After returning from Bangkok, Ankiti decided it was now or never. She quit her job as an investment analyst at Sequoia Capital and co-founded Zilingo in 2015 with Dhruv Kapoor (now CTPO at Zilingo). She was 23. Six years later, Ankiti is the first Indian woman to lead a unicorn startup valued over a billion dollars. Talking about her incredible journey of growth, she said, “There (has been) ups, downs, groundwork, research, and conviction. At the end of the day, even though the idea, the product, the business may evolve a lot but if the mission, market, and the people you surround yourself with are all extraordinary, then it would all be worth it.”
Under Ankiti’s leadership, Zilingo has become more than just a marketplace for small business vendors in Asia. The multi-national company is said to be the largest B2B e-commerce platform in Southeast Asia. As its dynamic global leader, Ankiti has earned several accolades including a place on Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 and Fortune magazine’s 40 Under 40 lists.
At 29, the world is at Ankiti’s feet. But according to her, she is just getting started. Her plan is to make the fashion industry more fair, transparent, sustainable, as well as efficient, and fast. Her mantra for success? Be resilient, persistent, and hard-working.
She believes growth is a continuous process, and never shies away from asking incessant questions. “I really think it’s important to surround yourself with people smarter than you and keep learning every single day. It’s important to fail but critical to keep trying,” she says.
Ankiti’s incredible journey is one for the books, and we are thrilled to feature her on our POPxo Women Who Win series. In an email conversation, she shares with us her biggest professional achievement, advice for young women entrepreneurs, and what it’s like to be the first Indian woman to lead a unicorn. Lightly edited excerpts below:
How do you begin your day?
My favourite time of the day is midnight to 2 am! Answer emails, prioritise my next day and sometimes even go for a run. After that, I’m back online by 9 am with a cup of hot coffee and my morning meetings lined up. Working with time zones from Hong Kong to the West Coast, this is my life!
What does a typical workday look like for you?
No two days are alike but before I start my day, I do love to make a list of things I’d like to get done during the day! If it wasn’t for the pandemic, my days would usually begin with in-person meetings, now it’s mostly Zoom. Mornings and afternoons are usually for customer or external meetings and later in the day for internal team reviews and other work. There’s always coffee flowing and music playing if there’s no meeting ongoing!
Did you always want to start your own company or did you figure it out along the way?
A mix of both. I come from a humble middle-class background. My parents were working professionals and they prioritised education over everything else. But I am also a product of the last decade in India, where we have seen amazing companies built out of the dreams and ambitions of entrepreneurs who worked hard and came from nothing.
When I felt passionate about the industry and saw the opportunity to combine fashion and technology (two things I love), I worked hard to make something out of it. I met some amazingly talented people and kept learning from them by observing and asking incessant questions. I will continue to do that! I really think it’s important to surround yourself with people smarter than you and keep learning every single day. It’s important to fail but critical to keep trying. Don’t ever let success get to your head and failure get to your heart!
How did you conceive the idea for Zilingo?
It all started during a holiday to Thailand where I visited the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok with my friends. There, we recognised that many merchants faced bottlenecks that limited their reach and overall business operations. We also realised this was not a problem just at that specific market but across Asia. Factories, brands, and SMEs do not have direct access to one another and are usually forced to work with dozens of middlemen who add opacity and leak away value and margins from the process.
When we started Zilingo, the fashion industry in South East Asia and South Asia had high barriers to entry and favoured a select few. Mainly those with social, human & operational capital, and this is further entrenched in the modern era. About 90% of the industry’s retail profits were monopolized by the top 20 fashion companies. We wanted to bring equity and transparency to the process, so that merchants, whether small or big, had a level-playing field to trade efficiently. Zilingo was born out of this market need and we began by introducing technology into traditional fashion processes, which had resisted change for generations.
Tell us everything that went behind your decision to quit your job as an investment analyst to founding Zilingo?
First came the crippling fear of whether this will ever work, how I can afford to take this risk, what happens to people who depend on me if I fail. Then came foolish courage, along with the support of friends and family and lots of pep-talking myself. Then came ups, downs, groundwork, research, and conviction that at the end of the day, even though the idea, the product, the business may evolve a lot but if the mission, market, and the people you surround yourself with are all extraordinary, then it would all be worth it.
What was a turning point in your career?
I started working when I was 20. The last 10 years have been full of very high highs and very low lows. But most definitely, the moment which led to Zilingo being conceived in the middle of a shopping market on the streets of Bangkok was the turning point of the trajectory of my life, not just my career.
What is a mantra that you swear by in your professional and personal life?
The strongest steel is forged by the hottest fire.
What key skills or qualities do you think helped you get where you are today?
Being resilient, persistent, and hard-working.
What would you consider to be your biggest professional accomplishment so far?
We support over 6,000 businesses directly that employ 100s of thousands of people. 60% of the workers in the garment industry are women, we add transparency to all their workflows and supply chain processes. I feel very grateful that we get the opportunity to touch so many lives every single day, for the better.
Any advice for aspiring young women entrepreneurs who want to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t doubt yourself so much. Get out there and ask for help, coaching and capital. Help other women!
You are now the Founder & CEO of a unicorn company. How does it feel to achieve this huge feat at such a young age?
Incredibly grateful, humbled, and excited for the future.
What kind of future do you envision for yourself and for Zilingo?
We are just getting started. Fashion is a multi-trillion dollar industry that is not even 1% fully digitised. As the need for digital sourcing, ESG and transparency increase with time, we will have an enormous opportunity to act to make the entire industry more fair, transparent, sustainable as well as efficient, and fast. We will continue to listen to the industry and our customers, understand their challenges and find solutions to help them, and create powerful supply chain products for brands, factories, and distributors that not only maximises profits but also helps us leave the world better than we found it.
Three books that had an impact on you?
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Palace of Illusions by Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee
Becoming by Michelle Obama
How does an extremely busy person like you unwind? Any personal passions or hobbies you love?
Perhaps it’s only possible because I live in an amazing place like Singapore, but I go running very late at night almost every night. I paint on weekends and I am always caught up on whatever is latest on Netflix. I also like to cook (although I am not very good at it).
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