Lu Li is owner of Blooming Founders
Lu Li knows how to act fast – something she was forced to do after coronavirus lockdown struck and she lost a whopping 80 per cent of her income in a fortnight.
Her company is Blooming Founders, a business network she set up in 2015 that aims to boost female-founded start-ups largely through events.
But as social distancing and self-isolation became mandatory, that model became redundant overnight.
Rather than give up however, Li developed a new programme which connects small businesses with university and college students who need to do internships for their academic studies – saving both her own business and helping her members’ firms survive as well.
‘I had to completely overhaul our business proposition due to Covid-19 because everything we did before required people to be in the same space together – whether that was for events or in our co-working space,’ she explains.
‘We lost over 80 per cent of our revenues within two weeks while still having to pay rent to our landlord, so I had to come up with new ideas to keep us going and to keep supporting our network of female entrepreneurs.’
Li turned her events into online webinars and at first offered a 50 per cent discount on tickets as she knew her members would be struggling for cash just like she was.
However revenues were nowhere near previous levels and she realised she had to come up with a completely new idea.
Pictured: A panel discussion on angel investment at the Blooming Founders Girls Just Wanna Have Funds conference at the NatWest Conference Centre in July 2019
She says: ‘I came up with the internship placement service after seeing how many businesses used the furlough scheme or were even forced to lay people off.
‘At the same time, they still needed resources and in some ways, more so than before as many had to shift focus and pivot their businesses, just like I did.
‘Then I heard about students having their summer internships cancelled due to the virus and so they also faced a dilemma.’
Knowing that start-ups would be struggling to keep going yet didn’t have the budget to pay for new resources, and that students would be looking for new opportunities as part of their academic requirements, Li put two and two together.
The businesses are not required to pay a salary to interns – though they are welcome too, if they wish – and the students need the credit so Li says it’s ‘a win-win for both sides’.
Blooming Founders’ Lu Li with her summer interns from Brazil, China and the US in 2019
The 36-year-old said she had been thinking about introducing this scheme prior to the lockdown as she had such a good experience hosting her own string of interns, but the events kept her in business.
She added: ‘I have worked with these types of students very successfully myself over the past four years, so I know how you can really maximise value from these internships.
‘But there was simply no time to execute the idea when I first thought of it. The lockdown has obviously changed that.’
The first run of internships is still to kick off but the response to the programme via sign-ups has been high.
Under the Blooming Founders internship programme businesses are not required to pay a salary to interns, while students need the credit for their studies so it’s ‘a win-win’
Within the first two weeks, Li closed partnerships with Hult International Business School and Regent’s University London, and there are more universities in the pipeline.
Li said: ‘I am now working with over 20 companies which are a range of start-ups and small businesses who have agreed to a small one-off placement fee which is only payable on success and not upfront.
‘This makes it practically risk-free for companies to submit a role and see what comes back. There are already 10 job descriptions live.’
All internships are remote and will be focused on operational roles such as social media marketing, content, business development, customer support and finance.
Li added: ‘I think it will be very beneficial for our students to get used to working remotely because this will be the future of work. ‘
Pictured: A breakfast workshop at the Blooming Founders co-working space before lockdown
Life after lockdown
Since lockdown was implemented, Li has kept in touch with Blooming Founders members to keep informed and boost morale. She also hopes to re-open the co-working space in July, if guidance allows.
However she is still uncertain about how many people will actually return as people will still be nervous about going to public places.
‘There is not much I can do for now, so I’m just keeping my options open,’ she says. ‘My focus is to build out the internship placement service as I think there will be a sustained demand post-Covid.
‘Higher education is changing rapidly and needs to adapt to the changes in the private sector. With all of these movements happening simultaneously, there are plenty of opportunities to seize, and I’m pretty excited about that.’
Calling all female entrepreneurs
Nominations are now open for the 2020 NatWest Everywoman Awards which will be centred on the theme ‘Female entrepreneurship: keeping pace in a changing world’.
The ceremony, now in its 18th year will specifically identify and celebrate female founders whose creativity and resilience will help Britain weather the current economic storm caused by Covid-19.
The awards are free to enter and nominations close on 6 July. The winners will be announced at a ceremony on 2 December in London.
For further information and to nominate visit everywoman.com/ewawards