Meet The AAPI Founder Drawing From Her Immigrant Story To Empower Minority-Owned Businesses

America would not be the global and financial superpower it is today if it weren’t for immigrants. Those who came to the U.S. searching for a more prosperous future have made the economy what it is today, but it hasn’t come easy for many families, who experienced numerous barriers along the way.

One woman who understands this on a personal level is Lori Shao, the CEO of Finli, which was recently recognized by Bloomberg’s list of “Top 50 Innovative Startups that Rose When America was on Lockdown.”

Finli stands for ‘financial lift,’ and is a simple, secure, and cost-effective digital platform that financially lifts service-based small businesses. Finli is inspired by Lori’s unique perspective as an immigrant and her desire to create a premium, yet accessible solution that allows all entrepreneurs to easily receive, manage, and grow their finances.

Lori immigrated with her parents to the U.S. from China in 1991. She went on to work in Corporate America for seventeen years at prestigious financial institutions, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Silicon Valley Bank, Wells Fargo and more. However, Lori craved change and the eternal gratitude she felt to her parents was always top of mind. 

She found herself constantly reflecting on her experience growing up with her parents, blue-collar entrepreneurs who worked hard to give her an education and a better life than they had. Then, three years ago Lori noticed she was still using her checkbook to manage payment of household services. She realized there was an existing need to help these small businesses. Those like her parents, ignored by larger corporations, who manage their own businesses. And thus, Finli was born.

In 2021, the number of accounts on the platform grew by over 500%. In July 2022, Finli announced that it had raised $6M in a seed round led by the Urban Innovation Fund. However, the fundraising experience was not without its challenges. Lori met with over seventy VCs and had about double the number of conversations to raise the recent round. She wants to bring to light an issue that is important but isn’t discussed enough – the difficulty of fundraising as a female minority founder – who is also a mom. 

We were able to speak to her about her personal and professional experience as an entrepreneur, and why it is more vital than ever for our economy to recognize the contributions of small immigrant businesses owners, and do everything we can to create systems that help them thrive.

Lori with her parents in Miami in 1991 after they immigrated to the United States.

You started Finli to empower especially immigrant communities in their financial journey, inspired by the journey of your own parents. What are some of the main barriers facing immigrant business owners today?

There are so many different challenges present for immigrant and small business communities. A few of the most pressing are limited access to capital, frequent communication barriers, and technology systems that were not created with these users in mind. Many platforms targeting businesses are not created for true small businesses, they are complicated and have price-points that are often out of reach for an SMB with already slim profit margins. 

As a result, many business owners simply chose to tech solutions and instead work with the more accessible, but less efficient manual alternatives they’ve been using for decades. However, these small business owners are now missing out on revenue and growth opportunities as they spend endless hours manually creating invoices, managing their payments, and even tracking down delinquent customers. Each of these steps takes away time that could be spent building their business and further supporting their community. Finli was created to give these precious hours back to the small business owners so they and their communities can thrive.

How did your own experience in corporate America motivate you to change the landscape for business owners with an immigrant background? 

My time in corporate America was incredibly influential in building the foundation for Finil. I spent many years at financial institutions helping to build payment infrastructure for large corporations and quickly realized that most of the solutions we created weren’t available for the business owners in my neighborhood.

Technology had progressed so much, yet all the small business owners around me were limited to accepting cash or paper checks. Accepting credit cards or setting up recurring payment systems was too timely and costly for these small business owners to support. It was my career experience that let me know the technology was possible and my life experience that highlighted the opportunity to provide these solutions to my own community.

The notion of not wanting to “step out of place” or constantly be grateful was something imparted to you from your parents. How do you feel this held you back? 

Even though I moved to the United States in 1991, there was definitely a long period of time where I still felt like a guest in this country. For much of my childhood, I had been taught to “stay in line” and to “be grateful for what I had”. It took a lot of time to rework my mindset around these notions and allow myself to break down these expectations and boundaries. There are many traditional roles that exist in immigrant communities and I had to consciously make an effort to defy and challenge those roles. 

On a big picture level, can you explain how our economy and country as a whole benefits when immigrant small business owners are given the tools to succeed? 

I consider my upbringing as an immigrant as a privilege for many reasons, but mostly because of the perspective it provides me. Throughout my childhood I experienced first hand how small businesses uphold entire communities. Today, we find ourselves immersed in a global economy and often overlook the important commerce occurring right in our own backyards. Service-based small businesses help our communities learn, maintain our homes, and care for our children so that parents can continue to work. These business owners also tend to work where they live and frequently patronize their neighbors’ businesses – they are truly the foundation of our communities. 

Additionally, when the health of our economy is being examined, many look at the Fortune 500 and the stock market, but the truth is that vulnerable immigrant small businesses are often a precursor of what’s to come. Closer attention should be paid to the health of these small businesses, for as their spending power declines, the larger corporations are only a few months behind. When small business owners are given the tools they need to succeed they are able to help carry their communities and keep the economy healthy. There is a direct correlation between the health of small businesses and the health of the American economy. 

Your journey as an entrepreneur raising funding for Finli underscores the need for major change in this area. What were some of the barriers you came up against? 

When launching Finli, I met with hundreds of potential investors and was met with both traditional and unexpected challenges. First, the majority of the people I met with were not women, were not mothers, and were not immigrants. While all three of these things give me a unique perspective it was sometimes harder to find common ground and build relationships quickly. I felt a bit more pressure to prove myself as I was sometimes the only woman in the room, but I am always up for a challenge. 

The other barrier I often ran into surrounded Finli’s target customer. Most B2B venture-backed companies go after enterprise clients or other startups, while Finli addresses the needs of small service-based businesses. It proved important to be prepared with substantial data to reassure investors of the market size (99% of all businesses in the US are small businesses) and convince them that this market deserves to be addressed. 

You have mentioned how being a mom was also a potential source of discrimination. Can you share more on this? 

While many founders are parents, there seems to be a difference when you’re a parent and a woman. In the past, I have been asked if I have the proper time to commit to my professional work while meeting family obligations, yet this is a question I have never seen asked of my male counterparts. There is often an assumption that if a mother is dedicated to her job then her family must not be receiving proper care, but I believe it is the want to care for my family that drives my success. 

I worked in corporate finance during the birth of both my children and I became a caretaker to my parents while building Finli. My dedication to my family has never taken away from my work and, if anything, it has inspired me to achieve more. 

While there are many examples of mothers who have concurrently built massively successful businesses, working parents who are women continue to be discriminated against (and women in general). The only real weapon we have to combat this is our continued success and talking about it. By calling it out, we can help tell the real story and better support the next generation. 

Why are so few women-led startups (especially women of color-led startups) still so overlooked in the VC space? What can help change this? 

Simply put, we don’t look the part. Historically, there have not been many successful startups founded by women and even less by women of color. It is a great challenge for VC’s to look at someone not traditionally associated with startup success and entrust them with funding. Additionally, many folks in the VC space come from similar backgrounds and often have similar friends, most of which are not women or women of color. Unfortunately, until we get more women and more women of color funded the successful founder archetype will cease to evolve. 

Countless studies have shown that diversity in any space is the best way to combat group-think mentality, instigate innovation, and the quickest way to uplift communities. We can change the status quo by helping to support diverse communities of entrepreneurs, providing access to those who have not had it before, and amplifying voices that may not be the loudest in the room just yet. Investing in startups run by women and people of color is not charity, it is just good business. 

COVID-19 has made so many of us realize the importance of quality of life and not burning ourselves out for a job. How does Finli play a role in helping business owners take better care of their overall wellbeing? 

Covid-19 was hard on everyone and it was a particular kind of hard on small business owners. Finli is always looking for ways to support SMBs and even though we were a new company ourselves we couldn’t just sit by. At the beginning of the pandemic we launched the Finli Grant for Black-owned businesses in which 25 recipients received funding to help them stay afloat. It was a meaningful program that speaks to the Finli’s mission of financially lifting small businesses owners. 

Luckily for us, serving small businesses is in our DNA, so we were able to innately help so many during the pandemic. It is estimated that small micro-businesses spend around 14 hours a week managing payments and have around $825 billion in unpaid invoices per year. These astonishing stats were barriers to many small businesses during Covid who needed those extra hours and dollars just to survive. By utilizing Finli, these same folks were able to pass off the pesky payment tasks and client management to us and spend more time wherever they were more needed. Throughout the pandemic and forever, Finli will provide small businesses with more time, money, and peace of mind.

What gives you hope, or what excites you, when you look at the entrepreneur and business landscape today? 

While it’s easy to look at the current landscape and become a bit discouraged, there are now more tools and resources to support entrepreneurs than ever before. Whether sophisticated digital infrastructures to manage overseas operations or a simple invoicing platform that lets you keep more of what you earn, today is the perfect day to start a new business. Historically, economic downturns have been a major driving force behind innovation and the creation of successful businesses.

I am particularly excited by all of the founders out there building solutions for this next phase. Most importantly, I wake up every morning excited to support and serve the hard working small business owners that have played such an impactful role throughout my life. 

You can learn more about Lori Shao’s journey and what Finli does by visiting the website. You can also follow Finli on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Lori Shao today with her husband Derek, and sons Ed and Ryan.

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