makes decisions on how that particular country gets run. “We have strong leaders in each of these countries who understand the product, the team and the culture.”

Innate respect for cultural diversity has led to a solid sense of belonging in Zilingo’s workplaces across Southeast Asia. “We took a very localized approach to team-building. We told our local founders the core guiding principles, but we also said: You know your country best,” says Bose.

Bose now oversees 800 employees with 15 different nationalities across eight countries. “We are a fifty-percent female team,” says Bose proudly, “but even within that, there’s so much diversity in ethnicities, religions and cultures. The best way to make it work is to allow these subcultures independence, but also to tie them together with common values.”

Looking Back - And Ahead

One could trace Bose’s values of independence to her growing years, where upheaval and relocation was a part of life. “Growing up, I moved around India, from Mumbai to New Delhi, to other small towns. The last five years, I’ve stayed in Bombay, Bangalore, Jakarta, Bangkok and Singapore,” Bose reflects. This instilled in her a curious fascination for new environments and fresh opportunities. Of course, this also means “getting bored and saturated quite quickly,” admits the 27-year-old.

This restless energy puts Bose in good stead for her future ambitions, remarking, “I was 23 when I started Zilingo. I get paranoid that there’s going to be another 23-year-old who’s going to figure out how to do it better than us. So I’m always trying to be that 23-year-old, looking for new opportunities from different business lenses.”

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