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Entrepreneur Lu Li is the founder of Blooming Founders, a London-based platform that supports and promotes female founders through events and a professional network. This letter first appeared in her her book, Dear Female Founder: 66 Letters of Advice from Women Entrepreneurs Who Have Made $1 Billion in Revenue.
Dear Female Founder,
There is a new zeitgeist around women’s empowerment, and we like it. Whether it’s Beyoncé singing “Who runs the world?”, Sheryl Sandberg asking women to ‘lean in’, Sophia Amoruso creating the #GirlBoss movement, or Cara Delevinge wearing T-shirts with ‘The Future is Female’ in bold capital letters, there are inspiring vibes all around, encouraging you to stand up for yourself, unapologetically.
At the same time, the narrative around professional success has changed and entrepreneurship is now widely accepted, or is even seen as a desirable alternative to traditional career paths. Mainstream media reports about how young entrepreneurs found riches with platforms and applications they have built in their dorm rooms. You start hearing more about the pitch competitions they win, the accelerator programs they join, and the investment money they raise.
At the intersection of these developments, you – an ambitious, educated, talented female individual – are intrigued by the idea of living life on your own terms, doing something meaningful, and perhaps building a successful business empire along the way. Possibly you even have a great idea where you see a big market opportunity?
I have met hundreds of women who are in this state of mind. It’s amazing to see their ideas, and it’s also saddening to hear the thoughts that come after that. “I’m not sure I am quite ready yet”, “I don’t have a lot of experience in business”, “I don’t know anyone else who is actually a successful entrepreneur. I don’t have a mentor to help me with my business,” and “The startup and business world favours white men and I don’t fit into that category. I’m not sure whether I can do this”.
My name is Lu Li, and once upon a time, I thought that climbing the corporate ladder in a prestigious company was the ultimate goal for my professional life. I was born in China and arrived in Berlin, Germany, at the age of six. My parents were immigrants surviving on a small stipend that my dad received to do his PhD degree. Thanks to the permeability of the German education system (which also came largely for free), I was able to work my way into a very good university, got into a mentorship programme at McKinsey, and eventually started to work for the ‘The Firm’ after graduation.
I put in long hours at every company I worked for, eager to lear and contribute. It was an amazing experience at first, but after a couple of years I witnessed change, which shook up the organisation. I was still giving a lot, but the company no longer loved me back. Suddenly, I felt uncertain about my career progression, I questioned whether my strengths were fitting the jobs on the next level and I was fed up with having to navigate corporate politics and working for someone else’s agenda.
A little voice said to me “You can do much better on your own”, and I knew it was time to leave. I jumped off the corporate ladder, determined to create my own future as an entrepreneur. After all, I have aced everything else in my life so far, so why not be successful being my own boss?
Today, I smile when I think about how naive I was at the time. Thankfully, entrepreneurship is an unforgiving teacher and I was brought back to earth quickly. After 3.5 years, starting and abandoning 2 businesses, I know for certain that it is not at all easy to build a sustainable business. Additionally, I found that there are differences between the journey of a female founder versus the one of a male founder.
I believe that there is a need to reinvent the experience of startup incubation to address the challenges that women face. I also believe that women are the most under-tapped resource for economic improvement, so I really wanted to succeed in helping more other women succeed.
That’s why I started building Blooming Founders, an organisation that helps to accelerate the startup journey of female founders, as my third business. We produce inspirational and educational events in London and we also run a kick-ass online community where experiences, advice and knowledge are exchanged. Every member is committed to help one another; we believe that ‘a rising tide lifts all ships’. We are growing quickly and internationally, also supporting other communities that share our mission, and I cannot wait to see what amazing things all of us can do together.
Running this community gave me unique insights about female entrepreneurship in a broader context and the challenges that women encounter. One of the key things that hold women back is the lack of role models. I used to ask community members about the female founders they admire the most, but most of the times I was met with silence. No one comes to mind, not in her respective field anyway. This is both startling and alarming. Why?
Let me echo Sheryl Sandberg, who we all know, Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space:
“You can’t be what you can’t see”.
We need stories, examples and idols, which prove to us what is possible and who embody ways we want to mimic. There are thousands of trailblazing female founders in pretty much every industry and country. Yet we don’t know about many (or any) of them – and that is the issue. If the future is really female, then we have to shine more light on those female role models, who are innovators, founders, investors, and advisors to founders, to encourage other women to follow their paths.
And this is the purpose of Dear Female Founder: 66 Letters of Advice from Women Entrepreneurs Who Have Made $1 Billion in Revenue: to showcase a diverse spectrum of women, who have done and achieved amazing things in entrepreneurship. Some of them are still in their twenties, some of them have several children, some of them fell into entrepreneurship, and some of them were born that way. Many are based in startup hubs like Silicon Valley, New York, London or Berlin, but many operate from much less developed ecosystems like Argentina, Jordan, Indonesia, and New Zealand. I want you see that it is never too early or too late to become a founder, and that you can do it from anywhere in the world.
Whatever your mind can conceive and believe, you can achieve. Look at Heather Russell, who moved to Japan without speaking Japanese and built a multi-million dollar business there. Or Nadezhda Robinson, who has a Russian name, is a woman of colour, and runs a business designed around lifestyle consumption of Chinese millennials. Or Danae Ringelmann, who changed the way ideas get funded across the world, democratising access to capital, in particular for women entrepreneurs.
…The most important thing for you to know is: You are not alone.
There are many other fearless female founders, who are pilgrims of the same journey as yours, whether it is a high-growth tech startup, your own product line, a service-based SME, or a career as a self-employed freelancer. If you are just starting out, then these women can be the best mentors and advisors for you.
I cordially invite you to meet them in our community at BloomingFounders.com. My hope is that it will inspire you to face your doubts and (continue to) pursue your entrepreneurial dreams.
Remember, the world needs your ideas, your unique set of skills, your leadership style, and your passion to become a better place. There are unlimited opportunities to be seized and unprecedented value to be created. The contributors of this book were not deterred by the challenges they faced, and we should not be either.
Lu Li is the founder of Blooming Founders, a London-based platform that supports and promotes female founders through events and a professional network. She is the UK ambassador of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, a judge at the MassChallenge accelerator, a mentor at the Google Launchpad accelerator and part of the Techstars community leadership team.
In her previous corporate career, Lu has launched FMCG products for Procter & Gamble across Western Europe and has worked on several consulting projects for McKinsey, BMW and T-Mobile. This letter first appeared in her her book, Dear Female Founder: 66 Letters of Advice from Women Entrepreneurs Who Have Made $1 Billion in Revenue.