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

The pandemic destroyed thousands of small businesses in the country in the past two years, and Li’s Spa was no exception. Her effort over the years was recognized by the Small Business Administration fortunately, offering her a grant to continue her business operation.

Starting her business in 2013, Runli Li said the road of her spa business was pretty smooth all along. Before establishing her own spa shop, Li was a supervisor at the Bellevue massage school and taught others massaging. Over time, she realized there are a large number of potential customers in the community who are seeking professional and regular massaging services. That was how she decided to start her own business.

“I wanted to create my own path,” she said. “For three years, I was here at the shop every single day, not even one day of rest.”

Having infinite support from her husband, who is also her business partner for this shop, she managed to stabilize her business after five years of operation as more medical insurance plans included massaging services.

She mentioned that in recent years, Meta, Amazon and Microsoft started to include massaging in their medical insurance, around 80% of her customers come from these technology-based companies.

“We are living in a tech city, and a lot of the tech workers are young and healthy, except the fact that they have to sit in front of the computer for the whole day and lack time to work out. In such cases, many developed a tension headache,” Li said. “Our massaging helps them relax their mind and muscles. They come here almost every two weeks because once they feel the effects of massaging, they can feel the difference.”

Li said this is why her shop was always full-booked until COVID-19 hit.

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

She had to come up with multiple safety measures to prioritize hygiene in her shop for the employees and customers. She spent thousands to purchase air cleaner machines with UV light for every single massage room, and she ensured the air ventilation systems at the shop are turned on all the time. She also offered N95 masks for her massage therapists.

“I am on the same page with my employees,” she said. “I have the responsibility to make sure both my clients and therapists are safe.”

Because of her awareness of hygiene, even when there was once a customer turned out to be positive after visiting her shop, none of the employees nor other customers were tested positive to COVID-19.

Still, there was a significant decrease in the number of customers during the pandemic. And although the shop was closed for a long period of time, she owed her landlord three months of rent by September 2021. Her landlord allowed her to delay the rent payment, but she was still struggling with financial issues.

“I am the kind of person who rarely drinks alcohol,” she said. “But at that time, I was so stressed out that I had to drink at night.”

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 that moment and thought it was a scam.

Being born and raised in China, Li said the Chinese government rarely initiates to offer support for small business owners. She graduated from the year of the 1989 Tiananmen protest; she said it affected her job opportunities back then. A few years after graduation, she started her own skincare business in China without any government help.

This was why she had always believed “there is no such thing as free lunch.” Especially during 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 harder she believed it was a scam.

It was not until Ellie He, one of the SBA advisers who is able to speak Mandarin, called Li again and asked if she applied for the small business grant program. That was when Li realized she applied around two months ago but she completely forgot about it because of the ongoing financial struggles.

“I was so happy. I tried applying for the paycheck protection program but there were issues about it. And I still owed my landlord three to four months rent,” she said. “This saved me.”

Before she received the call, she took out her retired pension in order to support the shop’s operation as she said she “didn’t want to give up the effort I paid over these years.”

The SBA approved the grant in a week and Li got the money in the second week.

The grant was a portal for Li to explore more about the SBA. Through the referral of He, Li got to participate in more SBA-oriented events and courses.

“They teach us about online marketing and develop our business to a more diverse community,” she said. “I was also able to expand my connections with other small business owners and shared entrepreneurship experience with one another.”

Throughout her discussion, she discovered that a lot of immigrated small business owners were struggling from language barriers, which stopped them from “stepping out of their comfort zone” to expand their customers’ connections to other ethnic communities.

“I remembered talking to a Korean interior decoration company owner and he mostly only had Korean American customers,” Li said. “You might have the best skills and products, and people need your service as well. But some small businesses just lack access to connect with more potential customers and let others learn about their existence.”

Being an immigrant herself, Li realizes immigrants have a tougher business path than others. Still, she managed to strive through the pandemic and she said that she had signed a 10-year contract with her landlord last year to keep the shop running in the future.

She was particularly thankful for her loyal customers who have sent her support through texts during the three months of closure.

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

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