Start-Up at 23, Nearly $1 Billion Valuation at 26: Who Is Zilingo’s Ankiti Bose?

Bose had the idea to found her start-up, Zilingo, in 2014 after visiting Bangkok's Chatuchak market.

5 min read
Start-Up at 23, Nearly $1 Billion Valuation at 26: Who Is Zilingo’s Ankiti Bose?

In 2018, at the age of 26, she and the co-founder of her fashion e-commerce start-up Zilingo, made it to the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list.

A year later, she was part of the Bloomberg 50, a list of the top changemakers around the world, made it to the Fortune 40 Under 40 and was Business Worldwide Magazine's Most Innovative CEO of the Year (Singapore).

But on Friday, 20 May, after a nearly two-month long suspension, Ankiti Bose was fired by the company she co-founded and was CEO of, after an independent forensic investigation into financial irregularities by her.

Bose hit back with a statement released on Instagram on the same day, terming the investigation and action a "witch-hunt" and claiming that she had not been provided a copy of the reports by the investigators or given sufficient time to produce documents requested by them.

The situation raises uncomfortable parallels with the rise and fall of Ashneer Grover, founder of BharatPe, who was also forced to resign from the board of his own company after a report by audit firm PwC alleged he and his family misappropriated company funds.

But who is Ankiti Bose and how did she come so far, only to face an uncertain future?


A Transformative Visit to Bangkok Market

Bose was born in India in 1992 and completed her schooling in Mumbai. She then studied mathematics and economics at St Xavier's College in Mumbai, then joined consultancy firm McKinsey & Company.

She then moved to venture capital firm Sequoia Capital at its India office in Bengaluru, where she worked as an analyst for investments in Southeast Asian businesses.

In 2014, she was on a shopping trip to Thailand with some ex-colleagues, where they visited the famous Chatuchak market, which is considered the largest weekend market in the world with more than 15,000 stalls.

Speaking to CNBC Make It, she said that this was where she had the idea to start her business:

“I was like ‘wow, this stuff should be online!’ But they just couldn’t sell online, they didn’t know how to. That was the inception.”

The idea behind Zilingo was to be an online marketplace to aggregate Southeast Asian retailers who didn't have the capabilities to sell online themselves, and give them a platform to do so. Originally conceived of as a B2B platform, it also tried to build consumer-facing B2C operations, which is where trouble eventually brewed.

Bose didn't have the technological expertise to create the platform required, but soon found a person who did, by sheer luck: Dhruv Kapoor, who dropped in for drinks at her apartment in Bengaluru with a friend.

Six months later, then 23-year-old Bose and 24-year-old Kapoor left their jobs to start Zilingo.

Golden Years

Zilingo began to make waves in 2018 following strong growth on the platform, with 27,000 merchants in 15 regions signing on. This led to its young founders making it to the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list.

In 2019, it really burst on to the scene, raising $226 million from investors, including Bose's former employee Sequoia Capital, Singaporean sovereign investment fund Temasek and Burda Principal. The company was valued at $970 million at the time, according to Forbes.

The stunning valuation set the company on course to be a unicorn, a start-up worth $1 billion. Further investment poured in, including from Singapore's Economic Development Board Investments.

But with growth being targeted by the company following discussions between Bose and Sequoia in 2018, things soon began to go off the rails. The first problem came from the B2C business, into which money was poured without proper planning, according to an investigation by Inc42.

Bose was heavily involved in the B2C push, including attempts to get into the US market with Zilingo's vendors' products, where a great deal of money was spent to little avail thanks to the shuttering of the company's consumer-facing operations.

According to Inc42, it was here that allegations of misuse of funds began to appear as well, according to sources in Zilingo, including for personal flight tickets, luxury item purchases, and contracts with a branding agency.

Sources close to Bose denied the allegations to Inc42 and argued that she had even paid for company expenses from her own finances.


Trouble in Paradise

In the halcyon days of 2019, when the company and Bose were being widely feted, it also decided to start offering financial services to the vendors and small retailers on its platform.

This eventually led to an alleged conflict between the founders, over the acquisition of a Sri Lanka-based tech start-up nCinga. Kapoor wanted to build the same solution internally, but Bose eventually pushed for the purchase, according to Inc42.

There would be further disagreements between the co-founders, including in 2020 over getting into personal protective equipment (PPE) supply contracts.

But it was not just with Kapoor where Bose began to have trouble.

The current fiasco has, according to interviews given by her to Bloomberg, Economic Times and Inc42, its roots in conflict with Sequoia Capital India, which holds around 26 percent stake in Zilingo, and its managing director Shailendra Singh. According to her, these problems started around December 2020-January 2021.

Following her suspension on 31 March this year, Bose raised allegations of sexual and workplace harassment, which are being investigated by Deloitte, who also conducted the investigation into financial irregularities by her.

She has informed various media houses that she will consider legal action, but has not provided any details of the same till now.

Social Media Presence

Bose has accounts on Instagram and Twitter. She has deleted nearly all her tweets, except the one posted on 20 May where she put out her statement about being fired.

The only other tweet visible on her Twitter profile is a retweet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's tweet celebrating winning the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.

Her Instagram profile, which has 27.8 thousand followers, continues to have more posts, including her statement about being terminated from Zilingo.

There are also recent personal posts, including photos from an Indian Premier League match, as well as posts about Zilingo's writings for the World Economic Forum, and being a Bloomberg New Economy Catalyst for making fashion more sustainable. There is also a post about being a guest judge on the global edition of The Apprentice on Netflix.

There are no other posts on her Instagram page about the situation with Zilingo.

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