Lily Xu, ’13, uses her role at Amazon Web Services to help startup founders from diverse backgrounds get the support they need.
- May 08, 2023
The first entrepreneur that Lily Xu, ’13, encountered was her late father, Bo, who owned a Chinese restaurant in Savannah, Georgia. Watching him make strategic decisions and interact with customers sparked her interest in developing a business. “He didn’t want to regret not taking enough risks in life,” says Xu, global program lead for the underrepresented founders startup team at Amazon Web Services. “He taught me that, emotionally, success and failure are two sides of the same coin, and they’re both necessary for personal growth and career development.”
Xu earned a bachelor’s degree in political economics at the University of California at Berkeley, but she remained intrigued by the idea of starting her own company. After spending several years as a brand consultant, she enrolled in the Full-Time MBA Program, hoping to increase her confidence and her business skills.
“Booth provided me with a strong foundation in business theory and practice in a variety of fields, including marketing, finance, and leadership,” Xu says. “As a founder, you have to wear a lot of different hats—you have to be a visionary, a strategist, a salesperson, an accountant, and sometimes even a janitor. It gave me a holistic understanding of how different business units come together.” She particularly enjoyed her Building the New Venture class, which incorporated games to introduce the element of chance that all founders must face.
Her lessons from Booth as well as her father prepared Xu for the ups and downs of founding her own beauty-technology startup. After graduation, Xu cofounded Dotfully, a community platform to help people exchange new and unopened cosmetics. While the business had strong initial growth, many potential investors that she approached were men, and they struggled to connect with the concept. She and her cofounder ultimately sold Dotfully to a large Chinese conglomerate.
“It was probably the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life, having to learn so much at such a fast pace,” Xu says. “Building out what the platform looked like, hiring a tech team, and fundraising allowed me to better understand and empathize with other founders’ positions later on.”
“My ultimate goal is to contribute to creating a more diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem. I would love to see that regardless of gender, race, and socioeconomic status, founders will have equal opportunities to pursue their dream of starting a business.”
After she sold Dotfully, she was recruited by Sephora to run an accelerator program for female founders of beauty brands. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for Xu to share what she had learned—including mistakes to avoid. “I grew up in a Chinese household, and we were taught not to brag,” she says. “A lot of female founders are really humble, but sometimes when you’re with investors, you have to be able to promote yourself.”
She conducted in-depth interviews with founders and developed a curriculum around business content, funding, and mentorship. Participants attended a weeklong boot camp with workshops on building a brand, targeting influencers, and achieving scale. Sephora provided nondilutive grants and low-interest loans to some participants.
Xu and her team also hosted Demo Day, where founders pitched their brands to about 250 potential investors and Sephora executives. In her time with the company, Xu helped launch 20 brands and supported more than 65 female founders. She later helped to pivot the accelerator program to focus on BIPOC-owned brands.
After about five years with Sephora, Xu heard from a friend about a position at Amazon Web Services on its underrepresented founders startup team, building programs to support women, Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+, and other entrepreneurs who historically have been underserved by venture capitalists and early-stage investors globally.
Ready for a new challenge, Xu joined AWS in 2021. One of her first projects was developing a workshop based on research by Laura Huang, a professor at Northeastern University. Huang found that many female founders are asked risk-focused questions such as, “How do you plan to compete in a saturated market?” Male founders, by contrast, tend to be asked questions that give them a chance to talk about growth, such as, “How do you plan to grow your user base to one million?”
Xu teaches founders to recognize these biased patterns and to transform unfavorable questions into more positive ones when formulating their response. Last year, she trained more than 500 underrepresented founders and investors on these concepts through her workshops. She is building more opportunities for underrepresented entrepreneurs worldwide, recently hosting events and programming in countries including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Singapore, and Vietnam.
“My ultimate goal is to contribute to creating a more diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem,” she says. “I would love to see that regardless of gender, race, and socioeconomic status, founders will have equal opportunities to pursue their dream of starting a business and achieving their goals.”
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