AANHPI Entrepreneur Highlight in Small Business Administration: Runli Li, Spa Boutique Owner, Who Battled the Harsh Pandemic

Li’s Spa office manager Kathryn Schnurman (left) and spa boutique owner Runli Li (right) at the boutique on May 19, 2022. Photo by Debby Cheng.

The pandemic has destroyed thousands of small businesses in the country over the past two years, and Li’s Spa was no exception. His efforts over the years were fortunately recognized by the Small Business Administration, which offered him a grant to continue his business activities.

Launching her business in 2013, Runli Li said the road to her spa business has been pretty smooth all along. Before opening her own spa boutique, Li was a supervisor at Bellevue Massage School and taught massage to others. Over time, she realized that there are a large number of potential clients in the community who are looking for professional and regular massage services. So she decided to start her own business.

“I wanted to create my own path,” she said. “For three years I was here at the store every day, not even on a day off.”

With endless support from her husband, who is also her business partner for this boutique, she managed to stabilize her business after five years in business, as more and more medical insurance plans included massage services.

She mentioned that in recent years Meta, Amazon, and Microsoft have started including massage in their medical insurance, about 80% of her customers come from these tech companies.

“We live in a tech city, and a lot of tech workers are young and healthy, except for the fact that they have to sit at the computer all day and don’t have time to train. In such cases, many developed a tension headache,” Li said. “Our massage helps them relax their mind and muscles. They come here almost every two weeks because once they feel the effects of the massage , they can feel the difference.

Li said that was why her store was always full until COVID-19 hit.

During the pandemic, Li had to close her store for three and a half months due to security restrictions. Yet after the restriction ended, few employees were willing to return to work as they were extremely concerned that close physical contact with customers would expose them to COVID-19.

She had to put in place multiple safety measures to prioritize hygiene in her store for both employees and customers. She’s spent thousands of dollars buying air purifiers with UV light for every massage room, and she’s made sure the shop’s ventilation systems are on all the time. She also offered N95 masks to her massage therapists.

“I’m on the same page as my employees,” she said. “I have a responsibility to make sure my clients and my therapists are safe.”

Due to his hygiene awareness, even when there was once a customer who tested positive after visiting his store, none of the employees or other customers tested positive for COVID- 19.

Yet there has been a significant decrease in customer numbers during the pandemic. And although the store was closed for a long time, she owed her landlord three months’ rent in September 2021. Her landlord allowed her to delay paying the rent, but she was still struggling financially.

“I’m the type of person who rarely drinks alcohol,” she said. “But at that time I was so stressed that I had to drink in the evening.”

One day, she received a call claiming that the Small Business Administration would offer her a grant for her small business. Li was checking out with another customer at the time and thought it was a scam.

Being born and raised in China, Li said the Chinese government rarely initiates support for small business owners. She graduated in the year of the Tiananmen protest in 1989; she said it affected her job opportunities at the time. A few years after graduating, she started her own skincare business in China without any government assistance.

That’s why she had always believed “there is no free lunch”. Especially at that time, Li said there were a lot of scams. So she told the person on the phone to give the grant to someone else in need. The more they explained, the more she believed it was a scam.

It wasn’t until Ellie He, one of the SBA counselors who could speak Mandarin, called Li back and asked if she had applied for the Small Business Grant Program. It was then that Li realized that she had applied about two months ago, but had completely forgotten about it due to ongoing financial difficulties.

“I was so happy. I tried to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program, but there were issues about it. And I still owed my landlord three to four months’ rent,” he said. she said, “It saved me.”

Before receiving the call, she withdrew her retirement pension in order to support the operation of the shop because she said that she “did not want to give up the effort that I provided during these years”.

The SBA approved the grant within a week, and Li received the money the second week.

The grant was a portal for Li to learn more about the SBA. Thanks to He’s recommendation, Li was able to attend more SBA-focused events and classes.

“They teach us about online marketing and expand our business to a more diverse community,” she said. “I was also able to expand my relationships with other small business owners and share entrepreneurial experience with each other.”

Throughout her discussion, she discovered that many immigrant small business owners struggled with language barriers, which prevented them from “stepping out of their comfort zone” to expand their clients’ connections with others. ethnic communities.

“I remember talking to a Korean home decor company owner and he mostly only had Korean American customers,” Li said. best skills and the best products, and people also need your services. But some small businesses just don’t have the access to connect with more potential customers and let others know about their existence.

Being an immigrant herself, Li realizes that immigrants have a more difficult business path than others. Still, she made it through the pandemic and she said she signed a 10-year contract with her landlord last year to keep the store running in the future.

She was especially grateful to her loyal customers who texted her support during the three-month shutdown.

“It’s so heartfelt to have customers who treat you like a real friend, like a part of your life,” Li said.

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