Zilingo In A Pickle?

The Temasek-backed start-up’s millennial CEO has been suspended, pending investigation into the company’s accounts

Ankiti Bose, the much-lauded Indian national who co-founded the fashion-tech start-up Zillingo, is “suspended” from her role as CEO, according to numerous media reports. As Bloomberg first shared two days ago, the move came after fundraising talks prompted questions regarding the company’s accounting norms. Zilingo was in discourse to “raise $150 million to $200 million… when investors began to question its finances as part of the due diligence process”, wrote the newswire. According to Reuters, “the board of Singapore-based fashion technology startup Zilingo said on Wednesday that its major investors had authorised the suspension of its chief executive and co-founder, pending an investigation by an independent firm they had hired.” Neither Ms Bose (or Zilingo or co-founder Dhruv Kapoor) spoke to the media. Her lawyer reportedly said that she declined to comment.

But the Bloomberg report and others around the region that quickly followed stated that Ms Bose disputes the assertions of wrongdoing. She believes that her suspension partly occurred after complaining about “harassment”. What nature or against who, it is not known. But Indian news outlets have quickly reported “sexual harassment against colleagues”. Anonymous sources, purported to be “within Zilingo”, revealed that the complains were levelled at “the senior team and management”. Reportedly, Ms Bose has described the investigation with Donald Trump’s favourite phrase, “witch hunt”.

Zilingo—a play on ‘zillion’ rather than anything on language and speech—has been repeatedly described by the media as “one of Singapore’s highest-profile startups”. In 2019, Bloomberg called Ankiti Bose, also the company’s media-ready spokesperson, “Southeast Asia’s tech sensation”. Glowing accolades such as “golden girl”, “symbol of SEA’s entrepreneurial potential” and “something of a legend” were frequently bandied about. Ms Bose started Zillingo when she was just 23 (for comparison, Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos when she was 19). Originally from Mumbai and now a permanent resident of our city, she worked as an investment analyst, before establishing the company that initially aimed to give small fashion vendors without tech know-how a platform to sell.

The Zilingo pitch. Screen grab: zilingotrade.com

Zilingo, “powered” from Bengaluru (the capital of the Indian state of Karnataka, often dubbed the Silicon Valley of India), has now become very much a B2B platform (often reductively described as one that “supplies technology to apparel merchants and factories”). Simply put, if you are a fashion retailer, you could source your merchandise on Zilingo (they even offer low MOQ (minimum order quantity)—from 100 units per colour, or link you to the supplier that can). Likewise, if you are a brand owner and needs to augment your supply chain, you could use Zilingo too. At the Rise Conference 2019 in Hong Kong, Ms Bose told the audience that “what (they) do is provide end-to-end cloud platform, right from the yarn guy to the brand, cutting middlemen and providing data science, technology, and financial services across the supply chain to make them or to help them trade better with one another.”

As the popular story goes, Ms Bose went to Bangkok for a holiday in 2014 with some ex-colleagues/friends. Like most tourists, they made the famed 40-year-old retail theme park, Chatuchak Weekend Market, one of their must-see stops. And saw Ms Bose did. She was so impressed with the vast selection of things to buy that she identified a massive business opportunity to provide the small clothing stallholders a platform to sell more by connecting them to shoppers online. It is not known if Ms Bose spoke to those chaokongs, but she seemed certain that these small weekend business owners wanted to go big. Most clothiers in Chatuchak are small-time traders, selling on the weekends the market is in business. There are those who do wholesale, opening their stalls on Friday to aid that (some furniture and homeware sellers are even there daily). But on a whole, many may not require a regional platform as they are not big enough. Or, even needed to source from large factories in China or Vietnam when many clothing sellers go to Samut Prakan’s numerous small facilities for their inventory. Hitherto, it isn’t certain how many Chatuchak traders have embraced Zilingo. But with interest in Singapore and Indonesia other than Thailand, Zilingo grew, massively. Four years since its founding, the company was valued at US$970 million, deliciously close to unicorn status.

Ankiti Bose was born in Mumbai, although some reports claim Dehradun in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. She did go to school in the capital-city, graduating in economics and mathematics, in the 153-year-old, private Catholic university St Xavier’s College, where admission is reputed to be “tough”. By most accounts, the millennial excelled academically. But little is known of her youth. Or her love of fashion then. After she graduated, she joined the management consultant McKinsey & Company and, later, the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, working in Bangalore. Ms Bose, who often appears in media photographs heavily made up and whose social media posts are part Bollywood star, part Mumbai influencer (augmenting what CNBC called her—“a fashion junkie”), speaks very much like consumers and business executives of her generation. “Everybody uses Instagram,” she said at the Rise Conference. “An average Instagram user spends 53 minutes on Instagram everyday. So, we are constantly triggered by what we see, what we see influencers doing.” Now, with Ms Bose in the news again, many are wondering what truly triggered her sudden suspension.

Illustration (top): Just So