SheWorkz by Zilingo is a micro-entrepreneurship programme started by Ankiti Bose that enables women to monetise their free time and space in their homes

(Oct 28): It was over a simple chicken curry lunch with a colleague that Ankiti Bose, founder of fashion and retail technology platform Zilingo, realised that she could no longer stand aside and be a “frustrated armchair critic” on the problem of women dropping out of the workforce. Having watched her mom give up a highly respected job as a professor to raise her, she knew that across Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia, women were not reaching their full potential for growth and income.

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That was the genesis of SheWorkz by Zilingo, a micro-entrepreneurship programme for women to contribute meaningfully to the economy. It enables women to monetise their free time and space in their homes, while Zilingo provides them with vocational training, financing and business development opportunities, thereby bringing them back to the workforce, but on their own terms.

“In South and Southeast Asia, women comprise only 31% of the workforce, and they contribute even less — 24% — to the GDP. It’s not that they don’t have the skills — it may be because their husbands won’t let them work or they don’t have access to childcare,” Bose says. “And my colleague and I were thinking that if we, as two fairly empowered women, can’t do something about this [problem], then what [can be done]?” she tells Options in a recent interview.

Bose is proud of the fact that Zilingo is a female-driven company: About 65% of its merchants and half of the company’s staff and leaders are women. Helping women, especially women entrepreneurs, has been written into Zilingo’s DNA from the start; it is not just a retail platform for consumers but also a B2B supply chain management platform that helps small retailers purchase directly from manufacturers (and vice versa), and also gives them access to credit through its platform. As more than 90% of the garment manufacturing industry comprises female workers, the company’s goal to uplift women makes perfect sense.

Bose, who is originally from India, founded Zilingo in 2015 in a small, cramped apartment in Bangkok with a few friends. She personally wrapped the first 1,000 parcels delivered to its customers. Today, the company employs about 420 people, is headquartered in Singapore and has offices in Jakarta, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bangalore, New York and Manila. Zilingo, which launched its full-stack services for merchants in 2017, has seen its revenue grow 12 times in 2018 from the previous year and four times last year. It is currently valued at close to US$1 billion ($1.36 billion), making it one of the few “unicorn” tech companies under the stewardship of a woman.

For Bose, empowering women with financial independence is not only an economic boon but also a social good. “Statistics have shown that [improving equality for women] in the workplace could add $12 trillion to the global GDP by 2025. And, it is known that when a woman earns an income, she invests 90% of it into her family, creating a ripple effect that uplifts her whole family, whereas men are likely to invest only 35% of their income,” she says. “We would, whether as a family or a country, be in a [better] place if women did not have to make a choice [between work and family].”

Bose is realistic about the challenges women face. “It is very idealistic if I say that all women should go out and work. Not everybody can afford childcare and so, we need to be able to support women as a stepping stone to the ideal world where men and women are treated equally. I think a baby step is to encourage the women who want to work, to work from home,” she says. “I’ve tested this with so many women: Some choose to stay at home, but almost all of them want financial independence, and they will [work] if they can. A woman with financial independence will have purpose, and power to make decisions for herself and her family.”

So far, 300 women have signed up to be a part of SheWorkz in its pilot run in Indonesia. They will participate in a 20-day vocational training course funded entirely by Zilingo to build critical skills such as batik making, pattern design, sewing, entrepreneurship and financial literacy.

Subsequently, they will be grouped according to their skill level and geography into “micro-factories”, where they will be connected to the global market through Zilingo’s network. From there, these micro-factories will have the opportunity to receive apparel orders from brands. Alongside the training and network, Zilingo, through verified credit lines from partners such as Bank Rakyat Indonesia (one of Indonesia’s largest banks), will also provide access to microfinance.

“When my mother watched the SheWorkz promotional video, she said to me: ‘I had so much extra time while bringing you up because I had to be there at home, and there were so many things I could have done if only someone had supported me,’” says Bose. “And then, she said: ‘I’m so glad you’re now supporting someone else’s mom.’”