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IN GOOD COMPANY
Two women. Two start-ups. Two thought leaders. The result of an impromptu idea, Ankiti Bose’s Singapore-based digital fashion marketplace, Zilingo, is en route to a billion dollar valuation just four years after its launch. Its rapid rise caught the eye of fellow businesswoman Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder of the over-four-decade-old Biocon, who herself holds an unmatched position in corporate India. She naturally takes a mentoring stance when Verve combines the entrepreneurial powers of the Bengaluruborn disruptors for a reliably impressive exchange of ideas as Shirin Mehta listens in.
Shirin Mehta 
If Bengaluru in Karnataka is the Silicon Valley of India, arriving at its Electronic City — navigating heaps of rubble, unfinished construction work, half-made cement pillars destined for the new Metro system — is proving to be a paradoxical start to this trip. The car arrives at biopharmaceutical company Biocon Limited’s corporate office, and I sigh with relief. There is peace and structure here, and beauty in the landscaped garden and enormous outdoor sculptures. The foyer that I am entering now is stippled with artwork – dominated by a G Ravinder Reddy woman’s head with signature wide eyes. The locked door buzzes open and I discover myself in the offices of Biocon founder, chairperson and managing director, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, though she is nowhere to be seen.

But then, I am early. This is the venue chosen for the conversation set up by Verve between two exciting entrepreneurs, with four decades separating their beginnings. Mazumdar-Shaw, 66, today considered India’s wealthiest self-made woman, started Biocon in 1978 in a rented garage in Bengaluru (then Bangalore), introducing the country to biopharmaceuticals, against all odds and much criticism, at a time when there was no internet or smartphones. She is part of that first generation of entrepreneurs that endeavoured to set up high-technology businesses. She has been, and still is, on every achievers list. As a global influencer, she is ranked among FierceBiotech’s World’s 25 Most Influential People in Biopharma, Forbes magazine’s World’s 100 Most Powerful Women and Fortune’s Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Asia-Pacific, these being just the tip of the accolades iceberg. And, on the other end, we have Ankiti Bose, 28, who, four years ago, co-founded online fashion marketplace Zilingo, with then neighbour, Dhruv Kapoor, following a casual get-together in Bengaluru while she was an analyst with Sequoia India. Headquartered in Singapore, Bose is on course to becoming one of India’s first female unicorn founders. In February 2019, the fashion start-up gained a valuation of $970 million dollars and Bose discovered herself on Fortune’s 40 Under 40 List for 2019.

It was some years ago that she, while on holiday in Bangkok and on a visit to the city’s popular Chatuchak market, hit upon the idea that would be Zilingo (a play on the word ‘zillions’). The market features more than 15,000 booths selling goods from across Thailand and she realised that sellers did not have sufficient opportunities to expand. Working in venture capital before that, she realised that there was a gap in the South-East Asian market for a fashion start-up. Accordingly, Zilingo reimagines the fashion industry to make it fair, connected and transparent for all, while digitising it for the first time. Best of all, besides the retail ecosystem, it concerns itself also with the supplier ecosystem, incentivising suppliers to be a part of the platform, through developed software and introducing supply chain capabilities for merchants as well as offering financial services to them. “If you had seen me even five years ago, you would have realised that I was not a fashion person,” she says.

Today, both Mazumdar-Shaw and Bose have a larger picture in mind, which goes way beyond the bottom line, and though deeply into tech, they also love the human element. The former went into a green business, replacing chemical technologies with enzyme technologies way before the consciousness of the impact of chemicals on the environment. The latter, a young millennial looking to make a difference, is hoping to democratise the fashion industry, to help small businesses grow, with the help of technology. They consciously aim to empower and carry other women with them in their successes by hiring them in key senior management positions. Mazumdar-Shaw’s philanthropic endeavours are legion, especially in the medical space. And while so much has changed in these four decades, there seems to be new hope with driven young women like Bose reaching new heights. It is an encouraging reminder that the soul of womankind is alive and kicking and there is so much more to look forward to….

Verve takes notes during a conversation between the scientist and the unicorn….

“I have no background in fashion. I studied maths and economics. I worked at McKinsey, and in investing after that. If you met me five years ago, you would have been, like, ‘This girl cannot do fashion….’” -Ankiti Bose

“I didn’t have any role models. I was just driven by a sense of doing something, as a woman charting a new path. And I knew it’s going to be tough.” -Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

On the Zilingo model

Ankiti Bose (AB): I was thinking that I’ll introduce what exactly I do to you, because sometimes it helps coming from me. So, you know the textile and apparel industry is one of the largest in the world. It’s five per cent of global GDP, $3.8 trillion dollars. And yet, somehow, the supply chain is completely undigitised if you compare it to pharma, or to industrials, electronics or anything else. It has too many players, too many middlemen that are all playing the role of money lenders or inventory holders and so on.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw (KMS): And it’s very fragmented….

AB: Extremely fragmented…. So as a result of that, not only is there economic loss and leakage across the whole supply chain — and these are very cross-border supply chains — polyester still comes from China, cotton comes from India, it is going to a mill in Bangladesh and then to a brand in Italy and you’re buying it in Saks Fifth Avenue. So all of this is happening with lots of middlemen, but it’s so inefficient. Everything bad that they say about fashion is true, which is little children making clothes in factories, no health or sanitation facilities, 60 per cent of the workers tend to be underpaid women, there is no sustainability, no responsible manufacturing and landfills are filled with fast fashion. So it’s not economical or sustainable either.

KMS: It’s not sustainable, even environmentally.

AB: Environmentally, it’s one of the worst. There’s a 2015 Netflix documentary, The True Cost, in which Andrew Morgan did an exposé of fast fashion, and everything he says is true. So that’s where we come in. It’s obviously a huge opportunity, especially because there’s nothing digital happening, in a time and place where not only the economics and gross margins for brands are important — stores like Barneys and Forever 21 are going bankrupt. But sustainability and responsibility are also so important, like, a genuinely important thing. What we do is three things. We provide the software stack. We can go as upstream as the farmer — we’re trying that — but at least from the yarn guy. So, the software for the yarn guy to use, as he sells to the fabric mill, and then they sell to the manufacturer who sells to the brand. This removes all the middlemen, directly connecting them with a transaction platform and different software services. For example, everything from PRP (Performance Related Pay), QC (Quality Control), line control, manufacturing, HRMS (Human Resource Management System)… all of it. Obviously everything is not built by us. But the core tech is. This helps the second pillar of Zilingo; since all of that tech gives us a lot of data, we help businesses with supply chain analytics and central management. And lastly, because we can see what the businesses are buying and who they are selling it to — and these businesses tend to be in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia… where there is no credit score — we use that data to help financial institutions and banks lend to these guys. Because today, even if DBS Bank wants to lend to a small guy in India, there is no credit history to allow that. Or in a country like Indonesia, there is no concept of a credit score, so they need a lot of operational data.

KMS: You can also aggregate, in a big way….

AB: Yes, yes…that’s actually a big reason for these merchants to stay aggregated because of not just finance but also things like logistics and warehousing. So DHL would automatically become, like, 30 per cent cheaper if they stayed on our platform, right? If you leave Zilingo’s platform, there’s an invisible switching cost. You’re not going to get the aggregated rate of so many thousands… and so the agents get dis-intermediated and they hate us, but everybody else has a fairer, more sustainable….

KMS: They get a better share….

AB: And there are no little children in factories because the HRMS software identifies who’s working and producing what. And, you know, if a factory tries to lie to us and say that they follow all the certifications, but then they have this bump-up in production, then you’re like, ‘Oh, how did this happen?’ Right? There must be some people that are not a part of the workforce. And they’re not in the software, so you can go in and investigate that. Today we have about 75,000 brands, about 5000 factories across Asia, that are on the platform, 355 fabric mills and over 10 billion end customers are served by the platform. It’s mostly Asia, but now we’ve also started working with American brands, to give them transparency and responsible and sustainable sourcing. We’re taking the whole apparel supply chain and trying to fix it. We are four-and-a-half years old. We do about 1.6 billion US dollars in GMV (Gross Merchandise Value). And it’s been crazy…13 countries, we have offices in eight countries….

KMS: Terrific! That’s a great model, and I’m glad that you’re doing well, and no wonder I tweeted about you.

AB: Thank you so much. So hopefully that was useful, the context, but we’re supposed to be having a conversation…!

On staying motivated

KMS: When you set off on this entrepreneurial journey, something must have excited you or, you know, got you really focused on this idea. What was it? Are you very excited about fashion? Have you thought about…all these issues around the fashion industry?

AB: So this was 2014, and I was working at a venture capital fund, and they were setting up in South-East Asia for the first time. I would keep going to Jakarta and the Philippines, Bangkok, Singapore. And as I was spending a lot of time in those markets, there were two things that were very, very obvious. And, by the way, I have no background in fashion. I studied maths and economics. I worked at McKinsey, and in investing after that. If you met me five years ago, you would have been, like, ‘This girl cannot do fashion….’ But what I could see was that Asia was clearly manufacturing for the world, especially in textiles; 80 per cent of all exports that go into the Western world actually come from Asia. However, at the same time, it was like a David-versus-Goliath thing. And for me, since I was a kid growing up in India, I always felt like I was the chotu David fighting the big guys. So, as a girl, you think ‘Oh I want to get into this industry, and I want to study that’, and you always have to fight the odds and make it. And then, I remember the moment, this was in Bangkok in Chatuchak market and I could see that there were, like, 25,000 merchants over there, and 8000 of them were in textile and none of them had any tech, which means that in four years they would be completely irrelevant because some big company would eat them up. So I thought of what would happen if we — since they’re used to using Instagram — what if we could make B2B (business to business) tech cool and usable by that entire generation who’ve completely leapfrogged the SAP (Systems, Applications and Products), Oracle dial-up connectivity? They’ve directly gone from nothing to 4G on their phones. So, you know, we need to help them speed up on the business side too, not just the consumer tech. That was the genesis of the idea. I didn’t really know it would become such a big platform with financial services and all that. But it is clear that there are small guys and they’re getting left behind. If we bring them into the digital economy, and if they come in hordes, there will be all these little Davids aggregated by this mother David….

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December 2019 - January 2020