Joey Li (MSc Marketing Strategy and Innovation, 2019) is the founder and CEO of social enterprise Leiho which she started while completing her studies at the Business School with fellow student Thuta Khin (MSc Marketing Strategy and Innovation, 2019). Leiho is a lifestyle brand on a mission to make purchasing basic products more meaningful: for every pair of socks sold by Leiho, they donate a pair to a homeless shelter. We caught up with Joey to find out about her entrepreneurial journey since graduating two years ago!
Why did you decide to study at the Business School and could you tell us a bit about your time there?
I always had an interest in studying Business, but to be honest I didn’t have the confidence to study business at university for my undergrad purely because I didn’t think I was smart enough or that I’d get the right grades for it! Instead, I studied Media and Communications at Newcastle University which I enjoyed but when I started applying for jobs in the creative industry, I kept getting the itch to learn more about business and marketing. I eventually decided to dedicate a year towards studying MSc Marketing Strategy and Innovation which finally got me to stop thinking about all the ‘what ifs!
I met some incredible people at the Business School, including my co-founder Thuta, whom I met by going to the start-up events and talks hosted by CityVentures. The Business School was basically where Leiho was born and I am actually starting my second venture with two other friends I met at the Business School.
Where did the idea for Leiho come from and how did it go from an idea to an actual business?
I was always very interested in building a business that made people feel good about themselves, whether this was through a meaningful purchase or by doing something good for someone else. My business partner, Thuta, is so supportive and she was the one who convinced us to turn one of my ideas into a business! As soon as we found out that clean socks were one of the most requested items of clothing at homeless shelters it was a no brainer what our business would shape up to be. I started drafting loads of designs and planning the logistics while Thuta did lots of research and looked for sustainable suppliers – the rest is history!
What was it like starting a business during your studies?
Thankfully when I started Leiho, I was studying a course that was very relevant to the business I was starting. The modules were incredibly useful, particularly in terms of marketing and branding techniques, so I actually had an advantage: I was able to immediately implement whatever I was learning while it was fresh in my mind. On top of that, we had a main project for the master’s course to design a campaign for an existing brand or a start-up idea of your own. At that time Leiho was at its earliest stage so I managed to convince my team to use my start up for the project – so my business actually benefitted my studies as well as the other way around. One of the team members for that project, Leyla, is actually who I’m starting my second venture with!
You recently featured as a panel member at the student event hosted by the Women in Business & City University BAME Women’s Society, ‘Female Leaders Making a Difference’ – it is great to see that you are maintaining your relationship with the School and current students! What was it like returning to the Business School in this capacity?
The event was organised and promoted by the City University BAME society [and the Business School’s Women In Business Club] with a lot of students from South East Asia attending. With everything going on in the world at the moment both in terms of everyday sexism and the terrible Anti-Asian Hate Movement, I genuinely feel so honoured to be able to represent being both a female and an Asian business owner. It is so heart-breaking and I can’t even begin to organise my thoughts around both situations respectively but I am so happy that we were able to give some form of hope to the students who attended!
Over a year ago I was sat on the other side, feeling all kinds of fear and I know that a lot of the women (especially Asian women who might notice the lack of Asian representation in the entrepreneurial world like I did) might be going through that right now. It was so humbling to know that people felt it was a safe place for women to come forward. A few students left some messages asking about coping with imposter syndrome, inequalities at workplaces, mental health, coping with insecurities, and someone even asked for a motivational quote from me which I didn’t have time to give. I wish I could let every single one of them know that they are not alone. To finally respond to the girl who asked for the motivational quote that keeps me on my feet: “Do something your future self will thank you for”!
Have you faced any challenges as a young, female Asian CEO and entrepreneur?
Truthfully, none so far has made me feel uncomfortable or indifferent because thankfully everyone I have met has been outrageously supportive. One personal challenge is genuinely not feeling confident enough, it goes without saying that this is not necessarily to do with being an Asian female founder. However, I do feel like I didn’t grow up seeing enough self-made Asian female entrepreneurs and even to this day I can’t really name any off the top of my head; so, for me it’s more of a lack of representation of Asian female bosses that meant I subconsciously didn’t have a sense of reassurance like “okay she’s Asian, she’s female, she founded a killer business – I can do that too!”
Could you share some advice for other recent graduates who would like to start their journey into entrepreneurship?
Always! Firstly, don’t be afraid. I noticed a lot of people at the ‘Female Leaders Making a Difference’ panel expressing feelings of fear and uncertainty – this is completely normal and whether you see it on social media or not, everyone has the same feelings but some people are better at hiding it. Things will get easier so just put your heart into it and learn (knowledge is power!). Don’t think about what people will say behind your back or what people will think about your business, don’t think about how people will react if things don’t go well. Just do it for you, trust the process and good things will come out of it whether it’s an extremely successful business or lessons that money can’t buy. I’m still learning every day and questioning whether or not I’m doing things right. You’ll never be at the same place you were a month ago, a week ago or even yesterday if you start today (which goes back to the motivational quote!), every day will be a whole new experience if you allow it to be and if you make it happen.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Joey!
Find out more about Leiho.