Posted on December 14 2016
This week's Wednesday Woman is the inspiring Lu Li, founder and CEO of Blooming Founders, a platform offering startup support for female founders. She is also the author and curator of Dear Female Founder, an inspiring book full of advice from successful women entrepreneurs.Read her story here:
Newnham: Can you tell us what you were like as a child and who your inspirations were growing up?
Lu Li: I was born in Beijing as the only child to Chinese parents. My family moved to Germany when I was 6 years old, so I enjoyed a Western education from elementary school until graduation from business school.
Growing up in a Chinese family meant that my full-time and only job was to excel at school. I don’t think I ever had the time or chance to ‘dream’ about what I would want to be when I grow up, so I didn’t have particular inspirations or role models. All my life, I knew that my goals were to go to a top university, graduate with flying colours, climb the career ladder in a prestigious company, make a lot of money and have a better life. It didn’t sound bad when I was 15 and can’t afford anything, so I rolled with it.
Despite following that path, I still did a few nerdy things, such as teaching myself how to code websites in the 90s, starting a semi-professional eBay business when I was 16 and majoring in Ancient Greek for my A-levels (I love Greek philosophers!).
Newnham: You started your career in the corporate world. Can you tell us about that and why you made the switch to entrepreneurship? What are some of the major differences between the two?
Li: Having a career in the corporate world was part of my life plan. When I went to business school, there were only two things that were deemed prestigious: investment banking or management consulting. Entrepreneurship was not on my radar. In fact, only the people who couldn’t get good job started their own businesses and I definitely didn’t want to be one of those!
However, I realised over time that my personality doesn’t fit into the corporate setting. I had too many ideas of how things could be done better, was too blunt and impatient. I would have worn a mask everyday to continue to be the corporate soldier, but I think life is way too short for that, so I opted out entirely and becoming an entrepreneur was the logical conclusion. If I didn’t want to work for someone else, I had to work for myself, right?
It’s been four years since then and boy it’s like day and night! Running an existing business and starting up your own is nothing alike. From the ultimate freedom to the deepest anxieties of feeling worthless and everything in between, there are too many differences to name. But if you have an entrepreneurial mindset and attitude, you’ll know that even pain means joy. I’m super glad that I realised that in my late twenties, there is still plenty plenty of time for me to get sh*t done!
Newnham: What led to you starting Blooming Founders and what’s its mission?
Li: I ran two other businesses before which both didn’t work out (for different reasons). Along the way, I had to admit to myself that starting up your business is much harder than I thought. I also realised that there are a lot less women doing it and I was wondering why. I noticed there is a gap in the startup ecosystem. It didn’t serve female founders at the time, so I created Blooming Founders to fill in that gap.
Our mission is to build products that help entrepreneurial women build sustainable and scalable businesses. We do that through high-quality events, a support network, a curated content newsletter and our book Dear Female Founder at the moment, but are working on very exciting (and much bigger) things for 2017. In the future, I see Blooming Founders helping women with more visibility, a better work life balance and – last but not least – funding.
Newnham: What are the key ingredients female founders need when setting up their first business?
Li: To be honest, the key ingredients are not that much different to what male founders need. It all comes back to self-belief, perseverance, building a support network around you, building a good team, not being afraid to test/learn/fail and also being honest with yourself whether it is the business you really want to build.
There are a ton of things you don’t know because you don’t know and it’s okay to part ways when things don’t fit or serve you anymore. And I suppose funding doesn’t hurt either. ;)
Newnham: What are some of the major obstacles you think female founders face and how do you overcome them?
Li: A lot of women struggle with confidence and self-belief – something I happen to have bucket loads of. That’s why I almost feel personally obliged to help other women in that area. Being a big believer in the mantra of “You can’t be what you can’t see”, I try to shine more light on female role models in entrepreneurship whenever I can. When we see that other people have done similar things before, we are more likely to believe in our own abilities and feel less crazy.
This is exactly why I put together the book Dear Female Founder. I’ve asked 66 female entrepreneurs and investors to write a letter to the next generation of female founders. A lot of it is super empowering content, which hopefully will encourage more women to believe in their own ideas and start up their own businesses. After all, the women represented in the book have made over $1 billion in revenue and most of them didn’t come from an entrepreneurial background.
Another obstacle for female founders is the fact that about 70% of them start up by themselves. This makes a lot of things more challenging, whether it’s speed of execution, raising funding or sometimes just emotional support. To help with that, I have designed the Blooming Founders community to be the support network female founders typically lack. It’s a hyper engaged forum where you can crowd source knowledge, connections, feedback and other serendipitous opportunities. I’m very happy to report that every post receives three comments and five likes on average, which means that everyone gets feedback and encouragement in some shape or form, so they don’t feel they are on their own.
Newnham: If you could go back in time, what advice, if any, would you offer a younger Lu?
Li: A very good question. I think I would go back to my teenage years and tell my younger self to keep on selling stuff online and stay in touch with online trends. I was an early adopter to online platforms such eBay or Ciao.com (an opinion platform where you got paid to write articles about pretty much anything) at the end of the 90s / in the early 2000s, but I dropped everything to focus on university and pursue the ‘traditional path’.
I wished I had been an active part of the early days of YouTube, Google AdWords, Instagram etc. Now these platforms have become so sophisticated that it’s hard to keep up and understand how they really work, let along trying to game the system.
Thank you to Monica Mwanje for the introduction.