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From flipping sneakers to minting women-led NFTs: Two-time 7-figure entrepreneur Lily Wu charts her startup journey

Sydney-born Lily Wu bootstrapped her first business at 16 and her second when she was barely out of her teens. Currently based in Singapore, the Southeast Asia Startup Partner Lead at Stripe is also a co-founder of WOW Pixies – the first NFT club to invest in women- and diversity-led projects – which sold out within three days of launching.

By SGN | 1 Apr 2022

Lily Wu is Southeast Asia Startup Partner Lead at Stripe, a global technology company that builds economic infrastructure for the internet.

When life throws her a curveball, Lily seizes the opportunity to forge a new path to create something incredible.

Growing up in Sydney, she imagined pursuing graphic design or animation, but everything changed at 16 when her parents travelled to China to revive their struggling art business.

To make ends meet, Lily tried applying to work at fast-food restaurants – only to be turned down everywhere.

Undeterred, she created her own income by arbitraging shoes from the US – taking advantage of the favourable exchange rate and the fact that Australia was always a season behind.

“My MVP was a Word doc, an Excel sheet and a Facebook page,” she quips. “In one and a half weeks, I made $8,000. By the time I graduated from high school two years later, I had earned $500,000 in profits.”

Applying lessons from art to entrepreneurship

While she may have left her artistic dreams behind, Lily has never forgotten the lessons she learnt from its practice. “Art taught me a lot about entrepreneurship,” she says, “that you need to keep training the muscle of doing and getting started.”

“Whenever you hit a roadblock or blotch your paper in fine-liner pen drawing, there’s no erasing or going back – you have to creatively work around it,” she explains. “By the end, that initial mistake becomes a beautiful part of the artwork.

“You have to start somewhere. When you are too afraid to fail, your sheet will always remain blank.”

Lily’s fine-liner art practice has taught her to have conviction and to not obsess over perfect results.

Forging her own path to global exposure

At university, Lily enrolled in a prestigious accounting cadetship but found it too stifling and left, much to her friends’ astonishment. Curious about opportunities in China and the rise of the Asian Century, she then applied – unsuccessfully – to an international youth leadership programme.

Faced with rejection, Lily forged her own path and designed a month-long internship with fun cultural activities for herself and 20 friends. She reached out to 400 deans across China, received replies from four institutions, and finally secured a partnership with one – Liaoning University in Shenyang.

When an application to an international programme was rejected, Lily created her own.

That partnership led to the launch of Lily’s second business, Austern International (a portmanteau of “Australian” and “intern”), which eventually evolved into a bootcamp programme that gave international students the chance to work with startups and corporations, solve problems through design sprints, and develop valuable transferable skills.

The bootcamps first launched in Hong Kong and Singapore – where students got to work with startups like second-hand marketplace Carousell and fintech company Fave as well as corporations like Phillips and Oracle – then expanded to Sydney, Melbourne, Shanghai and New York over the next five years, generating over $1 million in revenue.

Austern International gave participants the chance to work with startups such as Dropbox in Sydney.

Soon after graduating in 2018, Lily again longed for broader horizons. “Even though it was doing well, I felt like I was stagnating,” she recounts. “We decided to exit by selling some of the IP and shutting Austern down.”

A vibrant startup scene in Singapore

Singapore was the next port of call for Lily.

“I had always wanted to come back to Singapore since running programmes with Austern,” Lily says. “It’s such a thriving tech and business hub in APAC. Plus, I like the fact that Singapore invests in innovation and attracts a lot of new startups, ideas and talent into the space.”

She relocated to join NewCampus, an edtech startup focused on business leadership. While living in Singapore, she planned to satisfy her appetite for adventure with monthly trips to nearby countries, though this freedom was curtailed when the pandemic struck in 2020.

Even though she was disappointed that she couldn’t travel, Lily took this time to focus on building networks and connecting with friends. “Singapore truly feels like a global melting pot at the forefront of growth in the region,” she remarks. “It attracts people with different backgrounds, experiences and knowledge.”

“Singapore truly feels like a global melting pot at the forefront of growth in the region,” Lily says.

Powering startups across Southeast Asia

Last August, Lily joined Stripe as Startup Partner Lead in Southeast Asia. “After years of founding and working at startups, I wanted to experience things from the other side and join a rocketship company that operates at an incredibly high standard,” she explains.

At Stripe, Lily’s role is to build an ecosystem for startups across Southeast Asia, connecting them with venture capital and accelerator support. Stripe aims to grow the GDP of the internet and build fintech infrastructure to help founders build hyper-local products, hire the right talent and move money throughout the world seamlessly.

“We help nurture startups with the potential to become the next Grab or Shopee,” she says. “As a former founder, I have a lot of empathy for the pains, needs and experiences of these startups as they grow and scale.”

Levelling the playing field

Over the past decade, Lily has noticed how the traditional gatekeepers to VC funding are men – which means a majority of funding goes to male-led startups. In 2020, a startling 2.3% of funding went to women-led startups, even though they are more likely to be successful.

To help level the playing field for women, Lily became a founding ambassador of the Singapore chapter of Future Females, a global community that empowers women entrepreneurs with the right networks and resources. Through this platform, she is a summit speaker and actively mentors other female founders.

In addition, Lily recently co-founded WOW Pixies, the first non-fungible token (NFT) club to invest in women- and diversity-led startups. The project is a membership club that aims to bring more women into the NFT space – whether it’s buying land in the metaverse, creating global social events, or creating a launchpad to support women entrepreneurs.

Explaining its democratising effect, Lily says, “In NFTs and Web3, you don’t have to rely on investor money to get projects funded. Your fans and customers are also your investors.

“Whether you’re a man or woman or non-binary, we have this unique opportunity to put our money on the things that we value.”

Since selling out within three days of its launch, WOW Pixies has contributed 225 ETH (US$550,000) towards various women-led projects.

From selling shoes and running bootcamps to empowering founders and minting NFTs, Lily continues to seize opportunities in tech and startups – driven by her enterprising spirit and a fearless disregard for obstacles that stand in her way.

Lily shares her expertise on platforms such as the Future Females business resource network.

About Lily

Lily is Startup Partner Lead (Southeast Asia) at Stripe. She bootstrapped her first seven-figure business in high school and her second, a student internship programme, at university. She is a founding ambassador of the Singapore chapter of Future Females and a co-founder of WOW Pixies.

Connect with her here.

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